“Jesus’ way of acting is from person to person, being small with the little ones”, cardinal-designate Cornelius Sim has said.

– “I don’t know if they will send me a book of instructions, and I hope they won’t give me too much work…”

Last October 25 Pope Francis surprised the world by announcing that he would make Sim a cardinal, thus converting the vicar apostolic of Brunei in the first man from the tiny south-east Asian country to wear the red hat.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for Sim to travel to Rome for the consistory this Saturday, but the prelate told Madrid archdiocesan publication Alfa y Omega in a November 26 interview that he was still looking forward to a celebration in January when the nuncio in Malaysia hopefully visits.

“Being a cardinal is a surprise”, Sim admitted. “But for people like me it is wise to accept because it is a kind of recognition of people [in Brunei]. I hope it means that the Church here has qualities that the Holy Father considers good, that Catholics are living their faith well”.

Sim went on to joke of his new role: “I don’t know if they will send me a book of instructions, and I hope they won’t give me too much work… I already have it here. And I’m sure they won’t take me to Rome”.

– “Where the Church is large and tends to operate on a large scale, that can intimidate people”

Sim certainly does have his work cut out for him in Brunei, where the Church has just three priests – apart from the cardinal-designate – to attend to a large contingent of mostly Filipino Catholic expatriate workers and a burgeoning network of local faithful and schools.

That being said, the Church in Brunei remains tiny in global terms, although for Sim far from being a problem that small size actually has its benefits.

The vicar apostolic and bishop said “many” elements of the biblical story have to do with small people and things that are too often overlooked. “King David, the youngest of seven brothers, was not even on the list to be elected king. Our Lady was from Nazareth, a small village from which Nathanael later said nothing good could come”, Sim recalled.

“Sometimes there is a prejudice against the little ones, but they too have something to say”, the cardinal-designate continued, explaining that in the case of the Church in Brunei its treasure is the wisdom it has acquired from being “a minority in a Muslim country and adapting to our environment”.

“Many times we are asked to remain silent, to be invisible, contributing to society without attracting much attention. I believe that where the Church is large and tends to operate on a large scale, that can intimidate people. Jesus’ way of acting is from person to person, being small with the little ones”, Sim affirmed.

– Infighting in Church “not very pleasant”, “does not show the face of Jesus”

The cardinal-designate was asked for the vision he and other citizens, Catholics or not, in faraway Brunei have of the global Church, and he lamented that that view reveals an image that is “not very pleasant” and, moreover, “does not show the face of Jesus”.

“I always say that we [in the Church] seem like tribes that always have problems with each other”, Sim deplored.

“Obviously, whenever there are more than two people there is ‘politics’, but not as reflected in the media: conservatives and liberals, left and right… Reading such things in this part of the world is disturbing because the rest of the population may get a wrong idea of what Catholicism is. It is not the Gospel. If I were not a Catholic and saw the news…”, the cardinal-designate reflected.

– “Rigid” Western theology must learn to deal “with the grey areas”

Asked for what the Church in Asia can teach the global Church, Sim suggested one lesson could be to learn to think in shades of grey, as the Church in Brunei is forced to do, for example, as it continually tries to overcome legal bans on proselytism and conversion.

Catholics in Brunei “learn to interact with others, to appreciate the best in others and at the same time to keep our faith without giving in”, Sim said of the challenges of being a religious minority.

“It is not just something in black and white. Sometimes Western theology tends to be quite rigid, it does not deal well with the grey areas. I think that’s why there are so many culture wars. There are people who are happy when their ideas are very clear, and I appreciate that. But at the same time you have to deal with other realities”, he explained.

Particularly in the shadow of majorities of other religions Catholics “have to know how to adapt. And we are more used to this than Westerners”, Sim concluded.

“For us it is not important to quickly win a debate, but rather the process of listening, of adapting. I believe that this is something that Asia can teach”.

More on Novena on this Saturday’s consistory:

Get to know the new red hats: Pope names 13 new cardinals, announces consistory for November 28

Cardinal-elect Lojudice: “All I have ever done is always take the side of the weak”

Cardinal-elect Cantalamessa renounces ordination as bishop to continue being a “simple priest” allowed “to die in my Franciscan habit”

Analysis by Novena US contributor Matt Kappadakunnel: By naming Wilton Gregory a cardinal, the Pope is sending a powerful message that Black Lives Matter

Novena’s coverage of the global Church


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.