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A star rising in the east: Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/28/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The Cardinal's youth may be a big asset given Benedict's reasons for abdicating

The Star of Bethlehem is seemingly not the only star to rise in the east. At just 55 years old and having been made a Cardinal in November 2012, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines, is seen by many as the choice for a completely fresh approach to the papacy.

Given his recent elevation and next to zero experience in the Vatican, many would dismiss his chances. Bl. John Paul II was elected at the age of 58, and Vatican observers would conclude that the Church does not need another papacy that lasts twenty or thirty years. However, now that Benedict XVI has set a new precedent of retirement, the cardinals may choose a young man, assuming that he will retire after fifteen years in office.

Those who speculate in this way can’t second guess either the cardinals in conclave or the Holy Spirit. The next Pope will be elected not only on his accomplishments and credentials, but also on factors that cannot necessarily be predicted or prescribed. There is always room for surprises in the Sistine Chapel.

Born of devout Catholic parents, Cardinal Tagle could recite the rosary at the age of three. He went to seminary in Quezon City in the Philippines, and then went on to complete his doctorate at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC. Tagle’s doctoral dissertation at CUA was a positive exploration of episcopal collegiality at the Second Vatican Council. This is an indicator to more traditionalist cardinals that he might be closer to the progressive end of the spectrum. Adding to this reputation, he also served on the editorial board of the progressive-leaning “History of Vatican II” project, founded by Giuseppe Alberigo in Italy.

Cynical observers say Cardinal Tagle hasn’t a chance of being elected, but because he seems young and somewhat liberal, the left wing media are promoting him as their darling boy. Putting such speculation aside, let’s look more closely at the Cardinal from Manila. 

After his time in the United States, Tagle studied and taught in Rome before returning home to work. He was appointed to the Vatican’s main doctrinal advisory body in 1997, and was named Bishop of Imus in 2001 before going on to be appointed Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila.

Cardinal Tagle is a very attractive character. National Catholic Reporter correspondent John Allen quotes one Filipino commentator saying Tagle has “a theologian’s mind, a musician’s soul, and a pastor’s heart.”

Allen recounts several anecdotes: “In the Imus Diocese, Tagle was famous for not owning a car and taking the bus to work every day, describing it as a way to combat the isolation that sometimes comes with high office. He was also known for inviting beggars outside the cathedral to come in and eat with him.” 

Allen quotes another typical story: “In Imus, a small chapel located in a run-down neighborhood was waiting for a priest to say Mass at around 4 a.m. for a group mostly made up of day laborers. Eventually, a youngish cleric showed up on a cheap bicycle, wearing simple clothes and ready to start the Mass.” It was Tagle, the new bishop. He got word late the night before that the priest was sick and decided to say the Mass himself.

Tagle is an inspiring speaker with a good command of the new media. He has a Facebook page and hosts a television program. He’s also been active in helping quash clerical child abuse, has stood up to the Philippine government over controversial ‘reproductive rights’ legislation, and is known to promote a preferential option for the poor and proper stewardship of the environment.

What would a Tagle papacy look like? First of all, it would shift the world’s attention from Europe to the developing world. A Filipino Pope would direct our focus to the plight of the poor, and the social, economic and spiritual needs of the Church in the developing world.

Secondly, Pope Tagle would shift the attention from the aging world to the youthfulness of the developing world. This would be a papacy for the future; a young, crisp, focused, energetic, and challenging papacy. John Allen quotes Tagle, who sums it all up by saying, “In the Asian context, effective evangelization means a Church that’s humbler, simpler, and with a greater capacity for silence.”

Third, a youthful Pope from the Philippines who is a bright and able communicator would bring a sense of priority and passion to the papacy. Many commentators speak of the necessity to sweep clean the corruption and internal squabbles within the Vatican. A youthful, evangelizing Pope who can remain active on the global stage might sweep the place clean simply by moving forward at such a brisk pace that everyone else would have to run just to keep up with him.

At the young age of 55 and relatively inexperienced, could such a man be elected to be the Successor of Peter? If not now, maybe next time.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism, Pure and Simple.

Visit his blog and browse his books

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