MANILA—Filipino Catholics cheered the promotion of their very own, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, to the highest order of cardinals, believing this cemented his stature as a leading contender to be the next pope.
It’s a sense of pride not uncommon among Catholics with a tendency to root for someone climbing the ladder of the universal Church based on ethnic lines.
We saw that with the Poles when Karol Wojtyła was elected pope in 1978, the Germans when Joseph Ratzinger ascended the throne of Peter in 2005, and the Argentines when Jorge Mario Bergoglio replaced Benedict XVI in 2013.
The election of Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, was trailblazing, signaling a departure from bureaucratic tradition and an embracing of the first pontiff from the Americas, one known for his passion for reform—a number of which he set off as promised.
But like Benedict, Francis has struggled with the so-called “gay lobby” within the Vatican—not to be confused as a group pressuring the hierarchy to abandon the church’s teachings on homosexuality. Instead, it’s described as a “loosely organized network of clergy who support one another, keep one another’s secrets, and help one another move up the ladder.”
Benedict dealt with this same cabal, which was believed to have been one of the reasons he resigned.
In dealing with such force of stubborn old-timers, Francis sought to surround himself with like-minded reformists from outside the curia, trusted collaborators such as Tagle who shared his vision for the Church at this time.
So, the fact that the pope elevated this Filipino rising star to the rank of cardinal bishop was not suprising, also given his new designation as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. But it’s extraordinary just the same.
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The order of bishops is the highest within the college of cardinals, which includes the rank of cardinal deacons and cardinal priests.
Traditionally, the Church had only six cardinal bishops corresponding to the same number of suburbicarian dioceses, or ancient church communities surrounding Rome, to which they’re assigned as titular heads.
Under Francis, four more officials working in the Roman Curia were added to the order of cardinal bishops in 2018, and two more prelates just recently: Italy’s Benjamino Stella and Tagle.
But in the case of Tagle, Francis did so through a special rescript, “equating (the appointment) in all respects to the cardinals awarded the title of a suburbicarian Church.”
“This is an exceptional way of making him a member of the order,” wrote Gerard O’Connell in America Magazine.
But does it mean that Francis, 83, is actually grooming his possible successor in Tagle, who was himself identified by some Vatican watchers as a “papabile” as early as the 2013 conclave?
Tagle’s profile continued to rise under Francis: he was elected the first president from Asia of Caritas Internationalis, the global confederation of 160 Catholic charities, in 2015.
Last year, he was re-elected for another four-year term, but Francis brought him in for a much bigger role as head of the Vatican’s top missionary department.
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is set to be restructured into a “super” dicastery next only to the Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s foreign affairs department, leaving no doubt that Tagle is indeed among the most important people within the pope’s inner circle.
“The pope will really work through you,” said Msgr. Pepe Quitorio, who heads the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ media office.
As head of Propaganda Fidei, the old name of the congregation, Tagle oversees the Church’s evangelization work in mission territories, providing support and resources to missionary clergy so they could introduce the Gospel more effectively.
The terrain is not always welcoming.
China, for instance, presents a unique challenge to Tagle because of the continued repression of underground Catholics there despite a “provisional agreement” that gave the Vatican a say in the selection of bishops there. But the deal was seen as more advantageous to Beijing than the Holy See.
“Adding to the complexity of Propaganda’s mission profile and portfolio is the fact that much of the world that received the Gospel in the earliest centuries of Christianity has once again become mission territory,” wrote Christopher Altieri.
The missionary blueprint, of course, is “rooted in the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church,” according to Francis, who described mission as a gift received freely in baptism and must be shared freely as well.
“Without Jesus and the Holy Spirit, mission is not a going forth that comes from the Father,” Tagle told Vatican News.
“It becomes a human project, a social or civic program, which may be good per se, but may not be Christian or ecclesial mission in the true meaning of the word `mission.’”
Tagle had known Francis even when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio. But the two grew closer under his papacy.
The Filipino prelate recalled an image of the Argentine shortly after his name was announced as the next pope in the 2013 conclave.
“I saw him seated with his head bowed. My exuberance suddenly turned to pathos. In the new Pope´s posture of bowing, I felt the weight of obedience or bowing to God´s mysterious will. I also felt the need to bow in prayer, an act of trust in God who is the true Shepherd of the Church,” he said.
Tagle might also find himself in a similar position in the next conclave, but that would be premature and presumptuous, even if at 62, and with his high-profile work in the Vatican, he would be a logical successor.
As the saying among Vaticanistas goes, “he who enters the conclave as pope comes out a cardinal.”
To be sure, Tagle’s performance in the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples will provide his peers a good view of whether he could take on the next big role if or when the time comes.
But more importantly, Tagle is in a rare and difficult position to serve the Church more and bring the Gospel to the margins.