ROME – Catholicism lost one of its newest, and coolest, shepherds today with the death of Cardinal Cornelius Sim of Brunei, a well-traveled charismatic who was given a red hat by Pope Francis less than a year ago.
In a May 29 statement, Monsignor Robert Leong, vicar general of the apostolic vicariate of Brunei Darussalam which Sim led, said that “it is with heavy heart that I announce the passing of His Eminence, Cornelius Cardinal Sim.”
Sim, 69, died from cardiac arrest just before 8:30a.m. Saturday morning at the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taoyuan, Taiwan, where he was undergoing treatment for cancer.
He arrived in Taiwan for treatment May 8, and was quarantined while waiting for cell treatment therapy, Leong said, noting that the hospital “attended to his health condition everyday but unfortunately everything they did, doesn’t seem to be very effective.”
“(Sim) gradually became weaker and has lost most of his vitality,” Leong said, adding, “Sadly, he passed away this morning.”
After receiving news of the cardinal’s death, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei released their own statement saying they are “deeply saddened” by Sim’s death and invited both faithful and clergy to pray for Sim during their prayers and weekend Masses.
“Let us be in communion with his family members, clergy, religious, and all the faithful of Brunei in this moment of loss and bereavement,” they said.
Pope Francis also voiced his sorrow for Sim’s passing in a telegram addressed to Archbishop Wojciech Załuski, Vatican envoy to Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, and Timor Leste, extending his “heartfelt condolences to the clergy, religious and laity of the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei.”
“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,” he said, and offered his blessing “as a pledge of consolation and peace in Jesus, the firstborn of the dead,” to all those mourning Sim’s passing.
Funeral arrangements for Sim have not yet been announced.
Born in 1951, Sim was the eldest of six children and was ordained a priest in 1989, becoming one of the few native clergy in the area. He was named bishop in 2004 and was one of 13 prelates given a red hat by Pope Francis in November 2020, making him Brunei’s first cardinal.
His death comes as a surprise, given his age and the recentness of his appointment as cardinal.
In a conversation with Crux shortly before his elevation as a cardinal, Sim emerged as a hip prelate with broad international experience and who easily related to today’s youth.
Grandson to the first Catholics in his village, Sim grew distant from the Catholic church as he grew up. After finishing school, he traveled to Scotland where he got a degree in engineering. Shortly after returning to Brunei, Sim’s father died, which threw him into a personal crisis that left him wanting to escape home for a while. So, he went to work in Europe, but returned after a few years, struggling to find meaning in life.
Sim’s parish priest at the time encouraged him to go back to Mass, which he did. He later got involved with a charismatic group and decided to study theology, so in 1985 he enrolled at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
It was here that Sim said he became a “card-carrying charismatic,” and remained a self-described “crypto-charismatic” for the rest of his life.
After returning to Brunei in 1988, Sim said he was “hijacked” into the priesthood after being approached by one of his village’s few local pastors, who asked him about joining the seminary. Sim said his initial reaction was, “Oh, hell no!” but that after taking a retreat and praying about it, he decided, “What the heck, I’ll go along for the ride.”
He became Brunei’s first bishop in 2004 and was known for his closeness to his people. Instead of going to Rome for his episcopal ordination, he asked Pope John Paul II for permission to hold the locally, so faithful from Brunei could participate in the ordination of their first native bishop. That request was accepted.
When Sim found out he would become a cardinal, he doubled down on priority areas such as the family and the environment, as well as migration, healthcare, social communications and promoting knowledge of the bible.
Although he did not survive long enough to implement any long-term action plans in these areas, and while his reign as Brunei’s first cardinal was short-lived, the legacy of his unique life and his reputation as a pastor of the people on the peripheries will undoubtably be engrained in the memory of the Church of Brunei for years to come.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen