[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Cardinal-designate Sebastian Francis of Penang, Malaysia.]
ROME – Malaysia’s new red hat recipient, Cardinal-Designate Sebastian Francis of Penang, has praised Pope Francis’s attention to the Asian continent and has backed stronger engagement with China, saying the upcoming papal trip to Mongolia will be of keen interest.
Speaking to Crux via Zoom, Francis said that “at the level of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC), we are very conscious that we want China to be very much a part of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, and we hope to see their participation more and more at this level.”
“The pope is going to Mongolia soon, and for us that is very significant, because Mongolia is in a very interesting and strategic position between China and Russia, so I’m sure whatever he says from there will be useful for us to help us forge stronger bonds with China and with all other Asian countries,” he said.
Pope Francis, he said, “shares so much the Asian psyche, the Asian ethos, and the Asian culture, and we are very comfortable, very happy, with the direction that at least the FABC is taking in forging very strong bonds between all the countries and all the nations of Asia, including China.”
On his appointment as a cardinal, Francis jested that his first reaction was, “There goes my privacy, personal freedom and liberty.”
“All bishops should have their sleeves rolled up and ready to be called upon, whether you are expecting it or not expecting it, to help the pope to govern the universal church,” he said.
In his conversation with Crux, Francis also spoke about the church in Malaysia and the vibrancy of Asia’s youthful population, as well as Pope Francis’s penchant interest in Asia, the upcoming World Youth Day in Seoul, a potential papal visit to India next year, and the looming Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October.
Below is the first part of Crux’s interview with Cardinal-designate Sebastian Francis.
Crux: What was your reaction when you found out about your nomination as a cardinal, and what does the appointment mean to you personally, but also to the church in Malaysia?
Francis: My reaction on being appointed is, There goes my privacy, personal freedom and liberty!
All bishops should have their sleeves rolled up and ready to be called upon, whether you are expecting it or not expecting it, to help the pope to govern the universal church. There’s a lot of hype about this kind of appointment, and it is understandable, but I would like to say that the successors of the apostles are the bishops, the college of bishops, and not the college of cardinals. Of course, many cardinals are bishops, but there are members of the college of cardinals who are not bishops.
Historically, they have even been laypersons as well as priests, so I think it is important that the successors of the apostles are primarily the college of bishops. The college of cardinals have a very serious responsibility put on them to elect the new pope. Therefore, there’s a lot of excitement whatever cardinals are appointed. It’s a serious responsibility and one has to get used to it.
There are many cardinals, including many in this consistory, who are close advisors to the pope and share his pastoral vision and priorities. Do you also see your role as also being an advisor too, in addition to electing the next pope?
It’s up to the pope to call upon any of us to assist him in a more tangible way to be involved in the governance of the church, but otherwise, at least in the letter that he sent to me on July 9 this year, I think he put the emphasis on the right place. He speaks about implanting the faith in every culture, he speaks about enculturation of the faith, he speaks about the evangelization of cultures, and he focuses on that rather than a big part of whatever is happening in Rome.
If he calls upon us to help in different dicasteries, we will have to respond accordingly, but more importantly is to be this presence wherever the cardinal is based and draw the world, in a way. He emphasized a lot the universality of the church, and he gave the example of Pentecost as the underlying motive for this; that universality was revealed at Pentecost, and universality is a call that he has addressed to us to really emphasize regardless of where we are, whether we are based in Rome or in Asia, or anywhere.
It’s a question of spreading out and getting down to the ground-level, rather than concentrating everything in Rome or at the Vatican. One has to get in there with an open mind, that’s it.
Speaking of the universality of the church, this is something Pope Francis has emphasized a lot, including with his cardinal appointments. Do you sense that in his ten years as pope, these efforts from Francis have succeeded in broadening the vision of global Catholicism?
I think that sensing this difference is something that began with Vatican II, and all the popes since then have worked on it consistently in a consistent way, to make the church more…it is not a concession, I don’t think we should look at it as a concession or a game of numbers. I don’t think that should be the attitude. It should be a question of really going back to our roots. I think it is going back to our roots rather than trying to put a balance right between Europe and the rest of the world. (That is) not so prominent in my consciousness.
Can you talk a bit about the church in Malaysia? What makes it unique? What are its strengths, and the challenges it faces?
Malaysia is a potpourri of Asia, so that makes it interesting and unique, that the whole of Asia is in some way reflected in Malaysia. Of course, China is at home in Malaysia and Malaysia is at home with the Chinese language and culture. India is another huge country with its culture and languages, which is all in some interesting way present in Malaysia. Also, being a British colony, we are at home in English.
We have a large number of migrants and refugees from all over Asia. I think Malaysia has that flavor of giving us quite a cosmopolitan, quite a pan-Asian feel and experience. We shift from language to language, from culture to culture, from diet to diet, with all these spans of people, including (from) the west, on a daily basis, so it makes us quite universal.
It is not a question of being a minority. Of course, Malay is the national language, Islam is the religion of the country, but I don’t like to use words like ‘majority’ and ‘minority,’ very often that leads towards all kinds of concepts of domination and control and all that. We just have to learn to live with it, and accept it, and to challenge it when necessary.
How are interreligious relations? Would you say it’s a tolerant society?
It’s a monarchal democracy, but democracy is quite vibrant and quite open and quite alive. Whoever the leaders are in power are elected by the people, so in that sense I think it’s a healthy democracy and it’s becoming healthier these days.
Generally, I would think Malaysia has a good degree of interreligious harmony and interreligious mutual respect, though one religion is the so-called religion of the nation. It’s pretty reasonable. The constitution is firmly in place, and it allows all to be present and to exercise their identity, their rights without interfering with each other.
Tensions of religion are all over the world, and I think there are sufficient leaders who are open to dialogue, open to interfaith relationships, harmony, open to coming together and having a relationship with one another on a platform of solidarity and fraternity.
Regarding China, the pope has a very clear China policy and has been very intentional about engaging in dialogue with Chinese authorities, including with the 2018 agreement on episcopal appointments. How have these efforts been seen by Malaysians? Are they concerned, or would you say they are supportive?
I can say that at the level of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC), we are very conscious that we want China to be very much a part of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, and we hope to see their participation more and more at this level.
The pope is going to Mongolia soon, and for us that is very significant, because Mongolia is in a very interesting and strategic position between China and Russia, so I’m sure whatever he says from there will be useful for us to help us forge stronger bonds with China and with all other Asian countries. He shares so much the Asian psyche, the Asian ethos, and the Asian culture, and we are very comfortable, very happy, with the direction that at least the FABC is taking in forging very strong bonds between all the countries and all the nations of Asia, including China.
Are you optimistic that China would have a presence in the FABC soon? The Vatican has been talking about opening a liaison office in Beijing, so if that happens do you think it would help facilitate the participation of China in entities such as the FABC?
Officially, China is part of us and is always invited to be present at all of our major gatherings. There’s a lot of movement and visitation and things like that.
Do you have a message that you are expecting from Pope Francis, something you would like to hear him say while he’s in Mongolia?
I’m sure he will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to say the right things respecting all of the things concerned, respecting the role of Mongolia as an independent nation, respecting their proximity to China and to Russia, two big powers. I’m sure he will be inspired to say the right things to enhance this relationship.
Pope Francis has also talked about visiting India next year. If he does go, what would a papal visit to Asia mean at this point?
We are quite used to having him around. He has been to so many Asian countries already. The few that come to my mind are Korea, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the next World Youth Day is in Korea. I think Asia is ready to receive him and many of our heads of government are open to welcome him. He will feel at home, wherever he visits in Asia.
As you mentioned the next World Youth Day will be in Asia, in Seoul. How was this news received? I know it’s still early, but are there already plans for sending groups? How many Malaysians would you like to see attend the event?
We will surely be there in big numbers, because it is close to us and we have many Koreans who are in Malaysia and work here, and a good number of them are Catholics. Asia is very young. We have a huge population that is young. So, I think, I hope, I pray that Asia will remain young, where the demographics are very, very healthy in terms of young and old, because family is still very important in Asia.
I think we will have to build upon all of these existing values and the cultural ethos of Asia which has kept Asia young. That is something we will have to look at: how come Asia has remained young when so many other countries are seeing a deteriorating population? World Youth Day will be something quite exciting for us here in Asia as a whole, as a whole.
What is the presence of young people like in the church? How many of them practice, and how involved are they in church life?
Generally, you do not get the feeling that they are absent in our churches, at least I speak for Malaysia and Singapore. They are quite vibrant, they have their own ministries that are managed by them, where young people reach out to young people, it’s not about older people looking after the younger ones and telling them what to do, but it is young people looking after young people. I think that kind of orientation has kept the young people still very much within the embrace of the church.
Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this report.
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