Cardinal Cornelius Sim, Brunei’s vicar apostolic and first Catholic priest, died Saturday in a hospital in Taiwan at the age of 69.
A letter from the Apostolic Vicariate in Brunei said that Sim had been quarantined at the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital since his arrival in Taiwan on May 8 to receive medical treatment, reportedly for cancer.
“Let us pray for his soul and for the vicariate. May his soul rest in peace,” Msgr. Robert Leong, the vicariate vicar general wrote in the cardinal’s death announcement.
Pope Francis made Sim the first cardinal in the history of Brunei in the most recent Consistory of Cardinals in November 2020. Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Sim from traveling to Rome for the event, which he followed live via video link.
Cardinal Sim led the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam for nearly two decades.
His 1989 ordination to the priesthood marked the first time a native Bruneian was ordained a Catholic priest for the country, which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia.
He was appointed Prefect of Brunei in 1999, then Vicar Apostolic in 2004, and he was consecrated a bishop in January 2005.
The vicariate has a total of three Catholic priests who serve the roughly 20,000 Catholics that live in Brunei, a small but wealthy state on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia.
Sim once described the Church in Brunei as “periphery within a periphery,” recalling Pope Francis’ affection for “those little places where there is not much publicity” but where the faith is alive.
Brunei is a developed country of 2,200 square miles with much wealth coming from its oil and gas industries. Malay is the official language, but English and Chinese are both widely spoken.
The country is an absolute monarchy led by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. About 70% of the the population is Muslim, and a version of Islam is the official religion.
Around 13% of the population of some 460,000 people are Buddhist, 10% have no religion, and a small number have indigenous beliefs. Christians, half of whom are Catholic, make up about 10% of Brunei's population.
The Catholic Church has had a presence in Brunei for over 90 years. It has three Catholic schools where an estimated 60% to 70% of students are Muslim.
In Brunei, Sim was known for prioritizing biblical formation, youth and family pastoral care, evangelization, social welfare, and the promotion of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Sim was born in Brunei in 1951 as the first of six children in a Catholic family. Before he discerned his vocation to the priesthood, Sim earned a degree in engineering in Scotland at Dundee University.
He was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 31 and obtained a Master’s degree in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Sim served as a parish priest in Brunei before he was appointed vicar general of Brunei in 1995 and then made apostolic prefect in 1997.
On October 20, 2004, Saint John Paul II elevated the Prefecture of Brunei to the rank of Apostolic Vicariate.
Bishop Sebastian Francis, the president of the bishops’ conference of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, said May 29 that the details of Sim’s funeral will be made available at a later date and asked for prayers and Masses to be offered for the later cardinal.
“Let us be in communion with his family members, clergy, religious and all of the faithful of Brunei in this moment of loss and bereavement,” Bishop Francis said.
Pope Francis extended condolences in a telegram sent to Wojciech Załuski, the apostolic delegate to Brunei Darussalam, following the announcement of Sim's death.
"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," Pope Francis said.
"To all who mourn the late Cardinal’s passing in the sure hope of the Resurrection I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of consolation and peace in Jesus, the firstborn of the dead."
This story has been updated on May 29 to include the telegram sent by Pope Francis.