Cardinal Anthony Soter Fernandez died Oct. 28 at a home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in the town of Cheras, according to a communique from the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.
Fernandez, who served as archbishop of Kuala Lumpur from 1983 to 2003, was diagnosed with tongue cancer in November and had been receiving palliative care.
He made history on Nov. 19, 2016, when he received the red hat, becoming the first cardinal in the Southeast Asian country’s history.
There are approximately a million Catholics in Malaysia, a majority Muslim country of 33 million people that occupies parts of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo.
The archdiocese announced that the cardinal’s wake would be held Oct. 29-30 at St. John’s Cathedral in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
His funeral Mass will take place Oct. 31, but will not be open to the public because of coronavirus restrictions. It will be livestreamed on the archdiocese’s YouTube channel.
Fernandez was born in Sungai Petani, a town in Kuala Muda District, Kedah, on April 22, 1932. His education was disrupted by the Second World War. Following the death of his father in 1946, he was obliged to work to support his mother and younger brother, serving as a hospital assistant from 1947 to 1954.
He was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Penang, on Dec. 10, 1966. He was appointed Bishop of Penang on Sept. 29, 1977.
Pope John Paul II named him the second archbishop of Kuala Lumpur on July 30, 1983. The Polish pope accepted his resignation from the post due to ill health on May 24, 2003, when he was 71.
An obituary prepared by Kuala Lumpur archdiocese said: “His Eminence 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 post-Vatican Council II idea of inculturation. For this reason, 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.”
The obituary continued: “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 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 under draconian laws.”