x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Filipino cardinal stirs papal talk with rapid rise

Asia's most prominent Roman Catholic leader has stirred a previously unimaginable possibility: an Asian pope.

Philippine cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (centre) arrives for an afternoon meeting of the pre-conclave at the Vatican.
Philippine cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (centre) arrives for an afternoon meeting of the pre-conclave at the Vatican.

IMUS, Philippines // Asia's most prominent Roman Catholic leader knows how to reach the masses: he sings on stage, preaches on TV, brings churchgoers to laughter and tears with his homilies. And he's on Facebook.

But Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle's best response against the tide of secularism, clergy sex abuse scandals and rival-faith competition could be his reputation for humility. His compassion for the poor and unassuming ways have impressed followers in his homeland, Asia's largest Catholic nation, and church leaders in the Vatican.

As cardinals gathered in the Vatican yesterday for their final day of talks before the conclave to elect the next pope, Cardinal Tagle's rising star has opened a previously unimaginable possibility: an Asian pope.

The Filipino prelate's chances are considered remote, as many believe that Latin America or Africa - with their faster growing Catholic flocks - would be more logical choices if the papal electors look beyond Europe. But even the hint of papal consideration has electrified many in the heavily Catholic Philippines, where past pontiffs had been welcomed by millions with rock-star intensity.

"It'll bring such immense glory to us and our country," said Leo Matias, one of several waiters at a Chinese restaurant in Manila's suburban Quezon City who served dinner to Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1995.

The restaurant has displayed the set of spoon, fork, table napkin, water goblet and knives - still unwashed after the pope's meal of grilled fish and fried shrimp.

The talks surrounding Cardinal Tagle have been fuelled by prominent Vatican experts, who see in the boyish-looking cardinal the religious zest, stamina, charisma and communications skills that could energise the church facing crises on many fronts.

John Thavis, a Vatican analyst and author of The Vatican Diaries, said the selection of Polish-born John Paul II in 1979 shows the "unthinkable" can occur once the cardinals are closed off in the conclave.

"There are people, even Vatican officials here, who have whispered to me, 'Tagle, he's the man,'" Mr Thavis said.

When asked about the papal buzz, Cardinal Tagle demurred: "Only a speculation."

"He's an effective communicator and missionary at a time when Catholicism's highest internal priority is a new evangelisation," John Allen, a Rome-based analyst, wrote for the National Catholic Reporter.

"Tagle incarnates the dramatic growth of Catholicism outside the West, putting a face on the dynamic and relatively angst-free form of Catholicism percolating in the Southern Hemisphere," he said. "He would certainly be a symbol of the church in the emerging world, but given his intellectual and personal qualities, hardly a hollow one."

Cardinal Tagle's relative youth - at 55, he's the second youngest among the cardinals - could be a liability. Cardinals could be reluctant to risk giving the reins of the Vatican to someone who could reign for decades.

The churchman who last caught the deep adoration of many Filipino Catholics was Cardinal Jaime Sin, who died in 2005. A beloved spiritual leader and moral compass, Sin helped rally multitudes in the massive "people power" revolts that ousted two presidents, including the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Sin's death left a vacuum in the church saddled with the task of shepherding Catholics in a country plagued by poverty, divisions, crime and long-raging Muslim and Marxist insurgencies. Unlike Sin, Cardinal Tagle was not propelled by any extraordinary events. But people who know him say that Cardinal Tagle slowly carved a reputation for simple, day-to-day acts that defined him as a man of deep faith and intellect.

One of two children of a pious Catholic couple, who worked in a bank, Cardinal Tagle dreamed of becoming a doctor. But he was redirected by a Jesuit friend to the priesthood at a seminary in the upscale Ateneo de Manila University, where he graduated summa cum laude, according to his theology professor, the Reverend Catalino Arevalo.

He's gifted with great communications skills. A wonderful storyteller with a bent for music, Cardinal Tagle speaks fluent Italian, English and Tagalog. He also has proficient French and can say Mass in Latin.

But he prefers to stay in the background.

"He's not somebody who sort of wants to, by personality, put himself at the centre of the stage," Rev Arevalo said. "Now, if he's called to be in front, he has all the capability of doing it."

Cardinal Tagle took clear positions on church and social issues but was never confrontational or "super militant", Rev Arevalo said. For instance, he encouraged dialogue when he helped lead an unsuccessful church campaign against the government-endorsed health plan that promotes contraceptives.

In October 2011, Pope Benedict declared Cardinal Tagle the new archbishop of Manila, then just a year later, elevated him to cardinal. Cardinal Tagle tearfully acknowledged in a recent homily that he was overwhelmed by his rapid rise. "It's unnerving," he said.