Newly appointed Cardinal Cornelius Sim of Brunei says young Catholic communities like his might have something to share with churches in traditionally Christian countries on how to live the faith without drawing attention. In an interview with Vatican News, he talks about the various aspects of the Church in the small, Muslim-majority Asian nation.
By Robin Gomes
“The Brunei Catholic Church, in a sense, is a periphery within the periphery. Some churches like ours don’t make the headlines. We are generally required to live our Christian faith, without drawing attention to ourselves.
This is how the Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, Cardinal Cornelius Sim, described his flock in a recent interview with Vatican News.
Brunei recently came into the limelight when Pope Francis announced on October 25 that the head of the Catholic Church in the small nation would be among 13 new cardinals of the Catholic Church. The pope formally inducted them into the College of Cardinals in a ceremony at the Vatican, called a consistory, on Nov. 28.
A small but prosperous Southeast Asian nation on the northeast coast of Borneo, Brunei has a very generous social welfare program, with most of its wealth coming from oil and gas. The vast majority of the country’s more than 460,000 residents profess Islam, the country’s official religion. However, others are allowed to practice their religion in peace and harmony.
Brunei: a periphery within the periphery
Cardinal Sim leads the Catholic community in Brunei which has some 16,000 faithful, 80% of whom are migrants or expatriates, mainly from the Philippines but also from other Southeast Asian countries. They are cared for by 3 priests, all local Bruneians.
The 69-year-old vicar apostolic believes that in appointing him cardinal, Pope Francis wanted to “include forgotten, or little-promoted communities, including those on the periphery”, which “do not ask for or get much publicity. “.
“Brunei, in this sense,” he said, “is a periphery within the periphery.”
We are also “a face of the Church”
The cardinal admits that his church is different from the historic ‘mega churches’ of the West, with their beautiful architectural monuments.
“Perhaps,” he said, “Pope Francis also sees that this could be an opportune time to shine a light on communities like ours, not completely hidden, but still operating under the radar, so say, to say that we also present a face of the Church, which we do not often see.
“We,” he says, “are the little flock of Luke 12:32,” where Jesus says, “Fear no more, little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the kingdom.
In this regard, Cardinal Sim recalled a radio broadcast by former Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1969, in which the future Pope Benedict XVI contemplated what the future Church might look like. He said, “From the crisis of the day, the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. It will become small and will have to start more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the buildings she built in prosperity.
Continuing this trend, Cardinal Sim now sees a “downsizing of the Church,” with parts of the global Catholic community “old and tired” and hemorrhaging. In this context, he thinks that the “small churches”, like that of Brunei, could perhaps have something to offer and to share with these churches.
Brunei Church Feels Blessed
Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Cardinal Sim and Filipino Archbishop Jose Advincula de Capiz were unable to attend the Consistory at the Vatican. They were declared cardinals by Pope Francis. Cardinal Sim followed the consistory which was broadcast live from the Vatican.
He said the personal letter Pope Francis sent him three weeks earlier was read at all Masses. The cardinal explained that his appointment also reflects the community living the faith as best it can, in a situation where it is in the minority. This is perhaps, the cardinal said, what impressed Pope Francis and those in Rome, and the community feels very happy to share what he describes as an “achievement”.
A mixture of cultures and colors
According to Cardinal Sim, the 16,000 strong Brunei Catholic Church is “a very colorful community”.
“There is a spirit of animation in the life of the Church by this mixture of traditions from different countries. It also has an impact on the devotional life of the community. The local community is enriched and made aware of these practices, through music, dance and devotions.
As for native Catholics, he admits that they are “much less likely to be involved in the active life of the Church”. “This could be because they are better off financially, economically and socially than most migrant workers”
However, most of the spiritual and social efforts of the Church are directed towards expatriates, without neglecting the needs of local Catholics.
The Vicar Apostolic of Brunei is a qualified electrical engineer. Graduated in Electrical Engineering from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1971, he went on to obtain a B.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Dundee, UK in 1978. After working for about 10 years with the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas multinational Shell in Brunei and Europe, he made a major decision. He left a successful career and a well-paying job and decided to study for the priesthood, much against his mother’s wishes. He was ordained in 1989.
When Pope Saint John Paul II separated Brunei from the Diocese of Miri-Brunei and created the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei in 1998, he appointed Father Sim as his Prefect. When Brunei was elevated to the rank of Vicariate Apostolic in October 2004, he was appointed its first Vicar Apostolic. He thus became the country’s first bishop. His episcopal ordination took place in January 2005.
Asked if his background as an engineer has been a help or a hindrance in his pastoral work, Cardinal Sim admitted that as an engineer one can get too involved in the work without delegating power. “As an engineer, of course, you are very focused on the facts, the techniques”, which are good but also get into it. “You tend to do a lot of troubleshooting, but overall I’ve learned to delegate over the years,” he said.
Overall, he thinks, engineering has helped him “because it tends to teach you to be focused, to be practical, and to be logical in your approach to whatever you’re given. to do, as part of your job description”.
Dialogue of life and common good
An important role of Brunei’s small Catholic community is inter-religious relations with Islam as well as with other religions. The Brunei Church has 3 parishes and a mission. Most of its apostolate is done through its Catholic schools, where 60-70% of the students are Muslim. Thus, the interaction and dialogue of life comes naturally.
“In Brunei,” Cardinal Sim stressed, people from different cultures engage in a “dialogue of life.” Interreligious dialogue for them, he said, “is less a theological discussion than a matter of respect for the beliefs of others and harmonious interaction in the search for the common good.”
This common good, he explained, is to seek a “safe and secure environment in which to raise a family”, to live “a peaceful life with a reasonable expectation of prosperity and personal advancement”. For this reason, he said, “the official name of the country is Brunei Darussalam, which also means abode or abode of peace.”
Brunei’s Catholics have lived for 90 years in the midst of a predominantly Muslim population, alongside other religions, such as Buddhism. Through interaction and shared life in school, work and location, the Cardinal said “adherents of all these religions have lived together in peace.”
“Working for the common good and development of all citizens and residents,” Cardinal Sim said, “provides the necessary guidance” people need. Thus, “interreligious dialogue and interreligious exchanges are more at the level of sharing the same public and physical space”. At the same time, they “take into account each other’s differences” and learn to adjust in light of these values.