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Second Malaysian cardinal increases regional body's tally

For the first time, the regional conference will have two cardinals — Cardinal-elect Francis and Cardinal Goh
Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang was among 21 cardinals-elect named by Pope Francis on July 9

Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang was among 21 cardinals-elect named by Pope Francis on July 9. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)

Published: July 10, 2023 09:49 AM GMT
Updated: July 10, 2023 12:31 PM GMT

For the first time, Catholics in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei will have their two members in the College of Cardinals after Pope Francis included Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang among 21 new cardinals he announced on July 9.

Along with Cardinal William Goh of Singapore archdiocese, Francis will represent the regional Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.  Goh was made a cardinal last year.

“As a Prince of the Church, we have great confidence that you will play a vital role in assisting” Pope Francis in the governance of the Church, said a message from Penang diocese.

“Your new responsibilities will undoubtedly enable you to contribute even more profoundly to the well-being of the Catholic community,” said the message on Facebook.

Francis, who has headed Penang diocese since 2012, is the second Malaysian to be made a cardinal. 

Francis is also the fourth cardinal from the region.

Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez received the red hat in 2016, 13 years after he retired as the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. At the time, he became the first and only cardinal member of the conference.

When Cardinal Soter died in October 2020 at the age of 88, Bruneian Bishop Cornelius Sim was elevated a cardinal the next month. 

Brunei’s first cardinal and its first native priest died at the age of 69 in May 2021.

The regional conference, headed by Francis, now has two cardinals who can vote in papal conclaves. 

Francis said he was "happy to follow in the steps" of Cardinals Fernandez, Sim and Goh, and all from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei.

“Together with them and the Church in Asia, we give joint witness to the Universality of the Catholic Church and the Apostolic continuity of the Mission” of the Church, he said in a statement on July 10.

The mission continues through many members of the laity, religious and clergy, together with the multitudes of the People of God everywhere. "Together we seek and build God’s Kingdom of joy, mercy and hope,” the bishop said.

It has been an eventful year for Francis. In January, the Church of St. Anne in Bukit Mertajam in Penang was declared a minor basilica, which hosts the largest annual Catholic feast in the country.

In the same month, he was made chairman of the Office of Social Communication of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC). 

Francis was born in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru in 1951. His grandparents had emigrated from India in the 1890s. 

He attended Saint Francis Xavier’s Minor Seminary in Singapore in 1967 and then College General Seminary in Penang in 1970. 

At 26, he was ordained a priest for the Melaka-Johor diocese and served as its vicar general from 1988 to 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as bishop of Penang.

The other Asian prelate who was given the red biretta was Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong.  The 64-year-old Jesuit made the first visit to mainland China in 30 years by a prelate.

The ceremony to install the churchmen as cardinals will be held on Sept. 30.  With the new appointments, the number of cardinals who can vote to select the future pope now stands at 137.

Pope Francis has named nine batches of new cardinals so far in his papacy, starting in 2013.

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