Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Brunei's capital of Bandar Seri Begawan. (Photo: YouTube)
The new cardinal from Brunei administers arguably the world's smallest diocese in terms of its priests — just three.
The three priests and Bishop Cornelius Sim, the apostolic vicar of Brunei, take care of Catholics in one of the few absolute Muslim monarchies left in the world.
"We are one of the smallest dioceses in Asia," said Bishop Sim days before Pope Francis named him one of 13 new cardinals on Oct. 25.
"We hope to have vocations to the priesthood and religious life" as part of the diocese's growth, which has some 21,000 Catholics, mostly migrants.
Many in the Catholic Church see the selection of Bishop Sim to the College of Cardinals as part of Pope Francis' thrust to "go to the peripheries" to recognize that all communities, however small, are important in the life of the Church.
Brunei is a country of 5,700 square kilometers located entirely on the island of Borneo, which is also home to parts of Malaysia and Indonesia.
One of the richest nations in the world, Brunei also has one of the lowest populations in Asia — just 429,000 people. Malay is the official language but English and Chinese are both widely spoken.
Some two-thirds of Brunei's people are Muslims ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The country follows Sharia law that is applicable only to Muslims
Some 10 percent of the people are atheists, 13 percent are Buddhist and a small number have indigenous beliefs. Christians form some 10 percent of the population, half of them Catholics.
Father Arin Sugit, the bishop's assistant at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in the nation's capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, explained to UCA News that the majority of Catholics are migrants.
Some 70 percent of the diocese's Catholics are migrant workers from the Philippines. Another 20 percent are from other countries such as Indonesia, India and Malaysia. Only some 10 percent are indigenous Bruneians, he said.
"We're fortunate to have a substantial Filipino congregation that makes our Church very lively," reflected Bishop Sim. "They bring their faith, with popular pious devotions, and they enrich us and our faith very much."
Father Sugit was ordained in 2008. The apostolic vicariate's two other priests are Father Paul Shie, ordained in 1999, and Father Robert Leong, ordained in 2003.
Catholics are free to practice their faith within the church compounds and at home, but public displays of the faith are restrained.
For example, Father Sugit said that some 5,000 to 6000 people attend his Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption each Sunday.
Franciscan missionaries brought the Catholic faith to Brunei in 1587. Brunei became a separate apostolic vicariate, an ecclesiastical division, before becoming a diocese in 2004.
Before that, Brunei was part of the Diocese of Miri in Malaysia. Bishop Sim has also ordained a priest for Miri in 1989.
As a first step to separating Brunei as a diocese, Pope John Paul II made it an apostolic prefecture in 1997 and appointed Father Sim as its prefect apostolic.
His Church, Bishop Sim said, had "a humble beginning, and we have to move on to enrich our faith-based communities."
Miri was part of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez, retired archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, served as its president.
The bishops' conference covering the three nations had no cardinal other than 90-year-old Cardinal Fernandez, who is now sickly and ineligible to vote in a papal election. Church laws allow only cardinals below 80 to elect a pope.
Bishop Sim, 69, when made a cardinal in a consistory scheduled for next month, will become the first cardinal from Borneo Island and will have the voting right to elect a pope until 2031.