By Robin Gomes
Cardinal Cornelius Sim, the first cardinal of Brunei, the tiny Southeast Asian state in the island of Borneo, passed away in Taiwan on Saturday, 29 May.
Pope Francis sent his condolences to all the faithful of the Church in Brunei later that same day.
“With gratitude for Cardinal Sim’s faithful witness to the Gospel, his generous service to the Church in Brunei and to the Holy See, I willingly join the faithful in praying for his eternal rest,” said the Pope.
He extended his Apostolic Blessing upon all who mourn the late Cardinal, “as a pledge of consolation and peace in Jesus, the firstborn of the dead.”
Suffering from poor health
Fr. Robert Leong, the Vicar General of the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam, announced Cardinal Sim’s death in a statement on Saturday.
The 69-year-old native of Brunei passed away at around 8:28 am in Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (CGMH), Taoyuan City, Taiwan. After his arrival at the hospital on May 8, the cardinal had to undergo a regulation quarantine before undergoing cell therapy treatment.
“They attended to his health condition every day but unfortunately everything they did, doesn’t seem to be very effective. He gradually became weaker and has lost most of his vitality. Sadly, he passed away this morning,” Fr. Leong said. The funeral will be announced at a later date, he said, urging all to pray for his soul and for the Vicariate.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, also announced his death, saying he passed away “due to cardiac arrest”.
The Catholic weekly newspaper, Herald Malaysia, said he died while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Engineer turned pastor
Cardinal Sim was born on 16 September 1951, the eldest in a family of 6 children. The qualified electrical engineer had a diploma in electrical engineering from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1971, after which he obtained a B.Sc. degree in electrical engineering from Dundee University, UK, in 1978.
After a successful career of 10 years with the British–Dutch multinational oil and gas company Shell in Brunei and in Europe, he made a major decision to study for the priesthood, much against his mother’s wish. He obtained a master’s degree in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, in 1988.
After returning to Brunei in 1988 he served as administrator at St John’s Church in Kuala Belait until his ordination as deacon on 28 May 1989.
Brunei’s first native clergyman
At his priestly ordination on 26 November 1989, Father Cornelius Sim became the first native priest of Brunei.
In 1995 he was appointed the Vicar General of what was then Miri-Brunei Diocese, and 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 became an Vicariate Apostolic on 20 October 2004, he became its Vicar Apostolic.
At his consecration on 21 January 2005, he became the first native bishop of Brunei. On 28 November 2020, he was among 13 candidates whom Pope Francis made cardinals at the consistory.
However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and health reasons, he could not attend the consistory in Rome, but the Pope sent him the cardinal’s red hat and ring to Brunei.
On 16 December 2020, he was named a member of the Congregation for the Clergy. Cardinal Sim was cardinal for exactly 6 months.
Shepherd of expatriate Catholic community
Assisted by 3 priests, Cardinal Sim headed the tiny Catholic community of Brunei, which is mainly made up of some 20,000 expatriate workers.
The wealthy oil- and gas-rich nation has a population of some 500,000 people, more than 70% percent of whom are Muslim.
In an interview with Vatican News, the late cardinal had said that the main task of the Bruneian Church is to “provide a home away from home” for the largely migrant Catholic community.
Hence, the Church tries its best to support them, especially in times of trouble such as illness or death. It also helps them financially and with food assistance programmes.
Following the death of Cardinal Sim, the number of cardinals worldwide now stands at 222 cardinals, from 87 countries. Of these, 125 are below 80 years of age and, therefore, are eligible to vote for a new pope in the case of a conclave. The rest 97 are non-electors.