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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle

Cardinal Tagle

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Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Gokim Tagle is Primate of the Philippines and titular archpriest of San Felice da Cantalice a Centocelle in Rome. He is the country’s 32nd archbishop and when he was named a cardinal last October he became the second youngest cardinal in the world (he is just two years older than Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of India). Cardinal Tagle is already a household name in the Philippines and is often seen around Manila, commuting to work on his bike. But only recently have the worldwide media taken an interest. At 55, he is one of the youngest papabile with many in the Philippines hoping he will become Asia’s first pope.

Fr Francis Lucas, executive secretary of the Filipino bishops’ commission on social communication and mass media, believes Cardinal Tagle has the qualities necessary to be the next Bishop of Rome. “He’s humble, meek, simple, bright, media-savvy, spiritual,” he told GMA News. “He prays a lot… you can’t see any conceitedness in him.”

Born in Manila on June 21 1957 to Manuel Topacio Tagle Sr and Milagros Gokim Tagle, he and his only brother, Manuel Gokim Tagle Jr, were brought up in a devoutly Catholic environment. At the age of three he was already able to recite the rosary. He went to school at St Andrew’s in Parañaque City where he hoped to become a doctor, but on a visit with his parish priest he was struck by the needs of a poor parish and felt a calling to become a priest. As a seminarian of the San Jose Major Seminary he read philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University, the second highest-ranked university in the Philippines. He then went on to study theology at the Loyola School of Theology, completing his licentiate and doctorate at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

He was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 24 and was appointed pastor at St Augustine parish in Mendez, Cavite, where he stayed for three years. He taught theology at three different seminaries, one in Cavite and two in Metro Manila.

In 1997 Blessed Pope John Paul II appointed Fr Tagle as a member of the International Theological Commission, where he became a close collaborator of Pope Benedict XVI, who was president at the time. Assisting the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Tagle played a key role in examining and addressing doctrinal questions. Fr Tagle developed ties with the progressive theological School of Bologna, contributing to the school’s controversial history of the Second Vatican Council project, which interprets Vatican II as a “new beginning” for the Church.

A strong pro-life advocate, Tagle opposed the Reproductive Health Bill that was signed into law last December by the country’s president, Benigno Aquino III. The bill aims to provide free contraception and family planning advice through government health centres.

In a statement in December Cardinal Tagle said: “The vote in favour of the bill in congress is unfortunate and tragic. But we do not take it as a defeat of truth – for truth shall prevail, especially the truth about human life, marriage and family.” It is this vocal dedication to the Church that makes him an appealing candidate for pope.

Cardinal Tagle is well-known for his presence on various social networking sites, and is the most popular cardinal on Facebook, with nearly 200,000 “likes”. His homilies are frequently searched for on YouTube and he hosts a television show called The Word Exposed, which seeks to reflect on the Gospel and answer spiritual questions. It is ironic, then, to discover that Cardinal Tagle was quite shy when he was younger. Speaking to the Philippine Daily Inquirer he said: “I’ve never been the active type. Even my teachers from grade school and high school will tell you: ‘Ah yes Chito, he’s always quiet.’”

Though this may be the case, he is held in great esteem by his fans and the media. Maccabeus, one of the administrators of the Facebook page of 100% Katolikong Pinoy! (“100 per cent Filipino Catholic”), says one of his strengths is dealing with the media. “He utilises both traditional and social media, making him, as fans and critics coin, a media darling and he is [also] known for his piety and humility,” he explains.

But Maccabeus feels that, despite his laudable traits, Cardinal Tagle’s propensity to cry in public could count against him at the conclave. When he received the red hat last November he broke down in tears. “A leader of the Church can be emotional at times, but not all the time,” Maccabeus says.

Cardinal Tagle has said that he apologised to Benedict XVI the next day. The Pope, he said, replied: “No, you don’t have to say sorry. We need heart in the Church!”

Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins has said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he “would not be surprised” if the young cardinal was chosen next month. Back home, the popular Filipino television host and actress Kris Aquino, the younger sister of President Aquino, said “I hope” when asked by ABS CBN if she thought Cardinal Tagle could become pope.

Speaking about the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tagle said he admired the Holy Father for his decision. “We felt like children clinging to a father who bids them farewell. But sadness gives way to admiration for the Holy Father’s humility, honesty, courage and sincerity,” he said.

Despite many believing and hoping that Tagle will become pope, he has dismissed the media hype as “speculation”. He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “It’s better if I deal with truths and real concerns instead of wasting time about it. God and the Church act differently in such situations. [Papal elections] are not a popularity contest or a reality TV race where the winner with the most text votes wins.”