After an evening weekday Mass in a village church in the Philippines, an enthusiastic parishioner approached the parish priest. He excitedly informed the priest that for almost a week already, a bishop has been attending their evening Masses, clandestinely present among the crowd of worshippers.

The priest was surprised and tried to remember a bishop-looking figure among that week’s congregation. Surely he knew most of the parishioners and if a guest were around, it did not escape his attention. However he could not think of any one that past week who fit the description of a bishop; he saw no one wore a clerical polo and no one had a dangling gold or pewter pectoral cross around his neck. These usual external signs of a bishop would have been hard to miss.

The parishioner then told the priest that the said bishop was in the church that evening and would like to meet him to thank him for the chance to attend daily Mass. He then ushered in a decent-looking, middle-aged bespectacled man who looked more like a gentle grandfather than a dignitary of the church. The man’s appearance, including his clothes, were ordinary and unassuming. His face, however, exuded a humility and kindness that struck one as natural and welcoming. The priest was right too, that the guest bishop neither wore clerical attire nor a conspicuous huge cross on his chest.

The visitor introduced himself as Bishop Cornelius Sim, the Apostolic Vicar of Brunei. He explained that he was a frequent visitor to the parish because the Catholic Church in Brunei was a regular and generous benefactor of a Gawad-Kalinga[1] housing project within the vicinity of the parish. The priest was flabbergasted at the presence of this simple man who was in fact, one of the high-ranking church officials in Asia. Since the bishop was soon returning to Brunei, the priest inquired if he would be willing to join the following day’s evening Mass, a street Mass in one area of the parish, and be its main celebrant. The offer was instantly accepted.

The following day, Bishop Sim arrived on time with some of his housing project contacts. He did not bring any liturgical vestments of his own and instead wanted to use whatever the parish could provide. The people were surprised to discover that the stranger they saw that week attending Mass with them in the parish was in fact the bishop of Brunei. Bishop Sim celebrated the Mass solemnly and preached simply and naturally. He blessed a street shrine in the area dedicated to St. Joseph, a saint who while being so close to the Lord Jesus Christ, was like this bishop who blessed the shrine, a paragon of simplicity and humility.


The Catholic Church in Brunei is numerically miniscule. It leads a discreet existence in a country where it is a minority faith.

For many people and in particular migrant workers, Brunei is associated with the opulence that its oil reserves have brought to its leaders and its population. Brunei’s economic opportunities served as the magnet that drew expatriates from neighboring Asian countries, and from America and Europe, to settle there for gainful employment.

Brunei is also known for its leader, His Majesty Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei since 1967, reportedly among the richest men and women in the world today. He operates as an absolute monarch, governing by decrees, although the country also has a parliament. Not without critics, nevertheless, he is accepted as ruler and father by his people, the majority of whom belong to the Muslim faith.

Brunei’s Catholics do not feature in news headlines, whether it be in Asia or in the world.  But Brunei came into the limelight when in October 28, 2020, Pope Francis announced a consistory[2] for November 28 that same year that included Bishop Cornelius Sim as one of the thirteen clergymen marked for elevation to the rank of Cardinal. Due to the coronavirus pandemic though, Sim was one of only two cardinals-designate who could not attend the celebrations in Rome to receive the red hat. The other Cardinal was Capiz archbishop Jose Advincula of the Philippines (later appointed as Manila archbishop).

Bishop Sim, the obscure and self-effacing pastor of his church, has come to represent the unnoticed Catholics of Brunei, this time for the whole world to see and admire its faith, its vitality and its promise. The Catholic Church in Brunei has been thrust into the light, called from obscurity to fame. The bishop attributed his promotion to the College of Cardinals, as a tribute primarily to the faith of his people, rather than to his own merits.


The territory that pertains to the Catholic faithful of Brunei has changed hands many times in the past before acquiring the autonomous identity it has today. The church’s website[3] states that in 1855, Brunei became part of the Apostolic Prefecture of Labuan and North Borneo in neighboring Malaysia. In 1927 its administration was transferred to the Apostolic Prefecture of Sarawak, Labuan and Brunei. When the Apostolic Prefecture of Kuching was established in 1952, Brunei fell under its authority. Later it was incorporated into the new Diocese of Miri-Brunei in 1976.

Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed the establishment of the Apostolic Prefecture[4] of Brunei Darussalam in 1997, thus separating Brunei for the first time from any ecclesiastical links with the regions of Malaysia. The Pope also appointed then 46-year old Fr. Cornelius Sim as the head of this local community, its Apostolic Prefect.

In October 2004, the same Pope elevated the Prefecture to an Apostolic Vicariate,[5] nominating Fr. Sim as its new Apostolic Vicar and as its first bishop. Bishop Sim was consecrated in 2005 in his country as it was his wish that his small flock would be able to witness the monumental event. With these developments, Brunei’s Catholic community became not only one of the smallest but also one of the youngest in the world.

While official church records narrate the aforementioned facts, it is believed the country’s earliest contacts with Christianity goes even further. The Italian Franciscan Fr. Odoric of Pordenone[6] was the first missionary to arrive in Borneo in 1325. In the late 16th century, Philippine-based Spanish Franciscan priests Francisco de Santa Maria and Miguel Juan de Plasencia passed by Brunei en route to Sabah. In 1858, a PIME priest, Fr. Antonio Riva started a small community and built a small church.

In 1881, the Mill Hill Missionaries[7] came to Labuan and their evangelization efforts bore fruit in their contacts with the indigenous communities of the region of Borneo that include the present-day country of Brunei. The Mill Hill Missionaries were expelled from the Malaysian part of Borneo and transferred to the Indonesian side of the region in 1970. Their presence in Brunei however, continued until the time there were natives ordained for ministry. These missionaries contributed immensely to the strength and vitality of the people who embraced the Catholic faith.

By 1991, permits for foreign religious missionaries were no longer renewed. A lone priest would then be responsible for the three churches and four Catholic schools for several years, pending the arrival of another native priest. Since 1998, there have been three new priests for the local community.

The spread of Christianity in Brunei would not be as intense and pervasive as in other areas precisely because of the prior and entrenched influence of Islam.[8] The religion has steadily spread in the areas of North Borneo since the 5th century and by the 14th century, it has become the dominant faith of the population. It was at this time that Brunei King Sang Aji Awang Alak Betatar became the first sultan.

The Sultanate of Brunei,[9] which has gained control of all Borneo in the 16th century, gradually diminished in scope due to a series of piracies, wars, and colonization by Western powers. While it has lost lands, the Sultanate was given British protectorate in 1888, and eventually, internal self-rule in 1959. In 1984, Brunei Darussalam (meaning Abode of Peace) became an independent country, with a massive wealth coming from its off-shore oil deposits and natural gas.

In 2014, the Sultan ordered the gradual introduction of the Shariah law in the country’s legal system, a move that caused apprehension among the minority faith communities. However, the country continued to uphold the rights of other religions to exist and be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the country within the limits allowed by Shariah system.


As of 2022, the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam has three parishes, namely, Our Lady of the Assumption in Bandar Seri Begawan, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Seria, and St. John’s in Kuala Belait, and other smaller communities scattered around the country. The vicariate also operates three schools, the students of whom are mostly Muslim youth: St. George’s School, St. Angela’s School and St. John’s School.

The Vicariate has an updated website, an active presence in Youtube, and hosts a podcast.

The main church is Our Lady of the Assumption, which also serves as the official seat of the Apostolic Vicar. Sadly in May 29, 2022, Cardinal Cornelius Sim succumbed to cancer in a Taiwanese hospital where he was going for treatment. He left behind three priests to continue the pastoral work among the faithful of Brunei. Upon the death of the Cardinal, the management of church affairs was handed over to one of the remaining priests, as the Apostolic Administrator. 

Brunei is a small but developed country with roughly half a million citizens of diverse faiths: about 78.8% profess Islam, the official state religion, 7.8% Buddhists, and 8.7% Christians and around 4.7% indigenous beliefs or atheists.[10] About half of the Christians are Catholics.[11]

The Catholic community is composed of a small number of local Catholics, whose numbers are supplemented greatly by the presence of migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. About 16,000 – 20,000 Catholics (80% migrants workers and their families) live and work in Brunei.

The Islamic Shariah law has put practical problems on the way of evangelization in the country. Non-Islamic religious celebrations may only be held in designated religious space or in the privacy of the home. It must be strange for new arrivals from the Philippines and other countries to participate in a church that is not allowed to hold candlelight processions or religious parades in the streets, occurrences which are common events in their home countries. Religious gatherings must also have official permissions from the government before they are allowed.

Public displays and festivities at Christmas time were forbidden in 2014 so as not to influence the majority Muslim population. This has resulted in expatriates leaving the country during the festive season to celebrate with their families in neighboring countries.[12]

Non-Islamic religious instruction or celebrations may not be conducted in schools. Thus, catechism instructions are held separately for the youth in private homes or spaces, especially in preparation for the reception of the sacraments.

The open proclamation of the Gospel is not allowed as the Shariah opposes the conversion of Muslims to another faith but facilitates the reverse, the conversion to Islam by a believer from another religion. Breach of this edict carries the punishment of imprisonment or huge fines.

As the announcement of Cardinal Kim’s elevation to the College of Cardinals was made public, greetings also came from abroad and from non-Christian friends in his country who believed that this honor was also a tribute to Brunei itself. No congratulatory remarks however, came from the government, although both the local press and social media enthusiastically welcomed the news.

Since the presence of foreign missionaries is no longer allowed and only native Catholic priests may exercise pastoral roles in the country, the vicariate earnestly prays for and supports vocations to the priesthood and religious life. However, in a country with only a few local Catholics who are generally financially well-off, vocations to the priesthood is expectedly low. As of 2022, only one Bruneian seminarian is preparing for the priesthood in a seminary in Manila.


A Little Flock

How do you behave when you are small, or when you are young? That is the question the Church in Brunei has tried to answer from the beginning. It sprung amidst a strong religious tradition that has existed in Borneo for centuries, before even the early missionaries passed by, and before the later missionaries obtained a tentative foothold. Because of the influence of Islam, because of its religious and cultural barriers, the Christian faith did not enthusiastically blossom among the inhabitants. It took patience and steadfast dedication for even the small community to steadily grow and mature.

Cardinal Sim believed that his church falls under the category of a little church, a tiny church. He and his people are content to belong to a minority church, in a vast sea of a dominant religion. They took their foundational inspiration from the words of the Gospel, addressed by the Lord Jesus Christ to his “little flock”: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12: 32).

The Cardinal also took heart in an address of then Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, when in 1969 he made a radio broadcast of his vision for the emerging, future church: “From the crisis of the day, the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”[13]

While he was alive, Brunei’s Cardinal described his church in humble ways – peripheral, hidden, small, silent, a minority. Accepting this reality, his church has learned the virtue of prudence. In its history, the Bruneian Catholics neither experienced open hostility and oppression, nor bloody persecution by their Muslim neighbors or by their Islamic government. On the contrary, they have generally experienced a tolerant brand of Islam in their country. Catholics were not targeted for discrimination. Catholics too, learned to blend their faith with good relations with everyone in society.

As children do when elders in the family talk, so does the Church keep quiet. As the youngest in the family share in the various chores, so does the Church perform the simple and humble tasks the society expects of it, without fanfare, without attracting attention to itself, as the Cardinal himself explained.

Aside from teaching the faith, the foreign missionaries opened schools for the education of the young. This is still the major social apostolate of the Vicariate in Brunei. The Catholic schools in Brunei enjoy a good reputation among the people and it is where the Church exercises the Gospel values of acceptance, tolerance, and respect for all people, regardless of race or creed. Above all, through its silent and humble presence, the Church manifests the humble and gentle face of Jesus Christ, the God who came to serve, and not to be served.

A Living Church

Its size notwithstanding, the Church in Brunei does not live in a ghetto. It pulsates with vitality and energy. A Filipino priest who used to visit then Bishop Sim in his church told this writer how he was inspired by the vigorous emphasis on formation and growth programs shown by the priests and faithful of the vicariate. Sunday Masses are attended by thousands of people in all its three parishes, and if possible, the vicariate provides liturgy in the different native languages of the migrant parishioners.

The vicariate holds seminars on the Bible, sponsors prayer groups, and introduces movements, devotions, and organizations for the maturity and growth of individuals, families and groups. The Philippine-born family ministry called Couples for Christ has found a fertile mission ground among Catholics in Brunei. Fr. Edgardo Coroza of Manila relates how he was inspired by a Bible-learning exercise he witnessed in Brunei where the children in the parishes were asked to copy selections from the Bible on their notebooks. It reminded him of how the Bible was originally reproduced by the early Christians.

Given the small number of priests and the low turnout of local vocations, the vicariate relies on the energy and enthusiasm of the lay people. The migrant workers, who have so much to share in terms of talents and capacities, feel welcome and are appreciated as they offer their service to the church.

Cardinal Sim had never tried to hide his admiration and love for the Filipinos among his flock. He proudly related how fortunate the Vicariate has been due to the presence of the Filipino community that made the church active and lively.[14] Workers from Malaysia, Indonesia and South Asia also “add color and a spirit of animation to church life through their traditions via devotions, music and dance.”[15]

In gratitude, the Cardinal was personally concerned for the welfare of the migrants. He believed that part of his church’s mission was to help these workers and their families integrate well in the society, by welcoming them and extending help to them in their needs. The church must be a mother to these people, one that provides a sense of connectedness, a home away from home, both spiritually and socially. The Cardinal wanted his churches to be open throughout the day for people to easily come and pray in silence or seek help in times of sickness or death, or for emergency relief or repatriation – services that at times are not provided by the migrants’ own embassies.[16]

An expression of the vicariate’s gratitude for the service of its migrant parishioners was the generous support that the Cardinal contributed to the special housing project of the Couples for Christ in the Philippines, called Gawad-Kalinga. The Vicariate financed a series of new homes for the urban poor in Rosemary Lane, Barangay Kapitolyo in the Philippines. In a chance encounter this writer had with then-Bishop Sim many years ago, the good bishop showed a good grasp of the names of the Filipino volunteers in his church’s various ministries, showing how familiar and close he had been with those who sing in the choir, serve in the liturgy or assist in the programs.

A Creative Church

Living in a society where they are a minority, the Catholics of Brunei learned creativity in witnessing to their faith. Their situation pushed them to embrace a vital lesson in inter-religious relations and harmony – the value of dialogue.

From youth to adulthood, they found themselves in a necessary interaction and exchange with schoolmates, playmates, neighbors, friends, workmates, and relatives who are followers of Islam, traditional religions, Protestants, or those without formal religious affiliation.

In the schools run by the Vicariate, students learn how to be open to diversity. They are taught to accept children of different faiths, or no faith. The good quality of education and this attitude of tolerance and acceptance combine in making local Catholics respectful of others and cooperative with others towards the achievement of common goals.

On the formal level, the Vicariate represents Catholics in participating in official dialogues initiated by the government. These meetings bring them in contact with government agencies concerned with education, foreign affairs or situations of local and pressing concerns. The Vicariate welcomes every opportunity to take part in interreligious encounters since these can foster fruitful mutual relations with the government and with faith communities.

Most important for the Catholics in Brunei is the dialogue of life. Dialogue is multi-tiered. It can take place on the level of theory, spirituality or practicality. Dialogue of life focuses on the existential and pressing concerns common to the partners. It is experienced on the day-to-day relations between ordinary people who must engage with each other and live side by side with each other notwithstanding the differences in religion or creed. Catholics in Brunei communicate Jesus through their kindness, friendship, cooperation and service, for the common good of all. They strive to live in peace with everyone around them.

[1] Gawad Kalinga started as a ministry of the Couples for Christ, a Philippine-born lay family movement. The ministry intended to provide decent homes for the poor together with a formation in values through faith and community. The ministry soon became a nationwide movement involving private and public sector groups and is now oriented towards addressing and eliminating the root causes of poverty.

See the official website, https://gk1world.com/gkhistory.

[2] A consistory is a public celebration in Rome in which clergymen chosen to be Cardinals receive the insignias of their privileged rank from the hands of the Pope. The most famous of these marks of a Cardinal is the so-called “red hat” or biretta which the Pope places on a nominee’s head.

[3] See Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam, https://rcvbd.com/home (accessed April 23, 2022).

[4] Both an Apostolic Prefecture and an Apostolic Vicariate are territories that are not yet designated as a diocese or a fully established local church. A prefecture is led by a clergyman who is called a Prefect and a vicariate, by one who called a Vicar. He may or may not be an ordained bishop. The Prefect and the Vicar are directly responsible to the Pope regarding the administration of their territory. See: Code of Canon Law, Vatican Archives, https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib2-cann368-430_en.html (accessed on April 23, 2022).

[5] See above.

[6] Fr. Odoric Pordenone was a Franciscan friar whose 14th century missionary exploits became famous. He was also reputed to have celebrated the first Mass in the Philippines two hundred years before the Spaniards arrived, a claim not supported by the National Historical Commission, but is alive in local lore in Pangasinan province. See Andrei Yuvallos, “The Legend of the First Filipino Mass,” NOLISOLI.PH (Dec. 4, 2020), https://nolisoli.ph/91214/first-christmas-in-the-philippines-fr-odorico-ayuvallos-20201224/ (accessed on May 3, 2022).

[7] The Missionary Society of St. Joseph or Mill Hill Missionaries (MHM) is an English missionary society founded in 1866, whose members are engaged in missionary and pastoral work in various parts of the world, including a strong presence in Asia. See the official website: https://millhillmissionaries.com/

[8] “The Catholic Church in Brunei,” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brunei-catholic-church (accessed on April 23, 2022).

[9] A sultanate is a territory or country governed by a leader or sovereign called sultan who is invested, according to Muslim beliefs, with moral, spiritual and governmental powers. See “Sultan,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/sultan-Islamic-title (accessed April 23, 2022).

[10] “Brunei 2020 International Religious Freedom Report,” US Department of State,   https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/brunei/ (accessed on April 23, 2022).

[11] AsiaNews, Church in Brunei, a Young and “Missionary,” Reality (Nov, 9, 2013), https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Church-in-Brunei,-a-young-and-missionary%E2%80%9D-reality-29497.html (accessed on April 1, 2022).

[12] UCANews, Foreigners Vacate Brunei Where Christmas is Banned (Dec. 23, 2019), https://www.ucanews.com/news/foreigners-vacate-brunei-where-christmas-is-banned/86872 (accessed on April 1, 2022).

[13] Vatican News, Robin Gomes, Cardinal Sim: Brunei Church Has Something to Share with Older Churches, (Dec. 4, 2020), https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2020-12/brunei-church-sim-interview-periphery-migrants-muslim-dialogue.html  (Accessed on April 2, 2022).

[14] Vatican website, Address of the Holy Father Paul VI to All the Bishops of Asia Nov. 28, 1970) https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/speeches/1970/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19701128_vescovi.html (accessed on April 15, 2022).

[15] Saint Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Parish, Exclusive Interview: A Conversation with Cardinal Sim,   https://saintcharles.co.za/exclusive-interview-a-conversation-with-cardinal-sim-the-world-traveled-engineer-who-initially-declined-ordination-to-priesthood-who-would-become-bruneis-1st-bishop-cardinal-zenit/ (accessed on April 15, 2022).

[16] Ibid.

image above from UCAN news

by: ourparishpriest 2023