The Man Who Could Be Pope

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (Newscom)

Just hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement as Supreme Pontiff in February, Filipino social media users quickly raised the possibility that his successor could be Manila Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. The excitement was raised a notch higher after Reuters named him among the frontrunners to Peter’s throne.

Tagle’s trajectory as a Church leader has been unstoppable. Only two years ago, in October 2011, he was named Archbishop of Manila, following the retirement of Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales. A year later, in December 2012, the outgoing Pope named him Cardinal—the only active Filipino Cardinal so far—with the retirement of Rosales and Cebu Archbishop Cardinal Ricardo Vidal.

For ten years Tagle was bishop in the Imus diocese in Cavite, where he sealed his reputation as a bishop of and for the poor. Thus, if he emerges Pope after the conclave this March, it would be a fitting cap to his quick ascent to the top. 

Not bad for someone who flunked the test at the San Jose Seminary for aspiring seminarians and who had to beg to be accepted by the seminary administrators.

Tagle is not totally unknown in the Vatican, or to foreign bishops and cardinals. He was a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, which advises the Pope on matters of faith and was known to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict.

Even when he was still priest, he was a sought-after speaker, getting invited to international seminars and conferences. At the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec, Tagle reportedly brought the audience to tears with his lecture.

Tagle earned the admiration of his peers and younger priests for his honest critiques of the Church and the excesses of its leaders. At the time when other bishops and archbishops turned a blind eye on the abuses and excesses committed by clergymen, Tagle was like a voice in the wilderness, preaching self-examination and a return to the basics and the Church’s real agenda, which is to serve the poor.

Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle gets his cardinal's hat from Pope Benedict XVI on Novemberr 24, 2012. (AP)

Same, But Not Like Cardinal Sin

In many ways, Tagle has shared a kindred fate with the Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. Both were considerably young by Church standards to be appointed as Manila Archbishop—Sin was 46 and Tagle was 54. Both are charismatic and have an instinctive bias for the poor.

But Tagle is an engaging speaker, compared with the monotone Sin. Too, while Sin’s statements almost always leaned to the political, Tagle’s favored the practical, sociological and theological aspects. But for all of Sin’s sins of omission and commission, Tagle lacked the leadership quality that Sin seemed to command within the hierarchy of the Church.

This lack of leadership was evident in the Church’s losing battle against the Reproductive Health law. While other elder Church leaders went out of their way to criticize the controversial measure and campaign in the local level to nip the RH measure in the bud, Tagle played it safe, refraining from engaging in arguments, discussions or even lobbying.

During their time, Sin and Rosales organized and led rallies against the RH measure, prompting other bishops in their own dioceses to hold their own rallies.

In Manila, under Tagle’s jurisdiction, out of the six congressional districts, two voted in favor of the RH. While the anti-RH won in his ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the RH measure won in suffragan or subordinate dioceses in Quezon City, Pasig and Paranaque. Church observers say Tagle could have done more, and that a stronger position against RH could have made a big difference.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, shown here with fellow cardinals, is mentioned as one of ten top papabiles, or cardinals who can possibly be Pope. (Reuters)

Too Young to Be Pope

But three prelates we interviewed brushed aside Tagle’s seeming lack of leadership as a possible handicap to getting the cardinals’ vote in the conclave.

The biggest factor that could go against him, they say, is his age.

Rosales, 81, points out that Tagle only became a cardinal in November last year and has barely warmed his seat attending to the affairs of the Manila archdiocese. “He has to gain more experience.”  At the age of 81, Rosales is no longer eligible to vote for the next Pope, as only cardinals 80 years and younger can participate in the conclave.

Rosales says that running a prime post like Manila is way more difficult than running a diocese or an archdiocese in the provinces. He knows this from experience. Rosales fixed the messy affairs left behind by Sin in the Manila Archdiocese. When his retirement was accepted by the Vatican, he was more than glad to give up the post.

Apart from Tagle’s relative young age, retired Nueva Caceres Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, 78, says that papal contenders have their own separate supporters, and in a conclave dominated by old cardinals, the odds are against the Manila cardinal. “In the Church there is also politics,” he says, and those who are considered papabili “have their own groups that support them.”

Tagle is not totally unknown in the Vatican, or to foreign bishops and cardinals.

Tagle is just one of the ten cardinals from Asia, out of the 116 cardinals worldwide, eligible to vote. Europeans dominate the present circle of cardinals.

Former CBCP president and retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, 78, shares his colleagues’ views. He says that by “force of reason, cardinals would be voting for the papabile they know. And these are the experienced ones who are up to the job.”

The three retired prelates agree that only a miracle or divine intervention can put Tagle on Peter’s Throne.

The National Catholic Reporter perhaps best sums up Tagle’s chances: “Some cardinals may look at Tagle and see a promising young churchman but somebody who's not quite ready for prime time. One can imagine a number of them saying quietly to one another, ‘He'd make a great pope...someday.

Aries Rufo

Aries Rufo

Aries Rufo is an investigative journalist and has covered the religion beat, politics, judiciary and the elections. His articles on these subjects have received citations and recognition, among them the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism.