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Thursday, March 8, 2012

CAMBODIA: Faith and the Cross

Saet Albert: dying of cancer, reborn in Christ 
by Mario Ghezzi*

The young man studied at a grammar school founded by missionaries and, thanks to a scholarship, enrolled in university to study mathematics. Within months, the diagnosis: brain cancer. A path of suffering and pain, relieved by a soul-searching that led him to baptism. And a great desire to "know Jesus". 

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - A story of faith and pain that comes to us from Cambodia through the story of a PIME missionary. Saet, a young man in his early twenties, a brilliant mathematics student at the University of Phnom Penh, diagnosed with a brain tumor in a terminal phase, without any hope of recovery. But his anger and despair gave way to solace, to the discovery of a relationship and friendship with the missionary fathers who guided him -  he was born and raised in a Buddhist family - to convert to Christianity just weeks before his death. Because in Christ, he confided "I am reborn to new life."

Thanks to the PIME priests he spent the last stage of his illness in the St. Elizabeth of Hungary hospice for sick in Phnom Penh, a center for the poor especially from rural areas founded and run by Paola Maiocchi - of the lay missionary community - together with a Fr. Mario Ghezzi. In this testimony written by the priest, Saet - who chose the name Albert at his baptism - retraces the steps of his illness, his physical suffering and inner peace, happiness at his encounter with Christ and the choice of conversion.

Saet Albert died Tuesday, February 28 at 21:23. But his memory is still alive and emerges from the pages of this story. A witness of life and faith in Christ that overcomes death.

Saet, 22 years of age "tall and as handsome as the day is long" those who knew him when he was healthy would say, came to our center for patients in mid-December, his left eye badly swollen.  He had been in Vietnam and had already received the diagnosis of fatal brain cancer. He returned home not knowing what to do, while the pain was getting stronger along with the desire to end it all. Before falling ill, he had arrived in Phnom Penh full of hope, Saet was intelligent and had won a scholarship for an undergraduate degree in mathematics.  Only one week into his university life and then his dreams begin to shatter, the first sign: a simple headache.
His story is similar to that of many other young Cambodian poor. Once junior high finished he gave up on continuing his studies because his widowed mother could not afford to pay the fees. So Saet became a shepherd and farmer. One day a friend told him that there is a new high school in Prey Veng where they help poor kids.  It is the high school that Fr. Alberto Caccaro, PIME, had just opened. So, Saet begins to dream once more of going back to school. The boy attended the school and graduated in August of 2011. He later won a scholarship in mathematics to the University of Phnom Penh. But in October continuous headaches cast a shadow over his future, the trip to Vietnam and diagnosis: brain cancer, only a few months of life left. Thanks to Fr. Alberto's contacts, Saet was brought to our center for sick, otherwise he would have died without any medical care whatsoever and without the help of pain relief. The missionary brought him into contact with Paola and Saet arrived, light as an angel, ill and in pain but still an angel.
His condition declined rapidly, the pain getting stronger, but the pain and the awareness of inevitable death opens the barrier of his heart to a deluge of questions, real and inevitable, those questions that can be relegated to the margins over the course of an entire lifetime but with which we all sooner or later must also reckon. Saet, of Buddhist tradition, decided to start with this request and turned to Fr. Gustavo Benitez, also a PIME missionary: "help me know Jesus." And Gustavo timidly begins to read him the Gospel of Mark. On December 31, 2011 at one o'clock in the afternoon, he called Fr. Gustavo, and told him: "Father come get me because today I have a bit of strength and I want to see your church." I was passing by and see from the windows Gustavo pushing Saet in his wheelchair within the church, although at the time Saet and I did not know each other well yet. All of a sudden Saet asks me: "I want to be baptized now because I do not know if I'll still be here tomorrow."
Conversion and baptism

Obviously we tried to dissuade him from this thought because it was not true and we convinced him to wait until the next day. On the afternoon of January 1, 2012 Saet was baptized and confirmed, taking the Christian name of Albert as a sign of his deep bind with Fr. Alberto Caccaro. And here his life begins! He had already abandoned thoughts of ending it all. He used to say: "Father, when I found out I had cancer, I thought about suicide, but then I got here and I found a love that is so great - he adds - that I never imagined could exist: Paola, you fathers, the young people of the parish who come to see me every day and then, above all, I met Jesus".

At that moment Saet had already lost the use of both eyes, because the cancer was spreading to the eyes and nose. Blind, his nose completely closed by the tumor Saet said: "Father, I have the greatest joy in my heart, a joy that I never knew before, how nice to have known you father and Jesus Although we'll be together for a short time I will never forget the precious treasure that I found here. Thank you father. "
He kept repeating these words even to Gustavo and Paula. And I would think to myself ... "What is there to be happy about? You are only 22, in a few weeks you will die, and you know what, your you have headaches that could split you in two and you say you are happy? ". Yet every evening after the mass at 18.30 I would abandon all my other duties to spend time with him, hoping he was okay and could speak, because people who are ill like him have no words to waste and can only say things that are deeply meaningful and true. As a result the time spent with Saet became a mystical experience: talking, touching, seeing, hearing Jesus. His young and increasingly frail body was one with whom I had just celebrated the Eucharist at the altar, and his words became full of meaning as the word that I had just heard during mass. The liturgy continued in worship, sometimes silent sometimes spoken of the suffering body of Christ with which Saet identified himself immediately without delay. Kissing his hands meant kissing those of Jesus, kissing his face was to kiss that of Christ. I told him: "Saet, your suffering is valuable because offered to God it becomes a means of purification for you but also for the whole world. You, like Jesus, become an offering and sacrifice to purify the world." And he'd say, surprised and pleased: "Really, father?". In exchange for the offer of his pain Saet received a serenity and peace that already spoke of heaven in the last days of his life.
In Christ, life after death

He spoke of the day of his death as the most natural thing possible. He immediately asked  and wanted to see the urn where we put the ashes of the dead and then he started asking questions about the afterlife: heaven, life in Christ and the communion of saints, eternity, and these were the themes of our conversations. He had come to say: "I will not say that I die, I want to say that I must be reborn to a new life with Jesus."

Then even the conversations disappeared when the cancer took possession of the palate and mouth. It tried to take everything of him, the damn cancer, but failed to take his heart, his peace and serenity that he lived as special gifts of God when there were no more words to say, only his hands remained to communicate his affection and closeness, light and sincere in their grasp, intertwined with our own as we whispered the words of prayers he could no longer say in his ear and which a squeeze of his hand confirmed. He could say a few words, sometimes, and you could be sure he would say: "Thank you father that you came to see me, and a smile would blossom on his lips."
I would visit Saet every night because, paradoxically, in that room an amazing intensity of life circulated. Entering that room meant leaving recharged and full of inner strength, even when the time was spent in silence. How is it possible that there is so much life near death? Yet it was so! Saet has exceeded the boundaries of fear of death. He said: "Father, I am not afraid of dying, I know I will meet Jesus and that's enough." Death had no hold over him, he only asked to die with a smile, with dignity and without causing too much trouble to his mother and all of us. In particular he asked insistently for the gift of the consolation of heart for his mother and his brother. And what did his mother say the moment he breathed his last? "Thank you father for loving him". But who could expect a reaction like that from a mother?
When he could still speak, one evening he told me: "Father, I have something to ask, when a person dies where do you put the body?". I answer that it usually stays at the home of the deceased, or is put in a room near the church. He says surprised: "Oh, do you not put it in church?". And I reply that no, usually it is not the case. Saet replied: "Father, when I die I want to stand all night in church, can you gift this to me?" "Certainly Saet - I said - do not worry, it will be as you wish"
Saet: longing  for the face of God

And so it was, Saet left us at 21:23 on 28 February and 30 minutes after his body was already in the church before the statue of Mary, lying on a cot and covered with a white sheet. The boys hostel of the parish and those of the vocational community flocked to church to pray, then spontaneously organized themselves to ensure a vigil was held with Saet until morning. The day after one o'clock in the afternoon the funeral was celebrated in the presence of relatives, friends and schoolmates of Saet, who are all Buddhists. A pregnant silence reigned in the church; the eyes and ears of these "faithful" are wide open, some glances of astonishment. Then we went to the pagoda, the last look at Saet and cremation.
An earthly life has ended, but a new life in the Lord, in peace, eternal bliss has begun. A strange longing seizes me, surely I need time to mourn this death as they should, but perhaps a longing for God: "Why Saet before me? And if I wanted to come too? Maybe a bit 'in a hurry ! ". Dear friends, but is it really worthwhile to be afraid of death?

The last memory of Saet

Phnom Penh, February 1.

A diary entry of the last memory Saet:

"This evening Saet there is nothing left but the possibility of pain, pure, alone, desolate, searing, leaving no escape. Just this. No more room for a look, because for a long time now his eyes have held no life. There is no space for a dialogue, because his tongue is numb from the pain and morphine. There is no more room to drink Zenya green tea together, because 'the beast' is invading the throat and has only left space for just a bit of water. Saet says he is awful hungry, but is no longer able to swallow anything solid ... It is only a weak handshake and some sweet words, consolation, a few whispered prayers to 'ear, and he acknowledges with a wavering voice and an almost imperceptible nod of the head. 

Oh yes, only the pain remains to lord it, but in all this pain how can you find hope, joy and peace? I do not know how Saet feels, I can only attempt to imagine it, but I think that every word good and beautiful that is whispered in his ear is like a light caress,  that makes him feel close to someone when he can not speak and can not do anything. Words that speak of peace, joy and hope because hope despite everything, the certainty that God is present in this damn pain, has never abandoned us or Saet.

Saet asked his mother to do away with some medicine, but this does not happen, the mother will never be able to do it. Surely Saet's pain must be something unimaginable. It is almost impossible to think of that formless mass of tumor growing, multiplying in the skull of this young man filling all the gaps, eyes, nose, mouth, now also coming to the ears, soon Saet will no longer be able to even hear the words of consolation we whisper ....

Only one thing: God lives this immense pain and is already cleansing. I beg, I implore, I implore my God, who is the God of the Cross to embrace this young man, do not leave him in despair, accompany him moment by moment, begin to show him your light.

Listen to the prayers of Saet, and grant them soon, I beg you my Lord.
Amen ".

* Fr. Mario Ghezzi is a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, ... years in Cambodia