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Updated: March 11, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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The celebrations are over and the guests are gone. What remains is the affection that people have for the silver jubilarian, Archbishop Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur.

The guests, ranging in status from Vatican diplomat to lowly aborigine, came together Feb. 16 to commemorate the archbishop´s 25 years as a bishop. Despite a rumbling dark sky threatening to unleash a downpour, some 5,000 people filled St. John´s Institution in Kuala Lumpur for the jubilee Mass.

What endears people to the jubilarian? Michael Nair, a lay leader in Kuala Lumpur, says the answer may be found in what happened the following day. When the archbishop invited friends to a dinner on Feb. 17, his driver and gardener were included along with diplomats and a government minister.

"The archbishop is a very simple and unassuming person," Nair told UCA News. "I have known him for 20 years. He shows fatherly love and concern for his flock. A very patient man, he always pays attention to what you are saying."

During the Mass, Archbishop Adriano Bernardini, apostolic delegate to Malaysia, read aloud from a personal letter sent by Pope John Paul II. "Your ardent commitment to duty not only benefited the flock entrusted to you but was manifestly clear to all in Asia ... your role with the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei shines forth as well as your strenuous efforts to give direction and purpose to the Church in West Malaysia."

Archbishop Fernandez was ordained a bishop on Feb. 17, 1978, to lead the diocese of Penang, and was appointed Kuala Lumpur´s archbishop on July 2, 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.

Father Ravi Alexander of Immaculate Conception Church in Johor Bahru, southern peninsular Malaysia, told UCA News Archbishop Fernandez is "very just to his people, yet he can be very firm when the situations calls for it."

The priest recalled that when Malaysia´s Internal Security Act allowing for the indefinite detention of persons without trial was promulgated in 1960, the archbishop was quick to oppose it and has never budged from that view.

Father Alexander also said that on the pastoral side, the archbishop has been "solely responsible" for building up Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). "This, I think, is his biggest achievement," the priest commented.

Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda, chief monk for Buddhists in Malaysia and Singapore, spoke of Archbishop Fernandez as "most humble and kind." The Buddhist leader, who has known the Catholic prelate for 25 years, told UCA News, "Our friendship and goodwill is so great that when we meet, we don´t feel like we belong to different religions. He is a very dignified man and he carries his dignity by being humble."

According to Venerable Dhammananda, the archbishop is responsible for a "very healthy religious environment in the country." The monk is a founding member of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, of which Archbishop Fernandez is currently president.

Archbishop Fernandez reflected on his 25 years of episcopacy and told UCA News, "I am not looking for success. We only sow the seeds. We do God´s will and try to be faithful to him." He stressed, "We must also be in the world and respond to the needs of the people. We need to listen to the people."

Catholics of various ethnic communities came together for the Mass. Aside from Chinese, Indians and Eurasians, there also were Orang Asli, or aborigines of the Malay peninsula, as well as the Iban and Kadazan-Dusun, indigenous people from the eastern part of the country on Borneo Island.

There were also 16 archbishops and bishops, and 76 priests. Church leaders from overseas included Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Jakarta, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Bishop Lawrence Thienchai Samanchit of Chanthaburi, Thailand.

Archbishop Emeritus Gregory Yong of Singapore preached the homily and congratulated Archbishop Fernandez for his contributions toward human development. The retired Singapore archbishop taught Archbishop Fernandez at the minor seminary and also ordained him as bishop of Penang 25 years ago.


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