As the sun began to rise over the Dámrei mountains Fr. Phil Cassia looked out his passenger window upon the low flatlands of central Cambodia. The Mekong River was clearly seen slithering its way southward towards Lake Tonle Sap. Much like a large vein it pumped life through the arid earth leaving traces of lush vegetation near its banks. It was Fr. Phil’s first time to Cambodia and he tried to recall how he got here.
Seven years ago he was working in a parish in Waterbury, Connecticut when he had an inspiration. While praying his rosary he had an idea for helping the poor and homeless within his parish. That inspiration soon grew to a series of apartments where poor families could find a new beginning. There were several rules in play like the no tolerance of drugs and violence which allowed for more stability and above all helped the program work. In fact it was so successful that the governor of Connecticut mentioned it to President Reagan while meeting with him in the White House about the homeless situation in the US. Reagan was so impressed that he asked to meet Fr. Phil and invite him to dinner. A month later Fr. Cassia found himself sharing a meal with the President and First Lady.
Much was said during dinner but as the evening went on their conversation turned towards Communist Russia. Known for being outspoken, Fr. Phil didn’t hesitate in telling the President, “You know what you need to do in Russia Mr. President?”
“What’s that Father?” he responded.
“You need to change their hearts, and I know how you can do it. We need to smuggle bibles into Russia so that they start to convert from Communism.” He then went on to develop his plan of bringing several thousand bibles under the Iron Curtain. “We can start a sports tournament between high schools from the US and Russia. I can bring the teams over and we can pass out the bibles while we are there.” Reagan took a sip of his water and said, “Father, I like the idea and I am willing to help you get it started.”
Two months after that unforgettable dinner Fr. Phil was heading to Russia on a plane with the wrestling team from St. Michael’s in Waterbury. Their luggage was a lot heavier than usual and everything worked out as planned. Fr. Phil delivered the bibles to one of the only parishes he could find in Moscow. With a letter from the President, Fr. Phil was received by all as a sort of representative from America. He got to meet several members of the Russian Parliament along with other government officials who all praised the idea of a competition between American and Russian youth.
Two years went by and Fr. Phil had made over 10 trips to Moscow bringing kids from different schools each time as well as a new supply of bibles. With so many visits he befriended one member of the Parliament named Sergei. On one occasion while Fr. Phil was in Moscow, Sergei invited him to travel to Cambodia with a delegation from Russia. “How could I turn down a friend?” he told him while watching his students try to seal their win in basketball.
That’s how Fr. Phil wound up on a Russian plane headed towards Cambodia. He didn’t know what to expect when he landed. Cambodia was caught up in a bloody revolution organized by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime. Communism was being forced down the throat of these poor people and those who objected were sent to an early death. Over 2,000,000 Cambodians died in an attack that was focused mostly on the countries wealthy and intellectuals in hope to rebuild a Marxist society from the rubble of destroyed and abandoned cities.
Stepping off the plane Fr. Phil was surprised to hear the sound of explosives going off in the distance. He followed his friend Sergei and the rest of the group towards the dilapidated airport as he instinctively covered his head to protect himself from anything that might happen. Two young guards stood waiting for them at the entrance. They seemed more like boys in fake uniforms yet the automatic rifles they held were certainly the real thing. As the party moved closer the two guards raised their guns at Fr. Phil and ordered everyone to stop. Though they didn’t speak English, Fr. Cassia understood that they wanted him to follow them someplace. Being led at gunpoint, he marched ahead of them while they continued to shout in their local dialect. Moments later they halted before a door and ordered him to enter.
It was a dark room containing only a desk and two chairs. The walls were white and decorated with several bullet holes. They forced him into one of the chairs and fixed their guns at him in case he thought of escaping. Moments later someone entered the room from behind Fr. Phil and began giving orders to the two guards in a heated tone of voice and forcing them to evacuate the room leaving the two of them alone. The man walked around in front of Fr. Phil as an interrogator would before beginning his questioning. He was a high ranking official of the KPRP army and his uniform was weighed down by several medals and pins. Fr. Phil began to sweat, wondering what his fate contained while the General pulled the other chair closer to him and sat down.
He stared at Fr. Phil for a few moments before speaking. Then, in broken English he began to say, “Father, I sorry to pull you aside like this but I want to make sure that no one suspect anything.” Fr. Phil didn’t know where he was going with this but he was too afraid to ask. The General went on, “I grew up Catholic by my mother who always loved her faith. I broke her heart when I stopped going to Church and she tell me that one day God will send an angel to bring me back to Church. When I see a priest walk out of Russian plane in Cambodia, I knew God sent my angel. Father, will you hear confession?” Relieved that his life was not in danger Fr. Phil smiled at the General and said, “Of course I will.”
Fr. Cassia administered God’s forgiveness to the Communist General who had spent 28 years wandering away from his faith. Tears began to roll down his stone cold face as he experienced God’s mercy for all that he had done. “Thank you Father.” He said, “You don’t know what this means for me.” With that the general wiped his tears, rose from the chair and called in the two guards again. In their own dialect he ordered them to take Father out and return him to the group as he remained alone in the room. While Fr. Phil walked back to Sergei and his friends he addressed God in prayer saying, “Thank you Lord for my life, and above all for my priesthood.”
Thomas A. Flynn, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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