Fr. Alberto Caccaro with teachers and students

Cambodia: The educational pact? It is the human who asks for it

Fr. Alberto Caccaro is a PIME missionary. In reading Pope Francis’ message for the Global Compact for Education, he recognized many factors of his own Asian adventure, which began by translating Fr. Giussani’s book.
Alberto Caccaro*

Being a missionary in Cambodia has almost always meant starting from scratch. I was visiting places where there was no presence that preceded me. In some cases, I found myself to be the first resident priest in the region. This coincided with the opportunity to have carte blanche. Looking back at my history, I perceive what Pope Francis invited us to do in Evangelii Gaudium: to generate processes. Now, with this call for a global educational pact, he returns to that invitation. To respond to the educational catastrophe, new processes must be generated.

In my history in Cambodia, this has occurred on two fronts: schools and hospitals. They are two realities in which one encounters a humanity in need of care. Life led me to found the Chomran Vicìe High School in Prey Veng, in the South-East of the country, in 2008, which became the model for two other similar schools. 90% of students are Buddhist.

It all started when I began to notice the children around me and the need to go towards them. The educational experience was, at that time, a constant call. For me, God’s call was there, in those children. I began to try to respond. Initially, however, I was not envisioning a new school, but partial aid: scholarships, residences to host students in need. But as time went by, and seeing the extent of the shortcomings of public school, a need for totality arose within me.

I began to wish that those students would experience what Fr. Giussani calls "an introduction to total reality." It is an expression that resonates in Pope Francis’ message, when he proposes the path of an integral education. He says: "We need the courage to generate processes that consciously work to overcome existing fragmentation and the conflicts that we all bring with us; the courage to renew the fabric of relationships for the sake of a humanity capable of speaking the language of fraternity.”

As I was immersed in a Buddhist context and could not appeal to faith to propose an educational experience, I needed that root to be alive in me. Before even thinking about the new school, I decided to translate The Risk of Education into Khmer, the local language. Not because I thought there was a reading audience, but because I was convinced of the value of that kind of proposal in itself. Those pages gave voice to the source that generated me. And I wanted to start from there, not from objectives made of numbers and measurable results. The educator is a living memory of the root that generates them. To educate is to give access to a living memory. Two years spent translating the work helped that text remain engrained within me.

There were a number of difficulties in starting the new high school. There was a lot of distrust in the bureaucratic apparatus of the regime, and in many cases they tried to hinder us. Also because, in that context, no one had ever tried to ask for permission for a school that was not state owned. But within the challenges, what kept the dream of the school awake were Fr. Giussani’s words.

When we then got permission, I asked myself: "How should it be done?" It could not be the proposal of a jumble of subjects, it had to propose a complete idea of the person. A breathing atmosphere should be breathed in it. And how to do it, in such a different context? Not being able to communicate faith immediately, I had to transmit to the children the life that was within me. So I decided to abandon the noun truth for a moment, in favor of the corresponding adverb: truly. It was the only way to offer them a true experience. What did this mean? I asked that the school be truly a school. That a timetable be truly a timetable. That the teachers be truly present. That the exams be truly exams. In short, no shortcuts. The truth had to be embodied in a living experience.

In this way, the experience of the incarnation, understood as something that really happens, dawns. I was struck by Péguy's phrase cited by Julián Carrón in his introduction to Il fazzoletto di Veronique [Veronique's Handkerchief]: "For the Incarnation to be full and whole, for it to be loyal, for it not to be limited or fraudulent, its history had to be a history of man.” The new school could not be a fiction, it had to be a real assumption of the children’s destiny. That adverb had to be pregnant with the noun: truth. That then, forced us to learn to call things by their name. This generated trust, a communion of destinies. Only a story trodden together can generate something. Hence the value of time, as Pope Francis reminds us, is superior to that of space.

I perceive the value of the idea of an "educational pact", because it is the human being who asks for it. Today our school, where 90% of students are Buddhists, with some Muslims and Catholics, is called "the school of Jesus." A pact that is not an artifact. It is the children who ask for it. And they are happy to come to a place where everyone is recognized for what they are. Even if, at first, it was not easy to make it clear that enrolling in the school did not involve conversion to Christianity. It is an educational pact that is concerned with freedom, conveyed by each religious experience. Here in Cambodia, I perceive that Christianity has a unique call: to manifest the mystery of human freedom in the act of faith.

Read also - Education: With that "pact" in your DNA

The Pope also recalls the "transformative" power of education. And I now understand it well, within the difficulties linked to the pandemic. The experience of the school reminds us that we are not machines and that we cannot rely on electronic devices. The human being is much more than that. And, in education, we cannot do without it. The dimension of the Incarnation demands the experience of contact. In this sense, having conceived our schools as small realities in which size does not prevent personal relationships with parents and families, has allowed us to face the health emergency more easily, without giving up fact-to-face teaching.

* PIME missionary and priest since 1995. He left for Cambodia in 2001, and currently lives in the Apostolic Prefecture of Kompong Cham and is responsible for education. In recent weeks, the PIME Foundation has published his book entitled Beyond the Mekong. Letters from Cambodia.