COVID-19 claims life of French bishop who led rebirth of Cambodian Church

French Bishop and missionary Yves Ramousse, the two-time apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, died of COVID-19 in France on Feb. 26. He was 93 years of age.

Bishop Ramousse, a member of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), was well known for his pastoral and missionary activities in Cambodia during the second half of the 20th century, reported Agenzia Fides.

He was apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh from 1962 to 1976 and then from 1992 to 2001.

Bishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, apostolic nuncio to Thailand and Cambodia, sent his condolences to Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler who is the current apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, reported the website for the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia.

“While conveying expressions of our condolences, we give thanks to God for this eminent Shepherd who gave his whole life for the faithful of Cambodia,” said Bishop Tschang In-Nam.

“At the same time, we elevate our prayers for his eternal repose. May the Good Lord welcome his soul in the Father’s House and grant him eternal happiness, as promised to His faithful servants,” he said.

After joining the MEP at a young age, Ramousse was ordained a priest in 1953 and left for Cambodia in 1957. He was appointed apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh at the age of 35 which made him the youngest bishop in the world at that time.

Bishop Ramousse participated in Vatican Council II and in 1968 founded the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia (CELAC). Through CELAC he helped to apply the council’s teachings to Cambodia’s reality, such as the celebration of the sacraments in the local language and the translation of the Bible into Khmer, reported Agenzia Fides.

With the advance of the brutal Khmer Rouge in 1975, the bishop relocated to Indonesia, suffering exile from what he considered his second homeland.

The Khmer Rouge took full control during that year and prohibited all forms of religious expression. Many of the local Catholics in the country were Vietnamese and many of them had earlier fled Cambodia after the civil war began in 1970.

The Khmer Rouge went on to expel all foreigners, including Catholic priests and religious. A wave of violence and repression quickly began which would cost the lives of two million Cambodians.

Just before his pending exile, Bishop Ramousse recalled priest Joseph Chhmar Salas to his Cambodian homeland and ordained him as bishop and appointed coadjutor for the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh. The then Bishop Salas was thus able to assume the pastoral and spiritual guidance of the people, but he died of starvation in 1977 and is one of the martyrs of the Khmer Rouge era.

The Khmer Rouge held power until 1979 when forces from neighboring communist Vietnam ousted them.  

With the end of the Vietnamese occupation, a decade-long civil war, and the approval of a new Constitution (1993), Bishop Ramousse returned to Cambodia where he found the Church destroyed — churches razed to the ground, the baptized missing, Cambodian priests and religious disappeared.

Bishop Yves Ramousse was apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh from 1962 to 1976 and then from 1992 to 2001. (Photo courtesy of RVA)

Appointed again in 1992 as apostolic vicar, Bishop Ramousse dedicated himself to the work of spiritual, pastoral and social reconstruction.

In 1994, after negotiations with the royal government of Cambodia, he obtained the connection of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

In 1997, he rejoiced at the official approval of the Catholic Church as a religious community in itself, and not as an NGO.

Bishop Schmitthaeusler, MEP, said Catholics in Cambodia are in debt to the work done by the French bishop, reported Agenzia Fides.

His work “allowed the Church of Cambodia to live and rise from the ashes in the 1990s. If today Cambodians are happy and free to follow Christ, they owe it to Bishop Ramousse,” said Bishop Schmitthaeusler.

Today there are some 25,000 Catholics in Cambodia, a nation of 15 million people.

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