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Church lives in smaller countries, says cardinal-elect of Brunei

Bishop Sim says the best witness to Christ is to lead a life of simplicity with a commitment to Christ's teachings

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Church lives in smaller countries, says cardinal-elect of Brunei

Bishop Cornelius Sim of Brunei. (Photo courtesy of Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei)

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The new cardinal from Brunei candidly admits that he stopped practicing the Catholic religion as a university student.

His parents were not keen on his faith formation either, says cardinal-elect Bishop Cornelius Sim of Brunei, who was among 13 new names Pope Francis announced last week to be made cardinals in a consistory this month.

The death of Bishop Sim’s father posed some existential questions, which ultimately persuaded him to join a seminary.

When Pope Francis makes the 69-year bishop a cardinal, he will become the first cardinal from Brunei island. Bishop Sim says his selection shows the pope's focus on the "periphery of the peripheries" of the Church.

In the following interview with UCA News correspondent Rock Ronald Rozario, Bishop Sim speaks about the Church in Brunei, his life, mission, and priorities.

An engineering graduate from Scotland, you enjoyed a high-paying job in Brunei for several years. What made you leave it and join a seminary?

I did engineering twice. I did a diploma in engineering in Kuala Lumpur until I was 21. I came back and worked for about four years. Then I decided that I wanted to have a proper degree and I went to Scotland. I came back after seven years. When I left school, I also stopped practicing my faith.

After my father died in 1979, I began to appreciate that life and realized that life is not just about accumulating wealth. But it has to do something more than what we see here. What happens when you go from here? These questions kept on bothering me until 1981.

After spending a year in Europe working, I came back, and God sent a priest to see me and talk to me about these things. He brought me back to the Church and I started going to church and got involved in the parish council and youth ministry. In 1985, after five years of coming back to the Church, I left my job mainly because, as an engineer, you ask many questions, and simple answers do not always satisfy you.

The bishop of Miri (diocese in Malaysia, to which Brunei then belonged) offered to send me to a college in the United States to study theology, so I accepted it. I decided to take up the offer and left my job against the unhappiness of my mother. That's a long story. My mother passed away 10 years ago, but she was able to see me ordained a bishop.

When ordained in 1989, you were the second local priest in Brunei. How would you assess the role of your parents in your priestly vocation?

I cannot say my parents were extremely pious (chuckles). But my mother always prayed a lot, always. My father was not very pious. We lived very near the church. But he would arrive for Mass when the Gospel is read and leave about the communion time (laughter). However, they always impressed on us that we were Catholics. My dad had passed away by the time I decided to join the seminary. My mother initially was apprehensive as I was the sole breadwinner at the time. But she later accepted it and supported me.

Can you tell us more about your childhood and family life?

I was born in a Catholic family, and my grandparents were among the first to be baptized. They were among the first Catholics in our village, which I only found out later. The faith continued, but I won't say we were very religious. We went to Mass from an early age, got involved in the church's altar servers and Legion of Mary. But that was mostly because I went to a Catholic school.

We were pretty much a Catholic community with quite good roots in the faith. Confirmation and First Communion — we went through all those, but questions remain whether it was deeply attached to faith. When I left school and went to college, my faith started to leave me, and I didn't really practice very much. For many years I didn't practice my faith very well until I was 30 years old.

My father worked in a store as a material supervisor for Shell, a big employer in our country as oil and gas are a substantial part of our economy. My father worked in the company, and my mother was a normal housewife. I have two sisters and three brothers, and I am the eldest. My siblings are still alive. Two of them are in Canada, and the rest are here.

Brunei may be a small diocese, but each of your three priests has to care for some 5,000 Catholics on average. Most of your Catholics are also migrants. What are your pastoral priorities?

Catholics here are mostly migrants. I think 70 percent (of some 20,000) are migrants. We have only three priests, all local men and citizens of Brunei. We have always been trying to form the Catholic community with the basic principles of Catholic life.

We have seven priorities that we walk by since we established our vicariate. These are Bible literacy, adult faith formation, youth, promotion of vocations, witnessing to Christ, social welfare for people, especially migrants, and focus on family. These are the seven priorities we try to walk with. It is really about building a strong Christian community around these principles.

The whole idea is that the Church is about relationships. It is about liturgy, but it is also about relationships. First of all, relationships within the family, then with one another in the parish. From there, we also look for enriching our relationship with our community outside the parish, in the places we work, where we share lives with everyone else. That is mainly our thrust.

How does it feel like growing up as a Catholic Christian in an Islamic state like Brunei? How do Christians and the Church in Brunei find their place in the nation?

Brunei is an unusual country in many ways. The Church has been here for more than 90 years. We feel very much part of the community. For example, 60-70 percent of students in Catholic schools are Muslims. Interaction and dialogue of life are very natural. We interact, play the same sports, same game, and study under the same teachers, and we share our ups and downs. It's a natural co-mingling of common interests and common pursuits.

In the wider community, we do not feel any different. We are part of it and do not feel kind of obvious discrimination. We are accepted very much as people who belong here. Some 20 percent of Catholics are citizens or permanent residents. So, we benefit from the welfare services of the kingdom, which are very, very good. If you are a permanent resident, you can get good medical health services, free education up to the university level. We are also part of pension schemes.

Our sultan is a very modern and outward-looking person. As the country leader, he is committed to making Islam the national religion, which is part of the constitution. But the constitution also states right at the beginning: "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafeite sect of that religion. Provided that all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony by the person professing them in any part of Brunei Darussalam."

The Church is also constitutionally accepted as a religion in Brunei. So, I think the situation in Brunei is unique. There were many controversies, mostly outside Brunei, when Sharia law was included here (in 2014). But we, including Catholics, have lived with Sharia in an uncodified form for many decades. But only later it was codified and formally accepted. But in practice, these laws were there. Now, they are implemented in a wise and very refined manner. It is not implemented haphazardly or with any malicious intention.

If anyone wants to talk about Brunei intelligently, he should live here or be part of the people here. People generally are looking for a common good. That is what we are invested in, whether in our schools, in our churches, and that's is the way we interact with people. If there is an issue, we always consult, dialogue and engage in conversation. That's is the way we do things here.

It is rare for a bishop to be named cardinal, particularly when the region has archbishops. How do you look at your nomination as cardinal? How significant is this for the Church in Brunei?

(Big smile) For me, too, it was surprising. I learned about it first from a third party. I thought it was a joke. Then, I received some text messages from the Philippines and friends in other places. Then, I thought there might be something there. Then I decided to watch Pope Francis' Angelus prayers, and surprisingly it was true. 

This appointment's significance is not so much about the person but the people and region that he represents. Because the pope is trying to reach out to the Church in the periphery. When you talk about Brunei, the Church is "the periphery within the periphery." I find it very significant that Pope Francis is taking this approach.

I believe that the institutional Church in many large countries, to be honest, is not giving a good witness (to faith). I don't want to be judgmental, but it is always about controversies and conservative-liberal tensions that you read. It seems like the Church is a joyless institution, and people do not live in any sense of vibrant attachment to the faith. We are all about arguments, beating one another, and trying to push antithetical views to one another. That's not a very pleasant picture of the Church.

I believe the Church lives in the peripheries; the faith is alive in smaller countries. I think Pope Francis acknowledges that. As part of the universal Church, the Church in Brunei contributes to building a peaceful society here. I think the pope recognizes these things. The honor or title given to individuals is also a recognition of that individual's community. I also feel proud of the Church and people in my region — Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

It has also been a sad week for us because we have lost Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez (retired archbishop of Kuala Lumpur). He was the first and only cardinal in the region and a father figure to me. I think I was the last person to say a prayer with him online before he died. It was a bit anticlimactic to have my name announced as cardinal and lose the region's first cardinal.

Having a cardinal in the region is also a good sign for Asia. We say the Church in Asia is an emerging Church, just like the Church in Africa and South America.

The laws in Brunei allow Christians to practice their faith inside homes and churches, not outside them. Does this challenge evangelization? How does this shape and impact the lives of Christians?

That is the way we practice faith here. There is not much ostentatious display outside of the church and outside of the home. Our faith is not a private thing, but our faith is also not to be displayed inappropriately. We have to understand each other's sensitivities; certain inappropriate displays and expressions may provoke reactions. We need to be sensitive. We practice our Catholic faith not only in our homes' privacy but also in churches.

Our churches are always packed on Sundays and feast days like Christmas. Christmas is a public holiday here, and everyone enjoys the holiday. On Christmas Day, for example, many Masses are celebrated in packed churches, and carols are sung. These things are not controversial. You can ring your church bell too, no problem. When the Mass is on, we can also use the public address system outside the church, of course, at a reasonable level. Being sensitive is important; always remember others also have their own faith.

The real emphasis of evangelization is giving witness to Christ. The best witness to Christ is to lead a life of simplicity with a commitment to Christ's teachings. The love for our neighbors is the biggest evangelization tool available to us. We do not engage in public rallies and colorful processions. That is not our style. Our way is much quieter, the way of St. Francis of Assisi. He is our model.

What are some of the Church's contributions to the larger Brunei society and nation?

Education has been our main thrust for contribution since we began. Over the years, church schools have become prominent. Our schools are open to all and provide scholarships for those unable to pay the fees.

We also assist migrant people. We provide them "a home away from home" and try to integrate them into our Church, so they feel belonged here. We financially assist them in medical and other emergencies, and at times for repatriation to their home countries.

Migrant Catholics, for example, come to church looking for a place where they can feel at home and pray. They stay longer in the church, feel for the place, and integrate with the community. They are the life of the church. For example, Filipinos are accustomed to music, dance and generally have a very contagious worship style. So, they add that to the church.

The local Church — our local Catholic Brunei citizens and permanent residents — tend to feel much better off because they enjoy the benefits of citizenship. Perhaps they could be more involved in the prayers. Some are in touch, but many local Catholics tend to be detached. They are still faithful Catholics. That's another story.

Have you had any reaction from your government on your nomination? How would your nomination help church-state relations in Brunei?

A letter has been sent to government agencies informing them of the appointment. It is a sensitive time because we are mourning the loss of a prince (Azim).

The appointment is a good sign for the nation.The Holy See does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country. On the other hand, based in Kuala Lumpur, the apostolic delegate visits the country every year and meets with government officials. In fact, in 2005, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states visited Brunei. He was given full diplomatic honors as a foreign minister. The relations are quite cordial and ongoing. We hope that something can be done to formalize the relationship. I think we are doing well

As one of the few Asian cardinals, what should be the priority of the Church in Asia now?

That's a huge question. As I am more used to looking after a little flock (laughter) and suddenly, I'm asked to scale up to the Church in Asia. The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences works and speaks for the Church at the Asian level. I will have to see how I might be able to contribute to anything at the Asian level. It is something quite new. In Asia, we do things differently here and serve the same Lord. I think this is something Asians can teach other Christians in the world.

I suppose we can become a voice for the issues that sometimes don't get much visibility. Personally, I have a special interest in youth ministry, and I think our youth deserve more attention. Catholic youth really need to be motivated to play their part in the Church and their countries and become models for other youth. Perhaps, we as older generations have not achieved this, but we need to reach out to them and bring them up, which is significant to me.

The other day, I was reflecting on the Magnificat of Our Lady. I find it pertinent in my case. I am a lowly person. There are more countries in Asia, but a person from our region (Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei) has been appointed, which I say is an honor. The Lord looks at the poor and the lowly, and they get attention.

I have served the little Church in Brunei, and I can do the same for the Church in Asia. We always have to remember that we are called to be people who have received the incredible invitation to be the Lord's flock, to be part of His mission. Always small, humble, but dedicated to continue and carry it out.

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