This article is eighth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian Catholics in the United States and how the Church might better serve them. In preparing this report, extensive use was made of the writings of Rev. Rogatien Rondineau. Information about feasts was taken from "A Catholic Response to the Asian Presence,"published by the National Catholic Educational Association, 1990. Rev. Rogatien Rondineau, 7308 Pine Drive, Annandale, Va 22003
Cambodians, also known as Khmer, come from Cambodia, a small country in Southeast Asia surrounded by Thailand, Laos, and South Vietnam. Cambodia was a powerful kingdom up to the thirteenth century, when the famous temple of Angkor Wat was built. After the thirteenth century, Vietnam and Thailand grew stronger and took over important parts of Cambodia, where people who speak the Khmer language of their ancestors still reside.
Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, but in 1970, the country was engulfed in the Indochinese war that was raging in Vietnam. At the end of the war in 1975, Cambodia fell under the communist rule of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, who was responsible for turning the country into a huge concentration camp known as "the Killing Fields," where approximately two million people lost their lives. When the Vietnamese toppled the reign of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians decided to leave the country. Refugees first fled to camps in Thailand where, they later told their priests, "During the day, we smiled; at night, we cried." Finally, between 1979 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of these refugees were sent to the United States, as well as Canada, France, and Australia.
In 1983, Father Rogatien Rondineau, a former French missionary in Cambodia, was sent to minister with the Cambodians throughout the United States. He set about building relationships between the Cambodians and the parishes where they lived, working with local clergy to find American Catholics who would build friendships with the newcomers.
In the United States as in Cambodia, there are two different groups, those who are considered pure Cambodians, and those who are known as Sino-Khmer of Chinese ancestry. In the United States, the Sino-Khmer, traders by occupation, number more than half the Cambodian refugees, and are prosperous and well-integrated into society. There are approximately 120,000 Cambodians in this country, of which an estimated 1,200 or one percent are Catholic. Two-thirds of this number are new Catholics. Because of the recentness of their conversion, whether in the refugee camps or in the country of adoption, Cambodian Catholics do not have their own Catholic religious traditions.
The religious tradition of the Khmer is Buddhist; for the Khmer "race" and "religion" merge into one reality. Actually, ancestral animism forms the basis of the Cambodian religion, on which Buddhism came to be superimposed. Buddhism and animism have been joined to help humankind live: animism organizes this earthly life and gives it a mystical explanation, while Buddhism directs a person's attention toward the future and his or her future lives. The Khmer universe is peopled with demons and spirits--good and bad occult forces--that preside over human destinies and therefore need to be propitiated. Illness is not merely a matter of microbes, but also the manifestation of spirits irritated by an evil act of a member of the family. The ideal of Buddhism is to become master of oneself; this is manifested by gentleness and benevolence toward others. These are cardinal virtues of the Khmer. Anyone who becomes angry and loses his or her self-control, loses that which constitutes a person's very being and dignity, in short, his or her "face." The doctrine of "karma," derived from Hinduism, remains important to the Khmer today.
Some reflections on the distinct personality aspects of the Khmer might be enlightening. The history of the Khmer people since the fourteenth century has been marked by a succession of misfortunes. This may explain a certain note of melancholy in Khmer literature and in song. The laughter and gaiety of the Khmer, and their eagerness to enjoy life may be merely compensation for an underlying sadness. The Khmer like to be left alone, free from the presence of strangers. If a refugee center is opened, the Vietnamese will usually take over managerial positions, while the Khmer will withdraw into themselves. Therefore, it is important to encourage establishment of cultural centers for the Khmer themselves. A Khmer is easily put off by the negative demeanor of someone: a rough voice, an angry look. But if the climate is favorable, he or she will gradually open up to non-Khmer people who must learn to listen more with the heart than with the ears.
Catholic Khmer, as former Buddhists, enjoy celebrating Buddhist feasts during the year, like Chaul Chhnam (New Year): The most important religious holiday for the Cambodian people is the celebration of the New Year which usually begins around April 13th. New Year activities include religious ceremonies, visiting friends and relatives, taking food to the temple, and attending classical dance performances.
Prachum Ben (All Souls Day): This festival usually falls in September and is a day when prayers are offered up to the souls of those who have died. Every day for two weeks, people go to the temple to offer a morning meal and return in the evening to hear the monks preach. Balls of rice are offered to the spirits of the dead, and on the last day, people visit the temple where the ashes of their ancestors are kept.
Phisak Bauchia: This holiday, usually celebrated in May, commemorates Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death.
Information about catechetical and religious books for the Hmong is available from:
Deacon An Ros, St. Patrick's Parish, 282 Suffolk Street, Lowell, MA 01854
Ms. Mary Blatz, Mt. Carmel Cambodian Center, 1851 Cerritos Ave, Long Beach, CA 90806