JUNE 7, 2021: Rev. Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek OFS, recalls how he met the late Cardinal Cornelius Sim and became one of his good friends. Deacon Sherman says that one of the most visible virtues His Eminence had was self-effacement and “it is this self-effacing humility that makes him unforgettable”.
The late Cardinal was the Apostolic Vicar of Brunei from 2004 until his death on May 29, 2021. He was also the inaugural Ecclesiastical Patron of Christian Institute for Theological Engagement (CHRISTE) of which Deacon Sherman is the founding and leading research fellow in Catholic and Ecumenical Thought.
Deacon Sherman relates his journey with the Cardinal in a question and answer format.
Question: How was your first meeting with Cardinal Sim?
Deacon Sherman: I think it was sometime in August, 2009 when this middle-aged looking man casually walked into my office at Majodi Centre together with one or two other companions (Majodi stands for the Melaka-Johor Diocese). I had absolutely no idea who he was, as I was still quite new to the Catholic Church having been received into full communion with the Church in Easter 2008. At that time, I had just only been appointed by the Rt Rev Paul Tan, SJ, then Bishop of Melaka Johor, as Director of the Melaka Johor Diocesan Pastoral Institute. As Bishop Cornelius Sim entered into the guest area of my office and I came out to greet him, he smilingly shook my hand and introduced himself as “Father Sim from Brunei”. I might have been a rather new Catholic, but I surely could recognise an episcopal ring when I saw one! I immediately reached out to kiss the ring on his hand as I exclaimed, “You are a bishop!” He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Bishop is a priest bahhh”. I often still chuckle to myself when I recall this first encounter.
Bishop Sim asked me, “Can come to Brunei ah? Help me lah, with faith formation for my people there”, to which I replied, “Yes, Bishop, I certainly will”. It was more than a year later, soon after my ordination as a permanent deacon in June 2010, that I finally set foot in Brunei to fulfil my promise. Since then, I had been making trips to Brunei every year to contribute to the mission of the Apostolic Vicariate there.
On my first visit itself alone Bishop Sim left a deep impact on me. For the three days that I stood to speak to what appeared to be a rather large crowd in the parish hall in Bandar Seri Begawan, the bishop was there all through, listening to everything I said. It was rather alarming, I must admit, because I saw him writing notes as I spoke. Having a bishop write down what you say can be quite a nerve-wrecking experience, as I discovered. Each day, at the end of my talk, Bishop Sim would take over the stage to reiterate everything that I had shared with the participants using his own words and expressions to illuminate some of the main points that I had communicated earlier on.
As many people know, Cardinal Sim was a man who was neither keen to be in the limelight nor to even be heard. He was quite content to remain smiling silently. But I realised that when he actually did speak, my heart kept beating harder because he had a tremendously elegant way of expressing the faith of the Church. Whenever he spoke about the teachings of the Church and proposed how to make sense of them, I found that every sentence he carefully and thoughtfully crafted was like a gold nugget falling out of his mouth. It was then that I became amazed at the depth I saw in this man. He could say everything that I had meant to say but with much greater poise. This was a gift that emerged from an interior life with God, not necessarily from years of formal education or university degrees.
This very much describes the first encounters I had with the Cardinal earlier on in our friendship. My deep amazement at the way he spoke of the Catholic faith never ceased. All throughout the years of my friendship with him, whenever he began spontaneously rambling about the Catholic faith, I listened intently to ensure that I would hide everything he said in my heart and ponder over them. Many times, my eyes began tearing as he spoke, perhaps because his teachings reflected a deep and serene love for God, for the Church, and for his faith.
Question: What brought you both close and how did he end up working with you on CHRISTE?
Deacon Sherman: Beyond the regular assistance that I rendered at his Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei, the late Cardinal was primarily my friend above everything else. Because he made it a point to not just work together, but also to “waste time” together over meals and drinks, and the conversations we had brought us close. I suppose this friendship worked both ways: he found that I was very keen to listen to what he had to share (just in case another gold nugget dropped out of his mouth, I was there ready to catch it!). At times when he seemed rather pensive, I would probe and ask him, “Deep in thought, bishop?” A deep conversation would often result from that simple question. The wisdom that he dispensed could often seem rather spontaneous and abrupt, but I always made sure that I was ready to receive it whenever I was with him. I suppose our friendship developed in a much deeper way because of the symbiosis that we enjoyed in our conversations. These conversations were most often gentle, thoughtful, and unhurried.
By 2014, because of my wide travels around the region to assist in the faith formation of the various dioceses, my own network of friends had gradually developed into community of friends who shared with me a common sense of mission. Because we were all serving so closely together, people started asking me what we were, and it seemed like just saying that we were a community of friends on mission together failed to satisfy their curiosity. Hence, I decided to give a name to this community of friends, a name that would represent the mission that we shared together for the sake of the Church that we love. We called ourselves the Splendour Project. Very naturally, the late Cardinal became a part of this network, since he knew quite a number of these friends very well. But primarily, I think he became very close to us because he was inspired by our zeal for faith formation, evangelisation, and discipleship. These were aspects of ministry that were very close to his heart.
From my conversations with him, I learned that he had often hoped that the young people today would do more for the Church, and he was inspired by what he saw in our community of friends. He called us “a working model for others to see so that they can imagine the possibilities of what they might do for the Church”. Very naturally, he became our spiritual father. We “designated” him our Episcopal Advisor, which we all knew was nothing more than an afterthought. For us, he was just “Bishop”, our spiritual father whom we loved and whose presence we always appreciated. Throughout those years with the Splendour Project, I think our community injected some measure of inspiration and energy into his own episcopal ministry. Perhaps our own zeal and excitement challenged him to dream of possibilities.
In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, I spoke with him on the phone to share about a need that I saw emerging as a result of the pandemic. I felt that Christian academic scholars needed to come together to do something for our own Christian communities and for wider society. I also shared with him the plans that were ongoing for the possibility of establishing a research institute to fulfil this purpose, and I asked him if he would be happy to be our inaugural Ecclesiastical Patron. Jokingly, he replied “Aiyo, Sherman, I don’t know what kind of controversial heresy you all will be creating ah, hahahaha!”, and in the same breath he expressed that he would be happy to support this endeavour. Thus, in September 2020, the Christian Institute for Theological Engagement (CHRISTE) was launched with Bishop Cornelius Sim as our inaugural Ecclesiastical Patron. But at this time, he was already in the midst of his treatment for cancer (since end of 2019).
Question: What were some of the most memorable times you had with him?
Deacon Sherman: These occasions are too numerous to list down here. But let me describe one most light-hearted occasion and another most solemn one.
Almost every time that the late Cardinal came to Johor Bahru (where I live) for meetings with the other bishops of the region, he would ask me and my companions to take him out during moments when he was free. We knew the kind of things that he liked to see (i.e. baking equipment and electronic gadgets!), and so we would take him to outlets that had them on display. He also enjoyed nice food, so we took him to various places for makan-makan. On some of these occasions, he would also come to spend time in our home (which was blessed by him as well). These occasions in our home were easygoing, usually with lots of eating and “wasting time” together. There was once when he asked us to buy flour because he wanted to bake bread in our kitchen, and he did! He would play with our dogs while enjoying some wine together with us, and my little son would also occasionally have little chats with him. I remember one hilarious occasion when my son was trying to explain to him the meaning of the San Damiano cross, and how the Cardinal pretended he had no prior knowledge of what it was!
The most solemn moment I had with the late Cardinal during his lifetime was perhaps a brief 15 minutes that I had with him in his parish office a number of years ago. I was going through a deep experience of discouragement in my vocation as a teacher. Contrary to what many people think, efforts to faithfully communicate the faith of the Church can often provoke negative reactions from within the Church itself, from both clergy and laity who may have other ideas as to what the faith of the Church should be (especially on controversial matters). In my case, constant rejections of Church teachings that I had communicated were justified by my Protestant past and by the fact that my doctorate degree in Theology was not a Pontifical one, therefore “What does he know about Catholic teachings?” On the occasion that I sat down with the late Cardinal to express my sorrow and disillusionment, I was on the verge of giving up. His brief exhortation immediately picked me up and informed me that I should not stop doing what I was called to do: “I have listened to you teaching long enough to know that your teachings fall on the side of orthodoxy. This may be why some people find it offensive, but there is little we can do about it. So… keep going at it and don’t stop.”
The other thing that I had become weary about over the years was the annual pilgrimage circuits that I had been running together with my mission companions. They were physically and mentally tiring, and was also taking a toll on my health. Furthermore, the spiritual fruits of these trips were not immediately clear to me: were people’s lives truly being transformed by the teaching that I was doing during these trips? How could I find out? I was, honestly, just tired and wanted to stop. One day, I was sitting with the late Cardinal along the streets of Istanbul sipping our tea as we were waiting to meet up with our pilgrims, and he suddenly told me, “Eh, Sherman, you must carry on this work and don’t stop. You have no idea how effective these trips are. On this trip alone, you wouldn’t believe how many people have come to me for confession, and some of these pilgrims have not been for confession for over ten years!” I was puzzled at how he knew what was going on in my heart, and I told him, “Bishop, this work is very tiring. I had half a mind to retire from it already”. Probably in jest, he said, “Cannnn… find somebody to replace you first”. I knew that I had to continue faithfully in this work.
These were some of the most defining conversations I have been privileged to experience with the late Cardinal.
Question: How down-to-earth was he?
Deacon Sherman: I think everyone who was close to the Cardinal knows that he considered his priestly ministry as an opportunity to offer spiritual friendship to those whom he encountered. Despite being a bishop for a significant part of his ministry in the Church, he had an almost absolute indifference towards the pedestal on which people might have wanted him to stand. He wanted to remain on the ground with people of all backgrounds. Certainly, he had some friendships that were more special than others, but this was not of his own choice. It was, I think, based on how people themselves defined the place that he had in their lives and the magnitude of spiritual influence they allowed him to have on them.
I had traveled on many trips through a very big part of Europe, the Middle East, and Korea with the late Cardinal. He was never one to expect special episcopal treatment. In fact, he disdained being specially treated because it would separate him from the people on the ground. He wanted to be with them, to be one of them. He treasured the experiences of the ordinary life. In fact, he once told me (during another drinking session in Istanbul – this time, coffee instead of tea) that his life had been a series of serendipitous experiences which emerged from ordinary situations and circumstances, and so he cherished them. He did not believe in highly engineered and staged experiences, which essentially is what happens when we elevate important people in social situations, which he categorically disliked.
I was speaking to him on the phone in October last year, on the day that his elevation by Pope Francis to the College of Cardinals was announced. He was puzzled and unexcited. His exact words to me were, “I don’t know what I’ve got myself into this time lah”.
Question: Is he someone who is easy to warm up to?
Deacon Sherman: I have never heard anyone telling me that the late Cardinal was unfriendly or hostile, or that he was high and mighty. He was, on all accounts, a very fatherly figure to all whom he encountered. He was as open to be blessed by others as he was to bless others. Of course, this does not mean that his moods were always angelic or that he was smiling around the clock. I am certain he had days that were better than some other days, and vice versa. But to those who knew him personally, he was not someone you would want to ignore if you saw him coming your way. I have seen many children, young adults, and senior citizens rushing to hug him in the course of his ministry.
Question: What is the one lesson you learnt from him or experience you had with him that has become some sort of a motto/ principle in your life?
Deacon Sherman: That most important lesson or principle or motto that I have learned from my friendship with the late Cardinal is the motto found in his coat of arms: duc in altum (“put out into the deep”). He was never content with going through life like it was, in his own words, “business as usual”. He saw in everyone a potential to be more, to do more, and to give more. He deeply desired that Catholics should not just be “spectators”, but that they should make it a way of life to contribute their “time, talent, and treasure” to the Church. For the sake of the Gospel, he believed that we should always creatively attempt different ways to reach the world with the message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, His Son.
In a way, I have always embraced this principle in my life, and perhaps this was what made our friendship so deep. And yet, the resistance that I face in embracing this principle as a way of life had always bothered me. It was his impetus and constant encouragement that gave me the liberation I needed to not be intimidated by resistance. Therefore, I would say that his biggest contribution to my life and ministry is a constant awareness that I should always expect such resistance without giving up putting out into the deep. Once he told me, “If somebody is not happy, it is a sign that you’re doing something right”. My friendship with this man has given me a courage that will last me a lifetime.
Question: Did he ever tell you how he wanted to be remembered?
Deacon Sherman: To be very honest I do not think that the Cardinal ever cares to be remembered. Among his many qualities, one of the most visible virtues he had was self-effacement. He neither had such a low estimation of himself nor such a high one that he needed to be noticed or to be given the limelight. He was as comfortable standing in the spotlight, which was, to him, an opportunity to communicate the Word of God, as he was sitting in the corner, which was, to him, an opportunity to contemplate on the Word of God. Paradoxically, it is this quality of self-effacing humility that makes him unforgettable.
He was very much a bishop, and indeed, towards the final six months of his pilgrimage on earth, a cardinal. But he never saw these offices as being about himself. When he was appointed, as cardinal, to the Congregation for Clergy, he hilariously told me (tongue in cheek), “I have been appointed to the Congregation for Clergy because I have all but three priests in my diocese, so they think I know a lot about clergy!” I remember that in 2014, I bought him a very beautiful pectoral cross from Athens, which he himself chose. When I thanked him for accepting the gift, he said, “I am delighted to have this beautiful cross. It would be unfortunate if people who wore these things thought that it’s about themselves.”
Therefore, to answer this question, I think the late Cardinal would be truly delighted if instead of remembering him, we remember how his life pointed to his Saviour and how his life has deeply challenged us to follow his Saviour. I certainly remember him as such. When I remember him in my prayers, especially now, instead of just feeling all warm and fuzzy, I can deeply feel that he is spurring me to carry on with the mission that he has left behind for us. I am energised by my memory and experience of him to continue running my portion of the race and not give up. I am certain that his mission is not completed either; it has just taken on a different character such that he intercedes for us and joins the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to cheer us on in our race of faith and life.
Question: Did he have any regrets?
Deacon Sherman: I am quiet certain that he lived his life in such a way that he would not face serious regrets when his earthly journey was over. Hence, I would say that he had more worries/concerns than regrets. His main worry was for the people. He wanted them to not be indifferent or complacent about their faith and service to the Lord. In many ways, he voiced his concern over and over again in his homilies and talks, like a worried father. Even in the very private conversations that my closest companions and I had with with him over the years, these concerns would be expressed, often with great sadness in his voice. We deeply felt his pain.
I think it would be an unfortunate disappointment if many people grieve his departure simply because of the fuzzy feelings they enjoyed from their relationship with him, but without remembering the demands that the Gospel life lived by our dear Cardinal places on their own ethic of living. I would like especially for friends of the younger generation to take this to heart: the Cardinal desired more of you in your way of life and in your commitment. He very much desired for you to see your lives as much more and much deeper than just a chase for success in career and wealth. I believe he will constantly be praying for you to realise this even as he makes his way into eternity.
Question: Anything else you would like to add?
Deacon Sherman: The earthly departure of our late Cardinal, our spiritual father and our friend, is certainly a cause for grief and a sense of loss. I personally will be needing a long time to heal from this pain of loss. But this loss is not an end for me; it represents an even stronger determination to continue running the race that he successfully ran, and to continue diligently sharing in the mission to which he devotedly committed himself. It is not the end; it is just a new beginning. The late Cardinal’s mission is not finished; it will continue in different forms and expressions, and we who are truly his friends will carry out this mission for the glory of the Lord whom the late Cardinal loved with his life.
We at Journey With Us offer our condolences to Deacon Sherman and his family, all who knew Cardinal Sim and the people of Brunei. May his soul rest in peace.