Malaysia’s first cardinal, Anthony Soter Fernandez, dies at 88

Malaysia’s first Catholic cardinal, Anthony Soter Fernandez, died on Oct. 28. He was 88 years old.

The retired prelate was earlier diagnosed with cancer and had undergone several medical procedures since November.

He died in his sleep at St. Francis Xavier Home for the Elderly in the town of Cheras.

“We extend our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to … all the bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, to his family and friends,” read a statement from the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the FABC, said that the passing of Cardinal Fernandez is being mourned by thousands.

“His eminence followed the great example of the Good Shepherd by knowing his flock intimately, infusing pastoral concern into his long mission,” Cardinal Bo said.

“His memory is one of a considerate and compassionate pastor, investing his energy in the deepening of the faith of the people, building systems and processes that promoted a Church affirming the Vatican II concept of people of God,” he said.

Born on April 22, 1932, in Sungai Patani in the Diocese of Penang, Cardinal Fernandez was ordained into the priesthood in 1966.

He was appointed as bishop of Penang by Pope St. John Paul II in 1977 and Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur in 1983, and made cardinal by Pope Francis in November 2016.

He was a priest for 53 years, a bishop for 42, and a cardinal for three years.

Cardinal Fernandez served as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei from 1987 to 1990 and then again from 2000 to 2003.

From 1981 to 1982, he was a member of the Office of Education and Student Chaplaincy of the FABC before it was renamed to the Office of Education and Faith Formation in 2008.

For five years, from 1984 to 1989, Cardinal Fernandez was with the Office of Human Development of the federation.

“He is truly a faithful member of the FABC,” read the federation’s statement signed by Father William LaRousse, MM, assistant secretary general of FABC.

“The FABC family will surely miss his wisdom and expertise but will continue to receive his continuous blessings and protection from above,” added the statement.

Cardinal Fernandez was known to be one of the architects of the 1976 “pastoral renewal” of the local Church in Malaysia, which identified the need for “Christ-centered communities.”

He was also known as an advocate and pioneer in promoting the use of the national language in the local Church “as a sign of our commitment to and love for our country.”

He said the Church must pay more attention to the local language and culture if it is to remain faithful to the post-Vatican Council II idea of inculturation.

He was the first bishop to use Bahasa Malaysia in his episcopal motto, “Keadilan dan Keamanan,” which means “Justice and Peace.”

Cardinal Fernandez had his early education in Klian Pauh Convent, Taiping, from 1940 to 1941.

His studies were disrupted by World War II, but he continued his education at St. Theresa School and Ibrahim School in Sungei Petani.

Following the death of his father in 1946, he had to put aside his studies and assume the role of bread winner for the family.

According to those who were familiar of the cardinal’s early years, his main priority was to care for his mother and to ensure that his younger brother would get a proper education.

He worked as a hospital assistant from 1947 to 1954.

He joined the minor seminary in Singapore in 1958 at the age of 26. He completed his priestly formation at College General in 1966 and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Dominic Vendargon on Dec. 10 of the same year.

His first assignment after ordination was as assistant priest and later parish priest at the Church of St. Louis in Taiping where he served for three years.

He later attended the International Training Institute for World Churchmen and the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, Philippines.

In 1972, he attended the Intensive Training Institute at the National Biblical Catechetical-Liturgical Centre in Bangalore, India.

In 1973, he was appointed as a professor in College General to initiate students into the priestly life. When the post of rector became vacant in 1975, he was appointed rector.

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