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Cardinal Sebastian Francis of Malaysia

Asian Christians live amid diversity without losing faith identity

Cardinal Sebastian Francis of Malaysia is the president of the Office of Social Communications of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. The Bishop of Penang diocese in northwest Malaysia was among the cardinals named by Pope Francis on July 9. Born in Johor Bahru in 1951, he was appointed bishop in 2012. He talks about the diversity of Churches in Asia ahead of the consistory on Sept 30, which he will attend alongside 20 other new cardinals, including Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong, the only other new Asian cardinal.

How do you approach the upcoming consistory?

While announcing the new cardinals, Pope Francis said that "their provenance expresses the universality of the Church, which continues to proclaim God's merciful love to all people on earth.” To bear witness to the universality of the Church is to be faithful to the fundamental mission of the Church. The universality of the Church began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost morning, at the unity of different races and cultures — Asians, Jews, Arabs and Romans among others. (Acts 2:9-11.) This affirms that we are all united in Christ despite our diversity.

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The appointment of cardinals from all over the world bears witness to the fact that God's people experience and feel the same sense of belonging to the universal Church, without feeling excluded or isolated. In his letter of appointment to me, the Holy Father included two words that express the true meaning of universality: "universality" not "uniformity.” The Church continues to proclaim the Gospel, to bear witness and to spread the Christian message, the Gospel of joy, mercy and hope, to all races and cultures in Malaysia, Asia and beyond. My role as Bishop of Penang will continue to achieve all this.

How did you react to your appointment as cardinal?

My first reaction was: "This is the end of my privacy, my independence and my freedom!” I felt a close bond with Pope Francis. I also remembered my brother cardinals who preceded me, and I'm moved to follow in the footsteps of the late Cardinal Soter Fernandez (of Malaysia), the late Cardinal Cornelius Sim (of Brunei) and Cardinal William Goh (of Singapore), who all belong to the Malaysian-Singapore-Brunei Bishops' Conference. This link between the Church of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, the Church in Asia and the universal Church will continue to be strengthened.

What difference does this make to your mission in the Church in Malaysia and Asia?

It doesn't change anything. However, as a cardinal, I'd like to use the local Malay expression, "turun padang," which means "stooping to the realities on the ground.” I feel a deep connection with the College of Bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles. The College of Cardinals doesn't change this elementary and fundamental perspective, although it does include the pope's electors — those who elect the pope in a conclave in the Catholic tradition.

A Church in Penang was made a Minor Basilica this year. How important is it for the local Church?

Saint Anne Church in Bukit Mertajam, which was elevated to a Minor Basilica on Jan. 9, was founded in 1846 by French missionaries from the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), who came to Bukit Mertajam to provide pastoral care for Catholic families in the area.

MEP Father Adolphe Couellan built the first chapel, which still stands on the original site of Colline Saint Anne today. Four years later, another MEP missionary, Father François Allard, became the first resident priest. It was MEP Father Pierre Sorin who built a larger church in 1888. This church still stands today.

The elevation of St. Anne's is an important milestone for the Church in the Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei region, as it is our very first basilica. The primary reason for asking the Holy See to grant this status to this sacred place is to honor the pilgrims of all nationalities, religions, beliefs, races and cultures who gather here, because of a special love for Saint Anne, and the God we worship. This elevation also serves to strengthen the link of the Minor Basilica of Saint Anne in Malaysia with the Church of Rome, and personally with the Holy Father.

The Shrine of St. Anne is also known as the Shrine of Harmony, which has become a focal point of the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of St. Anne, celebrated every July 26. The feast is celebrated on the Sunday following July 26, while a novena is held prior to the feast. The annual pilgrimage attracts around 250,000 pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, from all over the country and other parts of the world, particularly from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Australia.

How can the Gospel be proclaimed in Malaysia, where Christians are a minority?

The FABC celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation in 2022. Asia is a vast continent with many cultures, races and religions. The incorporation of culture in religion plays a very important role in the inculturation of faith. We plan to become a truly indigenous Asian Church.

On the question of minority status, I don't think we should label a small portion of the population as a minority. There have been too many labels that have led to negative connotations. Divisions between majority and minority, liberal and conservative, or right and left are not appropriate in the Asian context.

We must not look to the right or to the left, but upwards, towards the Kingdom of God in Heaven. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mat 6:10). In Asia, heaven and earth merge into a single reality in the Kingdom of God. The parable of the mustard and the parable of the leaven teach us that the Kingdom of God may have humble beginnings, but it will grow and exert its influence from within.

This is why Catholics will act within a culture like leaven, as agents of change, gradually changing the culture from within to integrate the values of Christ and his Gospel. We need to live in harmony, with our Christian identity, in the midst of cultural and religious diversity. This is Asia!

How attached are you to your Indian roots?

I'm Malaysian first and foremost, although my ethnic roots are Indian. As Malaysians, our Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sabahan and Sarawakian identities, among other Malaysian ethnicities, share and accept differences like ingredients in the same salad. And together, we make a delicious dish!

I embrace my Indian roots, and I'm glad there's joy and jubilation in the Indian Catholic community too. The word Catholic comes from the Greek word "katholikos,” which means universal. The universality of the Church makes it one body. When there's joy in the Indian Church, it's proof of the oneness we mutually feel.

How important is interreligious dialogue in your area?

[Cardinal Sebastian Francis was president of the Malaysian-Singapore-Brunei Bishops' Conference in 2017, and vice-president of its interreligious council.]

Pope Francis' encyclical Fratelli Tutti [subtitled on fraternity and social friendship] shows the way forward to build a better, more just and peaceful society. We must live in harmony with our co-religionists — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths — as one family where we are brothers and sisters in humanity. I have met the various spiritual leaders of Islam and other religions, and many share this desire for brotherhood and humanity.

On several occasions, we have touched on the human brotherhood that embraces all human beings and unites them in a single humanity. We call on Malaysians and people of goodwill to strive for harmony and unity in diversity. There must be love, respect and trust for one another, especially as we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural country.

During my interfaith meetings, I personally shared about the encyclical Fratelli Tutti (which means, All brothers). Compassion is such a precious attribute, in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions. That must be our fundamental principle in dealing with the poor, the orphans, the sick, the homeless and those most in need.

During our interfaith gatherings, together with our Muslim brothers, we always share with participants a copy of the "Document on Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Common Coexistence" or the Abu Dhabi Declaration, signed by both Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb on Feb. 4, 2019. The document encourages Catholics and Muslims, and all those who believe in God, to work together to build a culture of peace, love and brotherhood. This document is always an icebreaker, and once they see the photos of Pope Francis and Sheikh el-Tayeb embracing, it always provokes smiles and cordial exchanges.

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