Bernard Petit, a French missionary priest who created the first Catholic catechism in Chinese characters, died at the age of 85.
A member of the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP), the native of Lyon has exercised his ministry for more than fifty years with the Chinese communities of Cambodia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Petit was first sent to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in the 1960s. It was only the beginning of a long priestly life entirely devoted to Asia, especially to the Chinese people.
He was particularly dedicated to teaching the Catholic faith to children and adolescents, launching various projects to teach them in their mother tongue.
Jean Charbonnier, priest and former missionary to China, said Petit was an “avant-garde,” noting that he was the first person in Phnom Penh to celebrate mass in Mandarin.
Petit has diligently studied the language for years to achieve this goal. He then baptized around 30 teenagers in Chinese.
Stella Tieu, a Chinese woman who grew up in Cambodia, knew the priest well.
“He was the one who chose my baptismal name: ‘the morning star’, like the name given to the Virgin Mary,” said Tieu, who settled in France in 1974.
Now 70 years old and living in Paris, she first met Petit when she was little and the priest had just arrived in Cambodia.
“After school was over, we ran to church to find Father Petit,” she recalls.
Bernard Petit carried out concrete projects for the Chinese community
When the Khmer Rouge regime sowed terror throughout the country and threatened the Chinese community, the French missionary left Cambodia for good and in 1975 went to Hong Kong.
“He was a very enterprising and active man,” said Charbonnier.
In Hong Kong, in 1975 he launched a monthly comic-type publication in Chinese with the support of Bayard Presse.
It was called “Red Apple” and was illustrated with Chinese-inspired drawings to share the gospel with Mandarin speaking children.
Petit then traveled to China where he contributed to other Christian initiatives.
There, he founded the “Catechism Commission”, a training program that allows Chinese children to follow a Christian religious education adapted to their cultural codes.
It was the first catechism ever designed in Chinese.
This religious training continues discreetly even today in the society controlled by the Communists where some nuns still continue the programs created by Petit.
“He’s accomplished a lot in his life,” admired Stella Tieu’s husband Savio.
“I even think he hit his goal,” Savio said.
The couple left Cambodia before the massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. But they remained in close contact with Petit until the death of the priest.
Stella Tieu recalled that during his return visits to France “he always tried to see us”.
She described Bernard Petit as a mentor – and one who inspired her to volunteer to teach Sunday school.