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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Cardinal Sim: The World-traveled Engineer (Who Initially Declined Ordination to Priesthood) Who Would Become Brunei’s 1st Bishop & Cardinal

“When Pope Francis asked ‘Where are you from?’ I answered: ‘Brunei’ He surprised me with his next words: ‘Ah, paradiso! (Ah Heaven!)” 

Here is a ZENIT exclusive interview with Cardinal Cornelius Sim, Apostolic Vicar of Brunei, the first Cardinal of the tiny nation on the island of Borneo, in two distinct sections surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea.

Pope Francis held an Ordinary Public Consistory, Nov. 28, for the creation of 13 new cardinals in a socially distant St. Peter’s Basilica as the world grapples with the COVID19 resurgence worldwide. Cardinal Sim and Cardinal Jose F. Advincula, Archbishop of Capiz, Philippines, were not able to be present due to the contingent health situation, but still were created cardinals in the consistory.

“A representative of the Holy Father, at another time to be determined, will give them the hat, the ring and the bull with the title,” Holy See Press Office Director, Matteo Bruni, clarified to journalists. The members of the College of Cardinals unable to reach Rome were able to join the Celebration, participated remotely through a digital platform that allowed them to connect with the Vatican Basilica.

An electrical engineer with vast experience abroad, including in the UK and Netherlands, Cornelius Sim would be ordained a priest in 1989. St. Pope John Paul II established the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei in 1997 and appointed the future cardinal as its prefect.  Brunei was later raised to rank of Apostolic Vicariate, where Sim was named its first Apostolic Vicar, thus becoming the Asian country’s first bishop, and now in 2020, its first cardinal.

In this wide-ranging interview, Cardinal Sim discusses his country, his life, what the nomination has meant to him and the southeast Asian nation, along with being created cardinal without being able to be physically present due to the pandemic. He also spoke about how he overcame his original reservations about being ordained a priest and how he appreciated from the beginning the Holy Father’s sense of humor.

The prelates just created cardinals in the recent consistory include: Bishop  Mario Grech, Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops; Bishop  Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints; Archbishop  Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, Rwanda; Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington; Archbishop José Advincula of Capiz, Philippines; Archbishop Celestino Aós Braco of Santiago de Chile; Bishop  Cornelius Sim, titular Bishop of  Puzia di Numidia and Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, Kuala Lumpur; Archbishop Augusto Paolo Lojudice of Siena-Colle Val d’Elsa-Montalcino; Fra Mauro Gambetti, Conventual Franciscan, Custodian of the Sacred Convent of Assisi; Bishop  Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop emeritus of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico; Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, titular Archbishop of Asolo, Apostolic Nuncio; Fra Raniero Cantalamessa, Capuchin, Preacher of the Papal Household; Msgr Enrico Feroci, parish priest of Holy Mary of the Divine Love in Castel di Leva.

Here is Zenit’s conversation with Cardinal Sim:

ZENIT: Cardinal Sim, you are the first bishop in the history of your country, Brunei (since the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei was erected in 1997), and you have just become the first cardinal of Brunei. Do you know if there are similar cases in the history of the Church, i.e. where the first bishop of a country became the first cardinal of that country?

I am not so versed in church history to say if there have been other instances like my case! I thought it might be true of the church in Laos but apparently it is not so. Perhaps Brunei is a unique case after all?!

ZENIT: When did your last meeting with Pope Francis take place? And what did you say to each other in particular?

My first personal encounter with Pope Francis was during our Bishops’ Conference ad limina in February 2018. His first words were: “Where are you from?” I answered: “Brunei.” He surprised me with his next words: “Ah, paradiso! (Ah, heaven!)” He asked me how many priests I had and I said “Two and a half!” It was his turn to be surprised until I explained that a few days ago, one of our three priests had a serious heart attack and was seriously ill in the ICU. In this short exchange, I realized that our Pope has a sense of humor as well as a good grasp of geography.

ZENIT: One fact stands out in your biography: you became a priest in 1989 at 38 years of age. What did you do before you became a priest? And how did you discover your vocation to the priesthood?

I completed 11 years of primary and secondary education in a Catholic school in Brunei. After I left school, I studied for an engineering diploma in Malaysia, thereafter I worked 4 years with Shell Petroleum. I continued with an engineering degree course in Scotland for 4 years between 1974-78, working in hotels during vacations. From 1978-1985 I worked in an LNG plant, again with Shell, in Utilities technology and operations, mostly dealing with water treatment, steam and power generation.

During my second stint with Shell, I spent a year abroad in the Netherlands and England working on a project for Shell. On returning in 1981, my parish priest invited me to come back to church after an absence of more than 12 years.

ZENIT: Then what happened?

I took him up on his offer as I had many questions about life’s meaning following the sudden death of my father. Coming back to church, I realized what I really needed was a community to belong to and an opportunity to grow in a personal faith through, in my case, the charismatic renewal.

In 1986, left my job and went to the US to study for a Master’s degree in Theology to provide a stronger foundation for my faith. On my return in 1988, due to the departure of priests and religious whose work permits could not be renewed any more, the bishop offered to ordain me which I initially declined. However, seeing the possibility of a church without a priest and without sacraments, I did a week-long retreat, and decided it was the right thing to accept the proposal! I was ordained a priest on November 26th, 1989.

ZENIT: Pope Francis has gotten us accustomed to surprises in his consistories. However, probably no one would have imagined, at least prior to some of Pope Francis’ recent consistories, that he would have included in the College of Cardinals the bishop of such a distant country, where the Catholic Church is such a small minority. Was it a surprise for you too?

Yes. The announcement came as a great surprise. I thought it was a hoax when the first few text messages arrived at our dinner table on Sunday 25th October. I was very much startled that he picked our small country with its small Catholic community for such a prestigious appointment. I would like to believe It is an acknowledgment of the community’s contribution to the life of the church here, not so much any one priest’s or layperson’s achievement in particular.

Pope Francis has made great efforts to include forgotten communities, including those on the periphery, who neither ask for nor get much publicity. Brunei is in this sense a periphery within a periphery. Such churches do not make the headlines as they are generally quiet and live out their Christian faith without drawing attention to themselves. Surely there’s room for the mega churches with their beautiful architectural monuments and large organizations. Such is not our situation.

ZENIT: What do you think the Holy Father was trying to say with your nomination?

Perhaps the Holy Father felt this might be an opportune moment to highlight communities like ours, to say that we too present a face of the church not often seen. We are the little flock (Lk 12:32). Perhaps the vision of Pope Benedict XVI for the future church may be found here in smaller communities of the Church? In a radio broadcast on 1969, it was said: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” (Radio broadcast 1969)

ZENIT: In Brunei the religion of the majority of the population is Islam, and there are also communities of other religions. How would you describe the coexistence of religions and the situation of religious freedom in Brunei?

The Laws of Brunei, Art 3. (1) states: “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.”

In practice, people of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities engage in what I would call a “dialogue of life.” Interreligious dialogue is less about theological discussion than about respecting each other’s beliefs and interacting harmoniously in seeking the common good. These are: a safe and secure environment to raise a family and live a peaceful life with reasonable hope for prosperity and personal advancement. It is with good reason that our country’s official name is “Brunei Darussalam” which means “Abode of Peace.”

Since appearing in Brunei, Catholics have lived for close to a century in the midst of a largely Muslim society, along with other religions such as Buddhism. Introduction of Sharia in 2014 codified many of the Muslim rules and customs with which our society has coexisted all this while. Through interactions of shared living space at school, work and play, adherents of these religions have lived peacefully together. Working for the common good and development of all citizens and residents provides the needed focus.

ZENIT: Tell us a little about the church in your country. Who are and how many are the Catholics of Brunei? Are they originally from Brunei or are they from other countries?

The Catholic church began to really take root in this country in the second quarter of the 20th century with the arrival of itinerant Mill Hill Missionaries (Missionary Society of St Joseph). Prior to this an Italian priest from PIME had started a small community in the 1860s but this lasted just 3 years. Schools were the first apostolate established and continue to be a visible sign of our commitment to contribute to the welfare and development of this country.

The era of foreign priests and religious came to a close in early 1991 when expatriates could no longer extend their work permits because of the upper age limit. One local priest held on for several years to care for the 3 parishes and 4 schools. Since 1998, there have been 3 ordinations to the priesthood, thank God. At present, there is one female religious candidate and 1 seminarian about to begin theological studies.

A conservative estimate is that there are 16 thousand Catholics, 80 percent of which come from abroad.

ZENIT: Who makes up this Catholic community?

The majority of these expatriates are from the Philippines, others from Malaysia, Indonesia, South Asia and further afield. They add color and a spirit of animation to church life through their traditions via devotions, music and dance. Local Catholics are less likely to be much involved in active church life, perhaps because they are generally better off economically and socially.

The church has become a home for many migrants, both socially and spiritually. They feel connected here. There are opportunities to join prayer groups, gather for devotions, listen to the liturgy in their own language (where possible). The church is open for prayer throughout the day for anyone who wishes to drop in. The church provides relief where many statutory bodies fail to do so: during sickness and death, perhaps some form of emergency relief or repatriation. The church strives to be a mother in such cases.

ZENIT: How was the news that you were becoming a cardinal received by your non-Catholic and non-Christian compatriots? What reactions did this news have?

I would say the response has been quite encouraging. Non-Catholic Christian friends on the whole have seen this as a sign of the recognition of the Brunei Christian community in general, not just Catholics, for our small yet valuable contribution to the peace and welfare of our country as a whole.  There is not much in the way of publicity in the press but I am happy to note that the personal feedback I have received from non-Christians has been similarly quite positive.

ZENIT: Due to the COVID pandemic, you were not able to come to Rome for the consistory and participated virtually. How did you live this situation? Do you already know when you will receive the cardinal’s hat?

COVID-19 has made travel a somewhat hazardous proposition for most people. I watched the consistory online but it’s not the same as being there in person. I understand the “red hat” will be presented by the recently appointed Apostolic Delegate to Brunei Darussalam as and when he will be able to visit Brunei, most likely next year.

I think, in many ways, it is a good alternative after all as more of the Catholic community here will be able to witness the ceremony in person, which would not be possible if it was done in Rome.

ZENIT: Speaking of travel, in the era of traveling popes, Brunei is one of the few countries where a Pope has never been. Do you think that a papal trip to Brunei could be made in the near future?

Since 1990, the Apostolic Delegate to Brunei Darussalam has visited Brunei every year. The highest-ranking diplomat to visit Brunei was His Excellency Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, then Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See in 2005. As of now, there is still no formal diplomatic relations between Brunei and the Holy See. I would think any possibility of a formal state visit by His Holiness would hinge on the establishment of prior diplomatic relations between our two countries.

ZENIT: Thank you, Cardinal Sim.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov, 30th November 2020


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