10/02/2023, 14.09
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Card Francis: inculturation and universality, the challenges for the Church in Malaysia

by Dario Salvi

The bishop of Penang is one of 21 cardinals who received their biretta from Pope Francis. He is enthusiastic about a youthful reality that is a source of hope for the mission. Relations with Muslims are marked by trust and fraternity. He will bring to the synod the voice of Asian families and their contribution to the future.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang (Malaysia) is among the 21 new cardinals created by the pontiff on 30 September during a ceremony held in St Peter's Square.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said, “Pope Francis told me to concentrate and focus my mission on the inculturation of the faith" in his country, promoting the path of evangelisation in the local culture and "work for the universality, not uniformity of the Church.”

In his view, "These factors are the starting points of my mission in a new context, but always linked to the direction indicated by the pope, which we must follow."

Card Francis was born on 11 November 1951 in what was then the Federation of Malaya, the son of migrant parents from Kerala (India).  

Appointed as bishop of Penang in 2011, he is the second Malaysian in the country’s history to become cardinal after Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur, a former bishop of Penang (1977-1983) who passed away in 2020 at the age of 88.

About a hundred people – members of his family, priests and nuns, as well as people from his diocese and the capital – travelled to Rome to attend the ceremony that saw him elevated to the rank of cardinal.

With respect to evangelisation, the cardinal explained, "both Malaysia and the Asian continent as a whole are still young,” with a low average age and a youthful population in several countries.

The Church itself is young, and this "gives us so much strength, so much hope, and so much confidence. The enthusiasm of young people is always an element of hope and trust. Young people show the way and guarantee the strength to follow it".

Thus, his “appointment as cardinal is a source of great enthusiasm and for new priests it becomes an example and stimulus" to continue along their path.

As for Asia, citing Saint John Paul II who saw the continent as a "shared task" for the Church in the third millennium, Card Francis stressed that in this "important reality" for the future the goal is "to serve, not dominate".

"We are called to proclaim the Gospel, to proclaim the word of God" with the mission in mind. This “is our contribution to the universal Church: to commit ourselves to the task of proclaiming” with even greater vigour at a time when “the Church seems to be growing in Asia.”

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, as much as Indonesia, among Muslims "who genuinely love God and who are generally open to interaction and dialogue,” the response to the prelate’s new role was one of shared joy, “Many congratulated me,” Card Francis said.

To proclaim the Gospel and to evangelise without running into the danger of proselytising, it is necessary "to nurture good relationships and promote meetings between people, to establish trust, fraternity" guided "by the Holy Spirit".

Asked about his presence as synodal father at the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which begins two days from now, Card Francis explained that "the Church in Asia must share and proclaim the Gospel with a young spirit full of energy.”

With respect to the family and society, he is grateful to God "for the sacrifices that Asians make in keeping the planet young with the gift of children. The Church’s spirit in Asia is an inclusive, creative, and bridge-building energy".

“Upon my return (to Penang), I will ask the faithful to nurture and strengthen solidarity and communion with the universal Church and pray for my renewed mission.”

(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article)

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”