By Robin Gomes
“The Catholic Church in Brunei, 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 Apostolic Vicar of Brunei, Cardinal Cornelius Sim described his flock in a recent interview with Vatican News.
Brunei recently came into the limelight when Pope Francis on 25 October announced that the head of the Catholic Church in the tiny nation would be among 13 new cardinals of the Catholic Church. The Pope officially inducted them into the College of Cardinal at a ceremony in the Vatican, called a consistory, on Nov. 28.
A tiny but prosperous Southeast Asian nation on the northeast coast of Borneo, Brunei has a very generous welfare programme, with most of its wealth coming from petroleum and gas. The vast majority of the country’s over 460,000 people profess Islam, the official religion of the country. However, others are allowed to practice their faiths in peace and harmony.
Brunei: a periphery within the periphery
Cardinal Sim heads Brunei’s Catholic community of some 16,000 faithful, 80% of whom are migrants or expatriates, mostly from the Philippines but also from other south-east Asian countries. They are catered to by 3 priests, all local Bruneians.
The 69-year old Apostolic Vicar feels that in making him a cardinal, Pope Francis wanted to “include forgotten communities, or communities that are not given much prominence, including those on the periphery”, which “neither ask nor 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 unlike the historic, “mega Churches” of the West, with their beautiful architectural monuments”.
“Perhaps,” he said, “Pope Francis also sees this might be an opportune moment to highlight communities like ours, not completely hidden, but still very much operating below the radar, so to speak, to say that we also present a face of the Church, which is not often seen.”
“We,” he said, “are the little flock of Luke 12:32,” where Jesus says: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”
In this regard, Cardinal Sim recalled a radio broadcast of then-Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1969, in which the future Pope Benedict XVI envisioned 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. 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.”
Continuing in this trend, Cardinal Sim sees a “downsizing of the Church” today, with certain parts of the worldwide Catholic community “grown old and tired” and haemorrhaging numbers. In this context, he believes that “little Churches”, like the one in Brunei, might perhaps have something to offer and share with these Churches.
Brunei Church feels blessed
Because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, Cardinal Sim and Philippine Archbishop Jose Advincula of Capiz were unable to be present at the consistory in the Vatican. They were declared cardinals by Pope Francis. Cardinal Sim followed the consistory which was streamed live from the Vatican.
He said that the personal letter that Pope Francis sent him three weeks earlier was read out at all the Masses. The cardinal explained that his appointment also reflected on the community that is living out the faith as best as it can, in a situation in which they are a minority. Perhaps, the cardinal said, this is what has impressed Pope Francis and those in Rome, and the community feels very happy to share in what he describes as an “achievement”.
A mix of cultures and colour
According to Cardinal Sim, Brunei’s 16,000-strong Catholic Church is “a very colourful community”.
“There is a spirit of animation in Church life through this mixing 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.”
Regarding the native Catholics, he admits that they are “much less likely to be involved in active Church life”. “This, perhaps, could be because they are better off financially, economically and socially than many of the migrant workers”
However, the large part of the Church’s spiritual and welfare efforts are dire.cted to the expatriates, without neglecting the needs of the local Catholics.
The Apostolic Vicar of Brunei is a qualified electrical engineer. With a diploma in electrical engineering from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1971, he went on to obtain a B.Sc. degree in electrical engineering from Dundee University, UK, in 1978. After working for some 10 years with the British–Dutch multinational oil and gas company Shell in Brunei and Europe, he made a major decision. He left a successful career and high-paying job and decided to study for the priesthood, much against his mother’s wish. He was ordained in 1989.
When Pope Saint John Paul II separated Brunei from the Diocese of Miri-Brunei and established the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei in 1998, he appointed Father Sim its prefect. When Brunei was raised to the rank of Apostolic Vicariate in Oct. 2004, he was appointed its first Apostolic Vicar. He thus became the country's first bishop. His episcopal ordination took place in Jan. 2005.
Asked whether his engineering background has been a help or a hindrance in his pastoral work, Cardinal Sim admitted that as an engineer, one could get too involved in the job without delegating power. “Being an engineer, of course, you are very focused on facts, techniques,” which are good but they also get on the way. “You tend to do a lot of troubleshooting but on the whole, 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 anything that you are given to do, as part of your job description.”
Dialogue of life and the common good
An important role of Brunei’s small Catholic community is inter-faith relations with Islam as well as with other religions. The Church of Brunei has 3 parishes and a mission station. Most of its apostolate is through its Catholic schools, 60-70 percent of whose students are Muslims. Hence, interaction and dialogue of life come naturally.
“In Brunei,” Cardinal Sim pointed out, people of different cultures engage in “dialogue of life”. Inter-religious dialogue for them, he said, “is less about theological discussion than about respecting others’ beliefs and interacting harmoniously in seeking the common good”.
This common good, he explained, consists in seeking a “safe and secure environment to raise a family”, living “a peaceful life with a reasonable hope of prosperity and personal advancement”. For this reason, he said, “the country's official name is Brunei Darussalam, which also means abode or dwelling place of peace”.
Catholics in Brunei have been living for 90 years amid a largely Muslim population, along with other religions, such as Buddhism. Through interaction and shared living at school, work and place, the cardinal said, “adherents of all these religions have lived peacefully together”.
“Working for the common good and development of all citizens and residents,” said Cardinal Sim, “provides the needed focus” that people need. Hence, “inter-religious dialogue and inter-religious exchanges are more at the level of sharing the same public and physical space”. At the same time, they make “allowances for each other's differences” and learn to adjust ourselves in the light of these values.