.- Although it is one of the youngest and smallest “dioceses” in southeast Asia, the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei is a steadily thriving Church with growing spiritual activities in its communities.
“Our logo is 'Duc in altum' (Put out into the deep), and we now have projects to empower and sustain the missionary dimension of the Church,” Bishop Cornelius Sim, Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, told CNA Oct. 17.
“We are one of the smallest dioceses in Asia,” he said, adding that with only one bishop and three priests, “we hope to have vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
Brunei is a country of 2,200 square miles located entirely on the island of Borneo, which is also home to parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is a developed country, and one of the richest in the world. Malay is the official language, but English and Chinese are both widely spoken.
The country is an absolute monarchy led by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. About two-thirds of the population is Muslim, and Brunei was recently noted for its adoption of Sharia law, though it is being applied only to Muslims.
Around 10 percent of the population is atheist, 13 percent is Buddhist, and a small number have indigenous beliefs. Christians, half of whom are Catholic, constitute 10 percent of Brunei's population.
Fr. Arin Sugit, the bishop's assistant at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in the nation's capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, explained to CNA that a majority of the Catholic population – 70 percent – are migrant workers from the Philippines. Another 20 percent are migrants from other countries such as Indonesia, India, and Malaysia, he said, and the remaining 10 percent are indigenous Bruneians.
“It’s fortunate to have a substantial Filipino congregation that makes our Church very lively,” reflected Bishop Sim. “They bring their faith, with popular pious devotions, and they enrich us and our faith very much.”
Fr. Sugit added, “we have lots of vibrant faith activities in our parish, and the faith is steadily growing; but of course it’s a slow process.”
Fr. Sugit was ordained in 2008. The apostolic vicariate's two other priests are Fr. Paul Shie, pastor of St. John's in Kuala Belait, who was ordained in 1999; and Fr. Robert Leong, pastor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Seria, who was ordained in 2003.
Bishop Sim and his three priests serve the roughly 20,000 Catholics who live in Brunei. Catholics can freely practice their faith within the church compounds and at home, but public displays of the faith are restrained.
Fr. Sugit said that at Our Lady of the Assumption, 5,000 to 6000 people attend Mass each Sunday.
While the faith was first preached in Brunei by Franciscan missionaries in 1587, it has only been its own local Church since 1997. Prior to that, Bruneian Catholics were served by the Diocese of Miri, in Malaysia. It was for that diocese that Bishop Sim had been ordained a priest in 1989.
When John Paul II established the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei in 1997, then-Fr. Sim was appointed prefect. Apostolic prefectures and vicariates are the precursors to dioceses in mission territories.
In 2004, John Paul II decided to elevate the apostolic prefecture to a vicariate, which resulted in Fr. Sim being consecrated a bishop. He was consecrated on Jan. 21, 2005 by Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, who was then the Vatican's ambassador to Brunei, as well as other southeast Asian nations.
As apostolic vicar, Bishop Sim exercises the Pope's authority in Brunei. As the Church there grows, it may eventually be raised to a diocese.
Bishop Sim optimistically noted, “it’s a humble beginning, and we have to move on to enrich our faith based communities.”