The retired archbishop of Kuala Lumpur and cardinal-designate, Anthony Soter Fernandez, has focused on needs of the poor for many years. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia's Cardinal-designate focused ministry on the needs of poor people

  • October 28, 2016

MANILA, Philippines – Close friends and associates of Cardinal-designate Anthony Soter Fernandez, retired archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have been waiting for years for the 84-year-old prelate to receive a red hat.

When he is elevated Nov. 19 by Pope Francis, he will be the first church leader in Malaysia to hold the title of cardinal.

Lawrence John Sinniah, vice president of SIGNIS, an international association of media professionals supporting Catholic communications, told Catholic News Service that he and his colleagues were "all excited" by the news.

"It's a right decision and a very warm and welcome decision that he got it. There are others also in the Malaysian context, but he takes the cake for that because no one comes close to him," Sinniah said.

"I think now this will give visibility to what he has spoken all along ... about his faith and spirituality, about justice and peace, issues that he has been very concerned about," he said.

Cardinal-elect Fernandez, a hospital assistant from the age of 15 until he entered seminary 11 years later, became a priest at 34 and focused on catechism and priestly formation while teaching at College General, an interdiocesan seminary in Penang, Malaysia.

In 1978, the cardinal-elect was named bishop of Penang, taking "justice and peace" as his motto. He later served on the board and then chaired the Office of Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. He became archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, in 1983 and retired 20 years later.

Father Bonnie Mendes, who now heads the Manila-based office, worked with Cardinal-designate Fernandez.

Father Mendes told CNS he was thrilled about the new designation of his friend, who he said "should have made it" to cardinal back when he was bishop of Penang.

"He was one of the greats of Asia," said Father Mendes of Faisalabad, Pakistan. "He was one of the outstanding men who was prepared to learn from the others."

Father Mendes, who was Cardinal-designate Fernandez's executive secretary, said his former supervisor supported the staff in many ways especially when they were being questioned about instituting changes in the way they approached peace and justice issues.

"At that time ... the social perspective, looking at things from the point of view of the poor, of the people living in the margins ... people in slums, and workers, people frowned and said, 'Why is the church going down to that level? Making bishops stay with the poor and all that?' But he would be willing to go and stay with the poor," the priest said.

The priest also said in the 1970s and 1980s, Cardinal-designate Fernandez was one of the Asian pioneers in interreligious dialogue, helping deepen the church's understanding of Islam.

Sinniah described Cardinal-designate Fernandez as a humble person, "who always listens, sees good in everyone" and holds a "deep sense of spirituality." He said the prelate, whom always served meals to others first before sitting down to eat, "does not make rash decisions."

Several people, including a Malaysian parliamentarian and several prominent social activists whose lives and careers were shaped by the cardinal-designate, Sinniah added. "(They) have benefited a lot and are now doing what the faith calls for," he said.

The archdiocese said Cardinal-designate Fernandez remains busy today, serving as chaplain and feeding homebound priests at the home for the aged where he lives. Cardinal-elect Fernandez also accompanies the Little Sisters of the Poor during their hospital visits.

Sinniah, who called the cardinal-elect a "teddy bear always ready with a hug" said he was trying to secure a slot with the delegation going to Rome for the archbishop's elevation.

"He said, 'Look, L.J., I don't know anything about that ... not I even know when I'm going or when I'm returning,'" Sinniah said. "So he's like that. He's not into all this (pomp and circumstance). We have been blessed that he is receiving this (designation) and so ... whatever he's told to do, he'll just do it."

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