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It’s worth taking another look at the “Asian Pope Francis”

Sebastian Gomes

Thursday, January 22, 2015

For those who watched or witnessed the recent papal visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, it’s impossible not to have noticed the involvement of Manila’s archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. Tagle is easily the most popular Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and not just among Filipinos. He’s been likened to Pope Francis, in wide popularity, yes, but also in his humble demeanor, authenticity and strong pastoral sense.
Much has been written about Tagle since his ordination as bishop in 2001 (now 57, he was a youthful 43 at the time. In comparison, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made bishop at 56). His appointment as Cardinal in November of 2012 came as a surprise because of his age, but even more significant was the context of that unusual consistory. A month earlier during the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would appoint six new cardinals, which in hindsight, we know was a preemptive move leading up to his resignation on February 28th, 2013. Pope Benedict obviously wanted Tagle in the conclave.
In Pope Francis’ four day trip to the Philippines, nothing was more astonishing than the final Mass he celebrated with six-million-plus faithful Filipinos in rainy conditions. It was a record-breaking spectacle. At the end of the Mass the local bishop spoke a few words of thanks, as is the tradition, and since the celebration took place in Manila, the honor went to Cardinal Tagle.
After thanking the Pope on behalf of the people, Tagle said:
“You arrived in the Philippines three days ago. Tomorrow you will go. Every Filipino wants to go with you! Don’t be afraid, every Filipino wants to go with you—not to Rome—but to the peripheries! We want to go with you to the shanties, to prison cells, to hospitals, to the world of politics, finance, arts, sciences, culture, education, and social communications. We will go to those worlds to bring the light of Christ. Jesus is the center of your pastoral visit and the cornerstone of the Church. We will go with you, Holy Father, where the Light of Jesus is needed. Here in Luneta, the Qurino Grandstand, where heroes are revered, where newly elected presidents take office and popes meet the Filipino people; here in this place of new beginnings, please Holy Father, send us as your missionaries of light! Send us! Before you go, Holy Father, send us to spread the light of Jesus. Wherever you see the light of Jesus shining, even in Rome, even in Santa Marta, remember the Filipino people are with you in spreading the light of Jesus!”
As Cardinal Tagle spoke, he and the Pope looked at each other with great affection. There was a sense of emotion that could be felt, and it was clear to everyone that this was not a meeting of formal protocol, but a meeting of minds and hearts.
The Cardinal’s words are worth noting. They were a clear pronouncement of solidarity with the Pope and his vision of a church with Christ at its center that lives on the peripheries. The roller-coaster pontificate of Pope Francis has shown that that message is not easy to digest for some Catholics, let alone to shout from the rooftops as Tagle did.
But, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Tagle took such a stand with the current Pontiff. Yes, his humility, authenticity and pastoral sense can be likened to Francis. But Tagle has been around for a lot longer than Pope Francis. In other words, the song that Francis is singing is one Tagle knows the words to.
For example, at the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization Tagle quickly became a major player. His intervention was one of the shortest and most direct, and helped shift the discussion away from a critique of secularism, materialism and the like, to one of genuine self-reflection. He called for a Church that is more humble; a Church that is respectful of every person, especially the neglected; a Church that has the capacity for silence, knowing it does not possess the answer to every problem facing the human family. “The world,” he said, “takes delight in a simple witness to Jesus—meek and humble of heart.”
Last October during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I had the chance to interview Tagle after the publication of the infamous “midterm report”. The report, which used unprecedented language of inclusion and welcome regarding people with a homosexual orientation, was criticized by some bishops who wanted to critique and amend it prior to its publication.
In our interview, Tagle defended the content of the document and praised the “spirit” and “creative tension” it communicated, feeling that it was faithful to the week-one discussions. When I asked him about the spirit inside the Synod, he called it, “a spirit of listening… which led me to a rather humble stance.” This humility, he continued, reminded the bishops that the situations families find themselves in today are often complex. Juxtaposed to the ideals of the Church’s tradition, Tagle finished by asking, “Can we allow these two realities to intersect, and allow the [Holy] Spirit to surprise us?”
I reference this last quote in order to bring us back to the original thought: the parallels between Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. In his homily during the closing Mass of the Synod, at which Pope Paul VI was beatified, Pope Francis said in almost “Tagle-an” words:
“God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new”. A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”!”
With the powerful image of these two bishops in front of us, we might say that a good test of humility—and faith—is the degree to which we are open to and able to be surprised by God. In the context of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, that means precisely putting the reality of complex pastoral situations in dialogue with the Church’s tradition and allowing for new possibilities to emerge. What happens at part-two of the Synod in October and in the coming years is anybody’s guess; Tagle was re-appointed last November as one of the presidents for the 2015 Synod by Francis. What we do know is that with Cardinal Tagle, Pope Francis isn’t the only “voice crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23)

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