Cardinal-Elect Bishop Cornelius Sim (together with the Catholic Bishops Cconference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei) met with Pope Francis during the “Ad Limina Apostolorum” visit to Rome in 2018

By Bernardo Cervellera

Nov 18 2020

The new cardinal of Brunei describes his Church and the mission that characterizes it based on education, friendship, the dialogue of life with people of other faiths. “We must not forget that the people here in Asia are hungry for God.”

BRUNEI DARUSALLAM – “A hidden Church”, “not noisy”; as small as “a Fiat 500”, but alive, which envisions its apostolate above all through schools and help for migrants. This is the image of the Church of Brunei, depicted by the new cardinal- designate Cornelius Sim speaking with AsiaNews via Zoom. Despite being among the smallest churches in Southeast Asia – indeed, perhaps precisely for this reason – Pope Francis wanted to reserve a Cardinal’s hat for Archbishop Sim during the next consistory on 28 November. Unfortunately, the new cardinal will not be able to be present at the ceremony in Rome, due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

In the interview, the Cardinal-designate talks about his church, a “warehouse” incomparable with the majestic cathedral of Milan, but which is a church in all respects, where the faithful pray, sing and celebrate. In the simplicity and sobriety of their lives, the 16,000 Catholics communicate their faith in Christ to people of other faiths (Muslims, Buddhists, atheists …), without imposition, but in friendship. “We must not forget – he says – that people here in Asia are hungry for God”. Here is the complete interview with Card. Sim, who is the apostolic administrator of Darussalam (Brunei).

Describe the Church of which you are cardinal and apostolic administrator. The day the news of your cardinalate was communicated to you, you immediately said: The Pope loves the churches on the peripheries…

Ours is a peripheral, hidden Church. Sometimes history speaks of a “hidden Church” in China, in Japan (in the 18th century), in Korea (in the 19th century). Maybe we are not really “hidden” in that specific sense, but still we are not “noisy”, we are not a “noisy Church”.

We are a minority Church and this makes us prudent. Not so much because we are discriminated against… Like in any family gathering, small children should be quiet to let the elders talk. So we are quiet. And we, being small, accept our role: if the dishes have to be washed, we do it; if the floor has to be swept, we do it; we do what is required of us.

As a Church we have three small parishes and a mission station. We also have some schools, linked to the parish. Most of our social apostolate takes place through the school, which was opened in the 1930s. School is where our presence started. And where the Church has been established. The Church was actually present here in the first half of the 1800s, thanks to a PIME father [Fr. Antonio Riva, in the Barambang mission; Fr. Ignazio Borgazzi in Labuan – ed] but after three or four years, those priests were called to Hong Kong and their attempt did not bear much fruit, until 1920, when the Mill Hill missionaries arrived from Sabah (in present-day Malaysia ). The missionaries started a small school. My grandfather was one of the first to be baptized and he was one of the first Catholics in the nation.

And so the Church has always been involved in school, in education, which is not a partisan education, but an open one: 70 percent and more of the students are non-Catholics. There are Muslims, Buddhists, people of different faiths, or people without any faith. Our schools are renowned for the quality of the education they offer. Our teachers are academically bright and prepared. The teachers are local, but also international: they come from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, …

We are the smallest church in ASEAN. Perhaps only Laos has a very small Church like ours.

We have about 16 thousand faithful. There were more, but due to the economic crisis, many people left the country. On Sundays, 3-4 thousand people arrive at every mass.

Now, with Covid and even after the lockdown, people’s desire to come to church has been diminished. Covid has brought out problems that perhaps we knew we had, but had never faced: those who go to Mass perhaps do so out of routine, rather than for something profound. It is difficult to accept, but we have to face this fact and address it.

And yet, Brunei is a very wealthy periphery …

We need to distinguish between citizens, permanent residents and migrants. Our Church is comprised of 80% migrants, especially from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Europe. In general, Catholics who have a permanent status are better off, they are richer because they can benefit from the state welfare: free education up to university; free healthcare; various benefits. One advantage that is difficult to quantify is national stability.

The capital Darussalam means “city of peace”, and there really is peace here. Even with Covid, we felt safe. We have only had a few cases of contagion, thanks to the closure of the borders for a certain period. This country is rich in oil and gas. Before being a priest, I myself had worked as an engineer in the oil industry. Even now that the price of oil has fallen, the state guarantees this welfare.

It has become a little more difficult for migrants to find work. Our contribution to migrants is to help them find work, to support them financially, to assist them in every way… We often have to worry about repatriating the bodies of migrants, as their embassies do not take care of them. In any case, the best way to help migrants is to find them a home, to offer hospitality.

For example, Filipino migrants are people of faith. When they are in crisis or in trouble they come to church. If the Church shows itself to be familiar, welcoming like a mother, listening to them and inserting them into the community, then they participate heart and soul.

How are relations between the Muslim majority and the tiny Christian community?

We have several levels of dialogue. There is an official one, of interaction with the ministries: foreign, education, interior, etc. Since 1990, the nuncio has begun to visit us every year and to visit the foreign ministry. When there are interreligious meetings, to which Brunei is invited, they ask me to take part. I have been to Cyprus, Madrid, the UN … The other two priests went to Australia and Russia. This mutual relationship is quite positive.

We also have good relations with the Ministry for Education: our contacts regard to the needs of schools. But then there is the most important form: the dialogue of life. Parents meet in schools, at work, at the market … In this way people of different faiths and cultures meet and dialogue with each other. Our commitment is not to impose something, but to live side by side.

We accept this situation and communicate who Jesus is, what faith is, but with kindness, friendship, in the search for the common good. Because in the end we all want the same things: For our children to be educated and grow up well, that our family be happy; a life in peace, full of meaning. This is the common ground we work on.

We could say the Church of Brunei is prophetic: In all likelihood the Church throughout the world will be reduced to a minority in the future…

We are like a Fiat 500. We cannot be like a Ferrari and we cannot go fast. What is important is that we are travelling and we crossing the finish line, but everyone gets there at their own pace. Sometimes they ask us to do things that we are unable to do. But if the idea is to finish the race and eventually receive the crown, we will certainly get to the end.

We are not a large metropolitan Church, with a big staff and great buildings… It is not for us. But if you want small things, then here we are: even if we are slow, you can count on us.

It is like the competition between the tortoise and the hare. The hare was so sure of winning that he went to sleep. But the turtle, although slow, reached the finish line.

You have to accept who you are. Everyone has a responsibility in the Lord’s vineyard, a service: washing the dishes, washing the floor, without complaining about the task entrusted to us. From a certain point of view, what did St. Francis even do? Nothing: he went to one place, to another and people followed him because the Poverello of Assisi set an example. Even if you are poor, you can give something to God by taking from your poverty.

I realize that often, especially among young people, there is the temptation to be efficient, to be “like the others: we must have this, that, the other; do this, do that, do the other” and we become consummate consumers. But there is no need to be like the others. We must be like Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve.

I really think that there is also a value in being small. This does not mean not working or sharing responsibility. But you have to be wise in understanding the situation.

Last year I was in Milan for the first time and I admired the cathedral. I was very impressed to see this beautiful church; I knew many things about Milan, about Card. Martini, his books … Then my church here came to mind: a warehouse, which from the outside doesn’t even look like a church. But it is really a church: in it we celebrate, pray, sing with great heart, even if without the professionalism of the La Scala singers! Maybe it would be nice to have a big and beautiful church here too, but for now the one we have is okay. Maybe my successor will one day.

Why did Pope Francis choose you as a cardinal?

I’m still trying to understand. It is a little strange. You know my story: I was an engineer, then I studied theology, but without planning to become a priest. Then the bishop asked me to become a priest. At first I rejected the idea, then I thought: maybe I am the last, the most reluctant, the least suitable, but I accepted. I worked as a priest, collaborating with the laity … Then came the post of apostolic vicar and I accepted to help the Church here. Then they asked me to become a bishop. There had been no bishop in Brunei for over 20 years. And here too I thought: This is for the good of the Church.

Then a few weeks ago the Pope appointed me Cardinal. And I thought: in the name of my community, I accept. Of course, I am required to participate in the Indianapolis race having only a Fiat 500, and I find all of this a lot of fun! After all, Pope Francis is brilliant: he says that the Church does not exist only in famous and stable communities, but also in small, hidden places, such as Laos and Brunei, perhaps in North Korea, or in Nepal.

People in these places do not ask for much, but continue to believe, to hope … Here in Brunei maybe we should do more to integrate migrants, to give witness, but my people are good, they come to Mass, they are faithful …

We must not forget that the people here in Asia are hungry for God. I myself returned to faith after the death of my father, which raised the question on the meaning of life for me.

And this goes for men and women and for young and old. After many years had passed, I met with a man who had been my professor when I was studying engineering. He hadn’t been to Mass for at least 40 years. I didn’t know he was a Catholic. During the Covid emergency he came to see me and started following the Mass online and after 40 years he went to confession and received communion.

There is no comparison between the many things we do, perhaps impressive in their own way and this fact: a lost sheep that is found. I too was lost and was found and brought back to the Church. At the time it was a priest who helped me, but this work can be done by anyone.

I hear that you are unable to come to Rome for the Consistory and receive your Cardinal’s hat …

Yes. The Covid problem makes travel difficult. I have to go through 14 days of quarantine to come to Rome; I must do the same on my return; then there is the fact that, I am 69 years of age, I am in the so-called “vulnerable” bracket for infection. – Asia News