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On Sunday, 9 July 2023, Pope Francis announced the appointment of 21 new cardinals from the window of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Out of these newly appointed cardinals, 18 are electors. Electors are individuals who are under the age of 80 and have the right to vote in a conclave when selecting a new Pope. The Pontiff has carried out this action nine times since he was elected in 2013.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is truly fascinating, especially when it comes to the rank of “cardinal.”Cardinals are the senior members of the clergy within the Catholic Church. The Pope appoints cardinals for a lifetime. It is the responsibility of the Pope to name cardinals, and the longer he serves, the more he appoints to replace retiring cardinals through the conclave. Over the centuries, the Roman Pontiff appoints regional bishops as cardinals to help in administering various offices of the Universal Church. At present, there are 137 cardinal electors in the College of Cardinals. The minimum quorum required by the regulations is 120.

The Most Reverend Dato Seri Sebastian Francis, DD, who serves as the Bishop of Penang, was named a Cardinal-Elect on 9 July 2023. Pope Francis will officially elevate him to the cardinalate during the 9th consistory, which will take place on 30 September 2023. Sebastian Francis, who is now a Cardinal-Elect, has been serving the Diocese of Penang since 2012. He has been the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei since 2016.

After the passing of Cardinal Soter Fernandez, Cardinal-Elect Sebastian will be the second cardinal from our country. When I first heard the announcement about his appointment as announced by the Vatican, I was filled with excitement. I first met him back in 1993, when I was among the three individuals who sat for psychological evaluation exams known as Parisi Test, as a requirement for admission into the seminary. He was a priest moderator or person-in-charge of the examination.

In 1995, the late Cardinal Soter Fernandez, who was the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur at the time, accepted me into the seminary in Penang. During my Initiation Year, I had the privilege of being taught Vatican Council by Cardinal-Elect Sebastian and from 1996 to 1997, he was my Spiritual Director and Confessor.

Once his term as a lecturer and formator in the seminary was over, he returned to serve in the Diocese of Johor-Malacca - his place of origin. I would seek spiritual guidance and advice, especially when I was discerning becoming a priest. He gave me good advice, which then pointed me in the right direction. Before being ordained, I went to him for my personal 5-day retreat to prepare for my significant milestone. Cardinal-Elect Sebastian has played an instrumental role in guiding me throughout my seminary life and priesthood. Even during the initial stage of my ministry, he has been a wonderful mentor and spiritual guide.

Cardinal-Elect Sebastian… as you wear your scarlet robes and as the Pope places the biretta (a hat) on your head to symbolise your elevation to the cardinalate, may you enthusiastically act with courage to strengthen the Christian faith and promote peace among the people.

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