The first Catholic cardinal of Brunei has offered a glimpse of how it is to be a Church in the “periphery.”
He said Churches like theirs “don’t make the headlines,” adding that the Church in Brunei is “generally required to live our Christian faith without drawing attention to ourselves.”
The apostolic vicar of Brunei was among the 13 new cardinals that Pope Francis created in a consistory in the Vatican on Nov. 28.
The cardinal said his appointment was a recognition of their small Catholic community and “the contribution that little churches make to the Universal Church.”
“We’re small, but I think we do contribute. We are people that love the Church. I’m not saying that because that’s a nice thing to say, but you know, the Church is our mother,” said the cardinal in an earlier interview.
Cardinal Sim, however, was not able to travel to the Vatican for the consistory and to receive his biretta due to the restrictions brought by the new coronavirus pandemic.
In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II appointed then-Father Sim as apostolic vicar and the first local bishop of Brunei, a small Southeast Asian country that is predominantly Muslim.
A tiny but prosperous Southeast Asian nation on the northeast coast of Borneo, Brunei has a very generous welfare program with most of its wealth coming from petroleum and gas.
The vast majority of the country’s over 460,000 people are Muslims. Only about 16,000 people are Catholics, mostly migrants or expatriates from the Philippines.
Aside from the 69-year-old Cardinal Sim, three other priests serve as pastors for the Catholic community.
The cardinal said the Church in Brunei is unlike the “mega Churches” of the West that have “beautiful architectural monuments.”
Cardinal Sim, however, said their small Church lives in “a spirit of animation” through the mixing of traditions from different countries that were brought by the migrants.
“The local community is enriched and made aware of these practices, through music, dance and devotions,” he said.
He noted, however, that native Catholics are “much less likely to be involved in active church life … because they are better off financially, economically and socially than many of the migrant workers.”
“The large part of the Church’s spiritual and welfare efforts are directed to the expatriates, without neglecting the needs of the local Catholics,” said the cardinal.
He said people of different cultures engage in a “dialogue of life,” adding that inter-religious dialogue for them “is less about theological discussion than about respecting others’ beliefs and interacting harmoniously in seeking the common good.”
Cardinal Sim is an electrical engineer with a diploma from Dundee University in the United Kingdom.
After working for about ten years with the British–Dutch multinational oil and gas company Shell in Brunei and Europe, he decided to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1989.
When Pope St. John Paul II separated Brunei from the Diocese of Miri-Brunei and established the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei in 1998, he appointed Father Sim as its prefect.
When Brunei was raised to the rank of apostolic vicariate in October 2004, he was appointed its first apostolic vicar. His episcopal ordination took place in January 2005.