Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez in Casa Santa Marta - photo by ZENIT's Deborah Castellano Lubov

INTERVIEW: Cardinal Nicknamed 'No. 33': 'Trust in God Never Will Let You Down'

In ZENIT Exclusive, Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez Speaks on How Francis Encourages Him, How ‘Everything Is the Spirit’s Work’

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

‘Everything is the Holy Spirit’s work’ … 
‘The peace of mind of trust in God can never let you down.’ …
‘Trust in Him, like your own father. If there is some challenge, be assured that He sees something good in it…’
These words of wisdom were given to ZENIT in an exclusive interview with Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez with whose nomination,  history was made: Malaysia had been given its first cardinal.
The Pope announced the prelate would be receiving his red hat, along with 16 others, during his Oct. 9 Angelus Address.
Cardinal Fernandez is one of the four new cardinals over 80 who are being honored for their long service to the Church.
On Tuesday, the Archbishop Emeritus of Kuala Lumpur shared with us what he has learned over the years.
He spent a few hours speaking with ZENIT in the Pope’s residence, Casa Santa Marta, last week, and was so kind to ask if the correspondent had already eaten breakfast. Though she had, an offer of an espresso afterward on Via della Conciliazione was happily accepted. At the beginning of our encounter, the cardinal wanted to specifically discuss passages from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that have really ‘moved’ him
‘The bishops nicknamed me ’33,’ the Asian prelate shared, because he impresses upon everyone this passage which reads:

“Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory. I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear. The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.”

After the consistory, the Cardinal informally spoke again with ZENIT and shared how the Holy Father encouraged him in his promoting ‘Number 33’ and in serving the poor.
Ordained a priest on Dec. 10, 1966, the Malaysian cardinal celebrates the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination next month.
On Feb. 17, 1978, he was ordained Bishop for the Diocese of Panang, and on Nov. 10, 1983, was installed Archbishop of Kuala Lumpar. He led the archdiocese for 20 years before stepping down at age 71 for health reasons. Even after ‘retiring,’ he still served his archdiocese. He later was assigned as a spiritual father to College General, Major Seminary in Panang.
Cardinal Soter Fernandez still serves as the president of the bishops conference of Malaysia, and as chaplain at the Saint Xavier Home for the Elderly in Cheras. While technically he retired from serving his archdiocese in 2003, his assistant Fr. Perreiro traveling with him in Rome argues that the new cardinal’s definition of ‘retired’ is relative.
When ZENIT asked what was his reaction to the nomination, he smiled, responding: ‘It wasn’t something I wished for or desired, but trust always the will of God. Also, having been sick, I realize He gives me strength to do all.»
In the interview, Cardinal Soter also reminisced about his first encounter with Pope Francis, which took place after the General Audience. «He told me in English, ‘Please pray for me,’ and I assured him I would.» He noted this is something very important.
Asked what most strikes him about Francis, the Cardinal discussed his simplicity, his commitment to dialogue, and how he channels mercy.
The Cardinal also told us that in 1978, when appointed Bishop of Panang, he chose an episcopal coat of arms with ‘Justice and Peace’ as his motto. He noted that today even more so than before, justice and peace have such an important role to play, especially in the social and political spheres of his multi-cultural and multi-religious nation.
He also pointed out how he appreciates Pope Francis’ realness. «He didn’t want to wear those [red] shoes,” and “he is his own person.”
Your Brother…. God Walked With a Saint
The Malaysian prelate also spoke about his affection for St. John Paul II. He noted how after being ordained bishop, he was able to meet him for the first time at the ad limina visit, which takes place every five years. «The first thing I thought. Thank God this Pope speaks English because I didn’t study Latin,» he said smiling.
«So many times I came and I saw him,» he noted, recalling in particular their exchange after he had been appointed archbishop: «I told Pope John Paul II: ‘Holy Father, I want to thank you for the confidence you have in me, appointing me as the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpar’ and he embraced me and said ‘I am your brother.’»
He recounted: In 2001, I was archbishop and president of the bishops’ conference, and I remember in particular this encounter with him… It was at a point in which he was giving us rosaries. I said to him «In addition to a rosary for me, could I have a rosary for my mother?’… Then he jokingly, loudly announces, very sweetly: ‘He wants a rosary for his mama…give him one.’»
Reflecting on his moments with John Paul II, Cardinal Soter Fernandez said: «God walked with a saint.»
He also told us what St. Pope John Paul II had written him in a personal letter for the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination in 2003: «Your ardent commitment to duty not only benefitted the flock entrusted to you, but was manifestly clear to all in Asia.»
«Your role with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, shines forth as well in your strenuous efforts to give direction and purpose to the Church in West Malaysia,» the Polish Pontiff highlighted.
We invite
On what his retired life looks like as cardinal, he confirmed he still stays active, still helping his people, still committed to dialogue.
Speaking on initiatives in his country aimed at fostering interreligious dialogue, he noted how there is a tradition of having Christians come together to have a Christmas party, and for this year’s gathering, Muslims and people of other faiths will be invited.
He also applauded the Pope’s, at times, surprising choices of new cardinals from the peripheries, «as a sign that the Pontiff is committed to helping the universal Church.»
The challenges
The Cardinal also spoke on some pastoral challenges faced by his multicultural, multi-religious nation.
«Mixed marriages,» he told us are «a classic example of this, a lovely Catholic girl, she insists he must be Catholic and says he’ll convert to Catholicism. Then the day they get married, he says: ‘That’s it. You are my wife. No Catholic business. Thank God she didn’t consummate the marriage. It took years for the annulment to come. So many things are happening like that unfortunately.»
When asked how he describes the situation of Catholics, he noted, «still the basic ecclesial communities come together, actually all the races come together. Territorial parishes come together. Where the Lord is placed, all come together.»
«In our country, there is diversity…the races are many, there are many Muslims.» When responding to whether the fact that Malaysia is a largely Muslim country affects the Catholics, he noted there are efforts for dialogue and everyone co-exists.
Asian Pontiff
Asked if Pope Francis’ choice of Cardinals has opened the door for an Asian Pontiff, he said: «You never know.»
«Latin America has come…This is a complete change. It takes courage. He doesn’t want to take the cars, but would prefer to get on a bus and go…,» he said, noting things change and we don’t know what could happen next.
When asked if he had advice for young priests, Cardinal Soter Fernandez urged them to talk to God less, and «start listening to Him…»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation