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Filipino Jesuit finds home in Cambodian mission

Mark Saludes - UCA News - Tue, Jan 31st 2017

Father Totet Banaybal's goal is not to change local culture but show people the 'goodness of the church' Filipino Jesuit finds home in Cambodian mission

Filipino Jesuit priest Totet Banaynal spends time with visitors to the Catholic church in Siem Reap. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Totet Banaybal, a Filipino Jesuit student, had to learn a lot of things when he first went to Cambodia in 1994.

"It was not easy," he recalls. Everything was unlike what he was used to back home, such as removing his shoes before someone’s home. Fried pineapple and cucumber sautéed with rice noodles were alien to the then young priest. The same was with the music and the poetry.

Communicating with people was a challenge. When he spoke, people listened, but only a few could understand him. "I did not understand them either," he says.

After a year, he returned to the Philippines to finish his studies. He was ordained a priest in 1999, and a few months later went back to Cambodia as a missionary.

He lived with people recovering from the dark years of the Khmer Rouge. 

On the outskirts of the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang, the young Father Banaynal encountered villagers who had lost limbs to landmines. 

Almost every other person he encountered had lost a loved one.

"That was when I knew that I would love this culture. I will, if it is what God wants me to be," he says. 

He found that learning the language was "so easy." 

Loving the food was not anymore an effort. "If they tell me that the food is delicious, then I tell myself that it is lip-smacking," he says. 

The priest says he underwent a "process of remolding." He set aside his being Filipino. "I have to become one of them, to serve them better, and to go on with my mission."

The mission 

Father Banaynal became parish priest of St. John’s Catholic Church in Siem Reap to minister to some 600 Catholics and at least 400 non-Christians who serve the church as volunteers. 

In a city with a population of about a million where Buddhism has been the state religion since the 13th century, the young Jesuit counts the fruit of his mission not by the number of baptisms. 

"Our work is the accompaniment of people," he says.

A few meters from the church is an old wooden house where Bopha Chey, a 40-year old vendor, attends to a small Buddhist altar, burning incense sticks.

Five years ago, Bopha started attending catechism classes and Masses. It was curiosity that brought her to the church.

She says she has no "no compelling life story to tell" about her going to a Catholic church. "It is just it. I am happy. I feel heard. I feel I belonged," she says.

Bopha has not been baptized a Catholic, but it does not hinder her from attending Mass.

Father Banaynal says it is not easy to become a Catholic in Cambodia. "We are not here to change their culture but to show them the goodness of our church," he says. 

The priest says he does not invite people to be baptized. "If we show them that Catholics are good, they themselves will seek for it," he says.

The wooden Catholic church in Siem Reap reflects traditional Cambodian architecture. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Inclusive love

The church compound in Siem Reap has no gates. Everyone is welcome to enter.

"The love of God has no boundaries," says Father Banaynal.

Near the entrance to the church is a picture of a stone carving of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus with children around them. 

One child holds an open book that symbolizes wisdom, while another plays a flute, which signifies art, music, and the tradition of praising God.

One child is in a wheelchair, holding a dove, which represents peace, while one more holds a flower while on crutches. 

"The flower is a sign of love and God’s greatest commandment, to love one another," explains Father Banaynal.

"The crutches and the wheelchair are like a sacrament that gives them back their dignity and makes communion between disable and non-disabled people," he adds.

Surrounding the children is Mary’s cloak that symbolizes "the family we belong to in the church."  

Father Banaynal says the image represents the Catholic Church in Cambodia.

Father Totet Banaynal SJ poses for a photograph with an image of Mary of the Inclusive Love at St. John’s
Catholic Church in Seam Reap. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Sharing a nurturing church

In the capital Phnom Penh, Arvin Samson Mamhot, a Filipino migrant worker who teaches English, has joined the Couples for Christ, a Catholic movement that started in the Philippines in 1981.

Arvin says he and his wife found in the group everything that he misses back home. "The feel of home is here," he says. 

The joy he receives from the group he also shares with others.

During his daily commute from home to the school where he teaches, Arvin met a tut-tuk driver Chamnan Dong.

Arvin shares stories with Chamnan about the Philippines and the Catholic Church. 

Chamnam listens to the teacher's stories of village festivals, the observance of the Holy Week back home, the long Christmas in the Philippines, and the feast of the Black Nazarene. 

One Sunday, Chamnam came knocking on Arvin's door.

"I have no class today," Arvin told his friend.

"I am here to go with you to the gathering," replied the driver. 

From then on, Chamnam, a Buddhist, attended meetings and catechisms of the Couples for Christ. 

"How can I turn my back on a wonderful and beautiful culture," Chamnan says.

"I also want to experience God in the presence of my Filipino friends," he says.

"We are here to share ourselves, the church, and Christ," says Father Banaynal.

He says the Catholic Church’s mission in Cambodia is "to find out that people here are also saints."

The Jesuit priest says Filipinos living abroad should realize that they too can be "missionaries and international citizens ... who should embrace the people regardless of their culture and religion."

An estimated 10.2 million Filipinos reside or work outside the Philippines.

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