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Malaysia's 'unassuming' archbishop made cardinal

Retired Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez has the style of Pope Francis — going by bus, walking, chatting with people

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Published: October 10, 2016 11:23 AM GMT

Updated: October 10, 2016 11:24 AM GMT

Malaysia's 'unassuming' archbishop made cardinal

Pope Francis greets the crowd after a Mass on Oct. 9, 2016 at St Peter's Square in the Vatican. (Photo by AFP) 

Pope Francis has named retired Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur as cardinal, making him the first Malaysian prelate to get the red hat.

Archbishop Fernandez is one of 17 new cardinals Pope Francis announced Oct. 9. Aged 84, the retired Kuala Lumpur archbishop is one of four new cardinals over the age of 80 and therefore not eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.

The new cardinals will be inducted into the College of Cardinals Nov. 19, the eve of the close of the Year of Mercy.

"Cardinal-elect Fernandez will be the first Malaysian cardinal and it is a great joy that Pope Francis has given the Malaysian church this recognition and honored us with this appointment," Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim of Kuala Lumpur, president of the Malaysian Catholic bishops' conference said in a statement Oct. 10.

Archbishop Fernandez born in 1932 in Sungai Patani, Kedah, Malaysia, was ordained a priest for Penang Diocese in 1966. He was ordained bishop of Penang in 1978 and appointed archbishop of Kuala Lumpur in 1983.

In 1984, while serving as chairman of the Office for Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, he accompanied five other Asian bishops on a visit to Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou in China.

Archbishop Fernandez in 2003 at the age of 71 resigned in accordance with section 2 of Canon 401. The canon says that a bishop who because of illness or other grave reasons has become unsuited to fulfill his office is requested to offer his resignation.

A church source told ucanews.com at that time that Archbishop Fernandez resigned due to his poor health. "He has a heart problem and his eyesight is failing." The archbishop had tendered his resignation to Rome a year earlier but the Holy See chose to accept it only in 2003.

Since his retirement, Archbishop Fernandez served as spiritual director at the major seminary in Penang and then returned to Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese to serve as chaplain at the St. Francis Xavier Home for the Elderly in Cheras.

Father Patrick Ryan, who was a seminarian when Archbishop Fernandez was rector at the seminary in Penang, remembers him as a very humble person who did not stand on ceremony. "It sets the standard of what it means to be a cardinal in Malaysia," said Father Ryan who is now a parish priest in England.

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"He has integrity and honesty. We seminarians liked him very much because even though he was known for being very direct he was kind," he said.

"He's in the style of Pope Francis — that humble way — going by bus, walking around with people in the villages, chatting with them, sitting and eating with them. He treated people as his family. He was not overbearing," Father Ryan said.

Parishioners remembered how the archbishop very simply carried himself in speech and attire.

They remember seeing a person who dressed as one of them when he visited the kampongs (villages) and joking and laughing with them.

"He'd come dressed in short pants and T-shirt," said Joseph, an elderly Catholic now living with his children in Ipoh.

In 2003 to commemorate his 25 years as a bishop the archbishop invited friends to a dinner and his driver and gardener were included along with diplomats and a government minister.

"The archbishop is a very simple and unassuming person," a lay Catholic leader then told ucanews.com. "He shows fatherly love and concern for his flock. A very patient man, he always pays attention to what you are saying."

Archbishop Fernandez is also know to be a champion of human rights. When Malaysia's Internal Security Act — which allowed for the indefinite detention of persons without trial — was promulgated in 1960, the archbishop was quick to oppose it and never budged from that view.

He spoke against the 1987 government crackdown on critics as Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad's government continued to apply the controversial Internal Security Act.

"The church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel," he had then told ucanews.com.

Archbishop Fernandez was also know to further the church's common plan in the formation of Basic Ecclesial Communities and had annual archdiocesan general meetings with the participation of laity, religious and clergy, and including youth representatives.

The Catholic Church in Malaysia has three archdioceses and six dioceses. Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese and Melaka-Johor and Penang dioceses are in West Malaysia, situated between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south. In East Malaysia, on the north side of Borneo Island, are Kuching Archdiocese, plus Keningau, Miri and Sibu dioceses and Kota Kinabalu Archdiocese.

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