A new cardinal from Malaysia?

Let us do good while we still have time, and we will render glory to our heavenly Father, sanctify ourselves, and give good example to others.

– St Padre Pio, Italian priest

With the death of Cardinal Cornelius Sim on May 29, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (CBC-MSB) is now without a ‘Prince of the Church’.

The question is: Will Pope Francis appoint another bishop from CBC-MSB to the College of Cardinals? If so, will he be a Malaysian?

Sim’s demise while undergoing cancer treatment in Taiwan was a shock, given that he was relatively young at 69 and that he was given a red hat by Pope Francis only six months ago on November 28, 2020.

However, it must be stressed that the appointment of cardinals is solely at the discretion of the Pope. It is not as if that since Sim was a CBC-MSB member, there is now a cardinal vacancy to be filled by another member of the group. This is not the case.

Since its formation in 1964, the episcopal conference has never seen a cardinal until 2016 when Archbishop Emeritus Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur was appointed the first cardinal from Malaysia. By then, Soter had already retired.

Cardinal Soter died last October at a ripe old age of 88. Sim’s passing last Saturday means that the grouping lost two ‘princes of the Church’ within seven months. This is unexpected and quite tragic to the dioceses and Catholics in the region.

Coincidentally, in this column on April 21, I had written about Sim, expressing my surprise at how tiny Brunei with only 20,000 Catholics and three priests managed to get a cardinal.

Now, we know, even if only for six short months. Better believe it. The One Above works in mysterious ways; almost impossible to comprehend at times, except for a very strong faith perhaps.

The last time Pope Francis held a consistory for the appointment of new cardinals was on Nov 28 last year. The event was to induct 13 new cardinals, one of whom was Sim. However, the Brunei prelate did not make it to the consistory in Rome due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

I know very little about Vatican affairs nor able to read the mind of the Holy Father. However, I doubt Pope Francis will be appointing new cardinals any time soon. Let me explain why I think so.

How many cardinals are there at present? According to Wikipedia, there are currently 203 cardinals from 69 countries.

However, only 128 are below 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave for the successor of St Peter. Of these, Pope Francis created 88 from 56 countries.

With more than enough cardinals to choose his successor in the event of his death or incapacitation, I doubt Pope Francis is in a hurry to appoint new cardinals. This is because no vacancy exists even upon the death of a cardinal. This is not how Vatican works.

Let me attempt a speculative story as a matter of interest. This subject of hierarchy within the Catholic Church interests me and I am also Catholic.

Assuming that Pope Francis wants a replacement for the late Cardinal Sim and he asks the CBC-MSB members to nominate one of their brother bishops for the position.

Who do you think the members will choose?

First, let us look at the members of the conference. They are the Archbishops of Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Singapore; bishops from the Diocese of Penang, Melaka-Johor, Keningau, Sandakan, Sibu, Miri and Brunei.

The current CBC-MSB president is Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang. I gather that the bishops rotate the presidency among themselves. As for seniority among the brother bishops, I guess respect and reverence is shown more for age rather than position.

So who among the CBC-MSB members will likely be nominated?

Last Saturday, I happened to be sharing news of Cardinal Sim’s demise with Kuching Archbishop Simon Poh and asked His Grace tongue-in cheek: “What about Simon Poh as the new cardinal from Malaysia?”

“Let KL or Singapore archbishop be the cardinal. I am much younger at 58,” was Poh’s polite and humble response.

Anyway, I did a search and found out that Singapore Archbishop William Goh is 64 while Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow is 57. The youngest of the 11 CBC-MSB bishops is Kota Kinabalu Archbishop John Wong at 52.

All 11 of them are eligible to wear the special red biretta. Only Pope Francis has the power to choose the “princes of the Church”.

It dawned on me that St John Paul II was only 58 years old when he was elected pope in 1978.

So, I reminded my dear Kuching archbishop that – Pope John Paul was 58, you are now 58.

Why not, another cardinal from Borneo, following in the blessed footsteps of the dearly departed Cardinal Cornelius Sim.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune. Feedback can reach the writer at sirsiah@gmail.com