Sisters throughout the Institute sympathize with our Sisters in Malaysia at the very sad news of the death of His Eminence Anthony Soter Cardinal Fernandez, Archbishop Emeritus of Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese.
Anthony Soter Fernandez has always been a friend of the Infant Jesus Sisters; his links with the congregation go back a long way. His mother was brought up in our convent in Taiping and he constantly expressed his gratitude to the Sisters for this. His own early education was also with the Sisters and he has remained loyal throughout his life, visiting our women in Asrama Cahaya Home, Bukit Nanas, during festive seasons and at other times too; he also used to hear their confessions. They will miss him enormously.
Born in 1932, Anthony was keen to become a priest but, following the death of his father in 1946, he had to put aside his studies and assume the role of bread-winner for the family. His main priority was to care for his mother and ensure that his younger brother would get a proper and uninterrupted education. So, he was 26 when he joined the minor seminary in Singapore in 1958 and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Dominic Vendargon at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Penang in 1966.
It was providential that Fr Soter Fernandez was ordained at this very exciting time when the Second Vatican Council was opening the doors of the Roman Catholic Church to the outside world. Fr Soter Fernandez embraced this spirit of aggiornamento and made it his life’s work. He was sent for further studies at the International Training Institute for World Churchmen and the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, Philippines. In 1972, he attended the Intensive Training Institute at the National Biblical Catechetical-Liturgical Centre in Bangalore, India. Upon his return, he visited parishes and schools in the diocese to share his knowledge and to form catechetical groups in various areas. In 1973, he was appointed professor in College General to initiate students into the priestly life, and in 1975 became Rector there.
His concern for the direction of the Catholic Church in Peninsular Malaysia was evident in the early years of his priesthood. He was one of the architects of the 1976 Aggiornamento. That one-month gathering involving clergy from the three dioceses of Peninsular Malaysia produced a new pastoral thrust for the local church which identified the need for Christ-centred communities along with four related needs: unity among the faithful; formation; dialogue between Christians and those of other faiths; and integral human development of the poor.
Fr Soter Fernandez was an advocate and pioneer in promoting the use of the National Language in the local church. He exhorted Malaysian Christians to use Bahasa Malaysia as widely as possible, “not merely because our children are more proficient in that language, but as a sign of our commitment to and love for our country.” He also pointed out that the Church must pay more attention to the local language and culture if it is to remain faithful to the Second Vatican Council idea of inculturation. He was the first bishop to use Bahasa Malaysia in his episcopal motto, ‘Keadilan dan Keamanan’ (Justice and Peace), when he was ordained Bishop of Penang in 1978. Five years later he became archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur. He served there for twenty years until he had to resign due to ill health in 2003.
His episcopal motto is powerfully reflected in his pastoral priorities and projects. He took up justice and peace issues both within the church and in the larger society. This led him to set up the Justice and Peace Commission in the Penang diocese. Recognising his contribution in this area, he was elected Chairman of the Office for Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference in 1984.
Known to be a champion of human rights and an advocate for the poor and the marginalised, he promoted social justice programmes under the National Office for Human Development (NOHD). This work eventually led to the detention of several church workers and volunteers during Operation Lallang in 1987. His Eminence was a courageous and outspoken critic of preventive detentions without trial.
His Eminence put great emphasis on the creation of BECs (Basic Ecclesial Communities); on Family Life and inter-religious dialogue; and on ecumenism. He took concrete steps to make BECs foundational to parish life. Other notable initiatives undertaken by His Eminence during his tenure as Archbishop include:
Establishment of Archdiocesan Single Adults & Youth Office (ASAYO).
Establishment of Sri Seronok Retirement Village.
Inaugurating the HERALD, the Catholic Weekly Newspaper.
Establishment of the first private Catholic school, Sekolah Menengah Stella Maris.
Establishment of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute.
Many lay movements and associations found their proper place in the Archdiocese. He had a special interest for the marginalised. He reached out to the Orang Asli communities and made frequent visits to be with his people in the rural areas. The deaf, the blind and those with disabilities always had a special place in his heart.
When he was elected President of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism in 2001, His Eminence expressed his hope for unity and understanding among the religions. He said, “The fabric of our nation is composed of rich cultures and of various religions. Any religion that imposes its teachings with less respect for other religions destroys the very fabric itself. Thus, it is the sacred duty of all members of the MCCBCHS to collaborate with all religions to uphold truth and justice to all.” It is no surprise that his life-long friends include people of other faiths and Christians of other denominations.
Upon his retirement, His Eminence served as spiritual director at College General Seminary in Penang from 2005 to 2012 and then returned to Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese to take up residence and serve as chaplain at the St Francis Xavier Home for the Elderly (Little Sisters of the Poor) in Cheras. Anthony Soter Fernandez was raised to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Francis on 19th November 2016.
Let us thank God for the life of service of Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez and for “so many seeds sown by our Sisters in the past and their fruits known or unknown.” (Sr Brigitte)