By Nirmala Carvalho

Jul 12 2023

PENANG (AsiaNews) – A prelate who grew up in Malaysia in a family of Indian migrants who could bring this dynamic South-East Asian Church into a future Conclave for the first time. This is the profile of Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang, whom Pope Francis announced yesterday at the Angelus among the 21 new cardinalswho will receive the the scarlett at the Consistory on 30 September.

Born in 1951 in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru, since July 2012 he has been the bishop of Penang, in the north of the country, where he previously taught dogmatic theology in the local seminary.

Since January 2017, he has been president of the Bishops’ Conference that brings together the bishops of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. A member of the Central Committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (Fabc), he is also a highly esteemed figure in his country’s civil society: he was vice-president of the local interreligious council and in 2016 he received the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri award from the governor of Penang, which carries the title of Datuk, the appellation with which Malaysians address an important personality.

Francis is the second prelate to be made a cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church of Malaysia, but he will be the first to join the roster of cardinal electors: before him, in fact, Pope Francis in 2016 had given the purple to the thenArchbishop Emeritus of Kuala Lumpur Anthony Soter Fernandez, who later died in 2020.

On that occasion, however, Fernandez had been made a cardinal at the age of 84 and thus would not have entered an eventual Conclave. Also as part of the Bishops’ Conference that brings together Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, Pope Francis had also created Cardinal Cornelius Sim, Apostolic Vicar of Brunei,who also died in 2021 at the age of 70.

These two figures – together with Singapore Archbishop William Goh,appointed cardinal last year – were cited by the newly appointed cardinal in his message to his diocese upon learning of the appointment. “I am happy,” he writes, “to follow in the footsteps of Cardinals Soter Fernandez (Malaysia), Cornelius Sim (Brunei) and William Goh (Singapore).

Together with them and the Church in Asia, we give a common witness to the universality of the Catholic Church and the apostolic continuity of the mission entrusted by the Risen Christ to St Peter, the Apostles and their successors. May this mission carried out first and foremost by the Holy Spirit continue in Malaysia, Asia and beyond.

And may it do so through many of the laity, religious and clergy who are all disciples and labourers in the vineyard and garden of God, together with the multitudes of the People of God in every part of the world. Together,’ he concludes, ‘let us seek and build the Kingdom of God, made of joy, mercy and hope’.

The appointment of Card. Sebastian Francis was also greeted with joy in India, the land from which the new Cardinal’s grandparents emigrated to Malaysia in 1890. His family belonged to the Mechery family of Ollur, Thrissur district.

The Archbishop of Penang has five brothers and four sisters, all of whom are now Malaysian citizens; but some relatives still live in Chennai, the capital of the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

Card. Francis’ interest in his Indian roots was revived during the 11th Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2017 where he met several Indian prelates and delegates, including Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Thrissur, now President of the Indian Bishops’ Conference (ECBC).

On that occasion he invited him to visit his hometown in Kerala, organising a grand reception for him at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. On that occasion Francis told how his mother still cooked Kerala dishes, while his father ran an Indian restaurant called ‘Kera’ (coconut). In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lampur, the bishop’s brother still runs a restaurant of the same name.

Asked today by AsiaNews about the significance of his migrant roots, the newly appointed Cardinal replied: “Migrants do all the heavy work that locals tend to ignore and help the economy of developed and developing countries. They also bring with them cultural and spiritual treasures that give new dynamism to many countries. God bless migrants and their fruitful work.” – Asia News