The Malaysian bishop of Indian descent, a strong advocate of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, is only the second cardinal in the country’s history.
“There goes my privacy, personal freedom, and liberty.” This was the first reaction of Malaysian bishop Sebastian Francis, one of the two Asian cardinals in the forthcoming consistory, on learning of his appointment to the cardinalate on July 9. Unsurprisingly, it made headlines in the English-language press.
The 71-year-old Archbishop of Penang, a state bordering the Strait of Malacca, is of Indian descent and is a strong advocate of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.
Son of migrants
The grandson of Indian immigrants from Kerala, Sebastian Francis was born into a large family in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, on November 11, 1951. After studying at the seminaries of Singapore and Penang, he received priestly ordination for the Diocese of Malacca-Johor on July 28, 1977. He then obtained a degree in dogmatic theology at St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome and Maryknoll School of Theology in New York. Posteriorly he was a spiritual director and formator at the seminary from 1991 to 1998.
In 2003, Fr. Sebastian Francis was appointed Vicar General of the Diocese of Malacca-Johor. Pope Benedict XVI then appointed him Bishop of Penang on July 7, 2012. The episcopal ordination of the new bishop, whose motto is “Thy will be done,” took place on August 21, 2012. The event was attended by 10,000 Catholics, reported the local press at the time.
Since 2017, Bishop Francis has been president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Last February, he was appointed president of the Office of Social Communications (OSC) of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), responsible in particular for managing Radio Veritas Asia. In this capacity, he is working to increase China’s participation in the FABC. “China is at home in Malaysia, and Malaysia is at home with the Chinese language and culture,” he tells Crux. This geopolitical position suggests he could be a future partner for the Holy See in its rapprochement with Beijing.
A champion of interfaith dialogue
Highly committed to dialogue between cultures and religions, he was also vice-president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST). In his country, where the state religion is Sunni Islam — 60% of the population — the future cardinal refuses to describe Catholics as a “minority.” In an interview on the Missions Étrangères de Paris (“Paris Foreign Missions”) website, he says that “divisions between majority and minority, liberal and conservative, or right and left are not appropriate in the Asian context.”
He comments that as a cardinal he wants to “get down to the realities on the ground.” Among the major events in his diocese, he asked Rome to elevate St. Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam — founded in 1846 by French missionaries from the Missions Étrangères de Paris — to the status of minor basilica, the first in the region. The aim, he explained, was “to honor the pilgrims of all nationalities, religions, beliefs, races, and cultures who gather here.” The site, also known as the Shrine of Harmony, attracts 250,000 Catholics and non-Catholics each year for the July 26 pilgrimage.
The future Cardinal Francis is also a promoter of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in February 2019. “This document always helps to break the ice” with representatives of other religions, he says.
Malaysia’s only elector in a conclave
Regarding the Synod on the future of the Church, the cardinal-designate shows a Bergoglian approach, advocating the study even of “burning issues” without being “afraid of anyone’s agendas.”
In the event of a conclave, the cardinal-designate will be Malaysia’s only elector. He is only the second Malaysian cardinal in history, after Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez, who was created in 2016 and died in 2020. His appointment was also widely celebrated in India, where they value the fact that the prelate still has family in Chennai, in the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu.