Trip to Cambodia and Laos proves ‘spiritually fruitful’

| Archbishop Bernard Hebda | July 25, 2019 | 0 Comments

I recently traveled with a small group from our Archdiocese to Cambodia and Laos to learn more about the work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). It was my first experience in Asia and my first CRS trip since having been elected to the CRS board by my brother bishops.

CRS was formed by the bishops of the United States 75 years ago to carry out their shared commitment to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas. Many of us may be familiar with CRS from the popular Lenten program, Operation Ricebowl, or from their high profile work in providing disaster relief on behalf of the Church (some well known examples would be their efforts in Haiti after the earthquakes or in the Philippines after tropical cyclone Haiyan). They also engage in longer-term projects around the globe, always acting in collaboration with the local Catholic Church.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

In Cambodia and Laos, CRS is doing phenomenal work in the areas of education, nutrition and health. While our visit was based in three cities (Phnom Penh, Savanakket and Vientiane), we learned first-hand about projects throughout those countries. I was particularly interested in their work helping rural schools integrate children with disabilities. Their work to uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life was inspiring. Even the non-Christians on the staff seemed to be adept at articulating and modeling the principles of our Catholic social teaching.

While the trip was primarily educational, it was spiritually fruitful as well. It continues to prompt deep reflection concerning both the cost of discipleship and the call to radical dependence on Jesus. I was amazed by the commitment and generosity of the CRS teams, who clearly serve at great personal sacrifice, without access to the healthcare and educational resources that we take for granted here in Minnesota, now raising families half way around the world from the more comfortable places they once called home.

The trip also encouraged me to go deeper in my appreciation of solidarity, a concept that was near and dear to the heart of Pope John Paul II. Our group had the chance to meet informally with the Bishop of Savanakket. While to some in Laos, CRS may be just another non-governmental agency, for the bishop it seemed to be a concrete and important expression of solidarity between Catholics in the U.S. and the members of the Church that he serves. I don’t think that he let go of my elbow the whole time that we spoke, brother to brother. I have been praying for him and his flock daily since returning to Minnesota.

I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the recent history of both countries and to gain insights into the ways in which that history continues to have ripple effects stretching from Southeast Asia to the Twin Cities. Both countries were deeply affected by the military conflict in Vietnam and its regional consequences. Our visit to the COPE Visitors center in Vientiane, for example, highlighted the ongoing impact of unexploded ordnances on life in rural Laos. It was inspiring to hear of the work that is being done to rid communities of that menace and to assist those who have suffered as a result of the inadvertent detonation of these devices.

Similarly sobering was our visit to the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, once a detention center operated by the Khmer Rouge regime. It is hard to believe that the atrocities documented at that facility could have occurred in my lifetime.

While the Cambodian community in our Archdiocese is relatively small (there are about 8,000 refugees who have made their home in Minnesota), there are 10 times that number who have come from Laos, the majority of them Hmong. As a result of the trip, I believe I now have a slightly better appreciation of the factors that may have led them to come half way around the world in search of a new life.

In his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Sept. 29, 2019), Pope Francis notes that “the presence of migrants and refugees — and of vulnerable people in general — is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society.” He reminds us that “opening ourselves to others does not lead to impoverishment, but rather enrichment, because it enables us to be more human: to recognize ourselves as participants in a greater collectivity and to understand our life as a gift for others; to see as the goal, not our own interests, but rather the good of humanity.”

As I drive to the office each day, I am reminded of Minnesota’s long tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants, whether they be from Scandinavia, Ireland, Africa, Latin America or Asia. Please join me in praying that our immigrant brothers and sisters might continue to call forth from us solidarity, help us be more human, and lead us to see our lives more clearly as a gift for others.

El viaje a Camboya y Laos demuestra ser ‘espiritualmente fructífero’

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Category: Only Jesus