On the feast of Saints Simon and Jude (28th Oct), we heard the sad news about the demise of Malaysia’s first Cardinal, His Eminence Anthony Soter Fernandez who passed away at 12.35pm. He was a strong man like Saint Simon Peter, who put his heart and soul to build and guide the Church in Peninsular Malaysia. It was mixed emotions for me. I wasn’t shocked to hear about his passing, but I felt happy for him that at least the Lord had prepared him gracefully to end this earthly journey after a prolonged physical pain and suffering these couple of months. As his life was deteriorating, he stayed cool, calm and cheerful.
I met Archbishop Soter, the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur then, for the first time at his residence/office at Cardjin House, Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur in November 1992. Rev. Fr. Naden Anthony, the Vocation Director of KL Archdiocese then, and the late Rev Fr Leonard John, my Parish Priest, had made arrangements for me to meet him. I expressed my desire in wanting to be a priest. After an hour of conversation and sharing, he told me to take up an English course before entering the seminary. He also advised me to continue to pray and join the Parish Youth ministry. I just left silently, feeling a bit sad inside because at that time I thought he had already rejected me. I met him again in January 1995. This time he greeted me with a smile and gave me the acceptance letter to enter the seminary. Initially, I was reluctant to accept it but his words of affirmation and assurance had given me the confidence to join the seminary.
After completing my formation in the seminary, during my first Clergy Recollection in January 2003, Archbishop Soter enquired of me, “Are you ready for your ordination to the priesthood?” I conveyed my hesitation and requested for a 6-month to one-year break before getting ordained. He held my hands in front of Rev. Fr. Gerard Theraviam, my Parish Priest then, and gave me the date of ordination (12 February 2003) and told me, “Go and prepare yourself for the ordination!” I was stunned and tongue-tied for a moment.
He again surprised me just a few minutes before my ordination Mass took place. While the other clergy were queuing up for the procession into the church, Archbishop Soter approached me, “Which Parish would you like to be posted to?” I was clueless. He just smiled at me without saying anything. My posting was only announced at the end of the ordination ceremony – that I would be posted as assistant to Rev. Fr. Eugene Benedict at the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Kuantan and Terengganu). I only had the chance to serve as a priest under His Grace for just two months, before the announcement of his resignation as the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur in May 2003.
We became close friends over the years and even much friendlier when I moved to the Church of St. Joseph, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur. A few years back we both started to promote the “Sleeping Saint Joseph” statue and prayer cards and explained its spirituality which was introduced by Pope Francis. We were encouraging parishioners to pray to the Sleeping St. Joseph for courage and protection. As the Holy Father said, “Saint Joseph is a man of silence and strength… and even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church.” Our beloved Cardinal Soter too had a great love for St. Joseph. He, too was a man of silence and loved the Church very much till the end of his life.
Everyone remembers him as a very humble and simple man – which he truly was. A few days after my ordination I met him in his office and he immediately knelt before me and asked me to bless him. I was shocked that he, an archbishop was humble enough to kneel before me. Then he kissed both my anointed palms and hugged me. I count myself blessed as I am the last “son” ordained by him before his retirement. He always acknowledged me saying, “You are my youngest son.” I am proud to be his youngest son. He was a wise father figure and loving man.
The late Cardinal Soter had a very special place in his heart for the sick and the elderly. When I was based in Kuantan/Terengganu during his visits there, he would ask me to take him to visit the sick and the elderly. In fact, two years ago (2018), he requested me to drive him to Klang to visit a few sick people including my late mum. I was really touched by his gesture towards the sick and the dying. He truly cared for and showed great concern for the sick people and the least.
October is the month of the Rosary and the late Cardinal Soter had a great affection for our Lady. Back in 1992, during my first meeting with him and when he ‘rejected’ my initial desire to be a priest, he had given me a Rosary made of wooden beads and strongly encouraged me to pray to Our Lady daily for a strong vocation. I still keep and pray with that Rosary beads which he gave me 28 years ago. He passed on in the month of the Rosary and will be buried on the last day of the month of the Rosary. I believe he will continue to pray for us and he will ask Mother Mary to pray for all of us and for the Church in Malaysia. Be assured of our prayers and my humble pray for you – “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you into the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.”
Let us ceaselessly pray the Rosary daily taking the example of the Cardinal Soter a man of prayer. I would like to end here with a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): “In danger, in distress, in uncertainty, think of Mary, call upon her. She never leaves your lips; and she never departs from your heart; and so that you may obtain the help of her prayers, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot falter; if you pray to her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot err. If she sustains you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, you will never grow weary; if she shows you favour, you will attain your goal.” (The Priest, August 2020, vol. 76. No.8, pp. 14-18).
Rev. Fr. George Packiasamy