MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis will be welcomed in this Catholic heartland on Thursday by a Filipino cardinal who might one day succeed him: a boyish-looking priest who rode the bus as a bishop and has impressed many with his intellect, humble life and compassion for the poor.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle sings on stage, preaches on TV and is on Facebook to spread the church’s message. His down-to-earth demeanor, poignant homilies and accessibility to the masses reflect many of the same qualities that have enabled Francis to dazzle the world.
Those traits and his keen knowledge of theology helped the 57-year-old archbishop of Manila nurture the faith amid a tide of secularism, competition from other faiths, clergy sex abuse scandals and other crises that have rocked the Catholic world. He has emerged as Asia’s most prominent Catholic leader.
When Tagle’s name was mentioned in Vatican circles as among the possible successors to Pope Benedict XVI two years ago, even the remote prospect of a Filipino pope electrified many in the heavily Catholic Philippines and turned him into a celebrity.
“He became the darling of the masses,” said Cynthia Campos of the Catholic group Couples for Christ.
“He has this personal touch, presence or aura that allows him to connect with the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor,” Campos said, adding she could not help comparing Tagle with Francis, whom she met last year in the Vatican during a synod of cardinals, bishops and lay workers.
Rita Asibar, a 53-year-old who lives with her three children in a Manila garbage dump, said she prays that Tagle will become pope someday.
“That’ll be good for all of us,” Asibar said. “Our prayers can easily reach God.”
The churchman who last drew such deep admiration among Filipino Catholics was Cardinal Jaime Sin, who died in 2005. An influential spiritual leader and moral compass, Sin helped rally multitudes in the massive “people power” revolts that ousted two presidents, including dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Sin’s death left a vacuum in the church saddled with the task of shepherding Catholics in a country plagued by poverty, divisions, crimes and long-raging Muslim and Marxist insurgencies. Unlike Sin, Tagle was not propelled by extraordinary political events; people who know him say he slowly carved a reputation for simple, day-to-day acts that defined him as a man of deep faith and compassion.
Even as a bishop, Tagle did not own a car. He took buses or popular working-class minibuses known as “jeepneys” to church and elsewhere. He ate with workers and sang for church charities, impressing many with his baritone.
“He told me that from time to time, he would go to the slums and eat and exchange stories with the residents there,” Campos said. She added that the cardinal maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts to stay in touch with large numbers of tech-savvy Filipinos.
Both Benedict and Francis placed high hopes on Tagle. Benedict appointed him archbishop of Manila in 2011 and made him a cardinal in 2012. Francis followed up with a vote of confidence by naming him one of three presidents of the cornerstone of his papacy so far, the Synod on the Family, a two-year church study on providing better pastoral care for families.
Tagle has impressed with his call for the church to be more humble, to listen to ordinary Catholics and to look out for the poor and suffering.
He has voiced particular concern over the plight of Filipinos who must go abroad to find work to earn enough money to support their families back home. Such marriages, he says, can fail because of love and not hatred.
At the same time, Tagle has not shied from defending core church doctrine on contraception, helping lead the Philippine church’s opposition to a reproductive health legislation backed by President Benigno Aquino III. Congress, dominated by Aquino’s allies, passed the legislation in 2012.
Tagle’s appointment as Manila archbishop was initially met with surprise, given his participation in a controversial, progressive written history of the Second Vatican Council, the ground-breaking 1962-65 meetings that ushered the Catholic Church into the modern world.
Benedict spent the better part of the past quarter-century insisting that Vatican II was not a break with church tradition but rather a continuation, whereas the so-called Bologna school which produced the multi-volume Vatican II history viewed it much more as a rupture from the past.
Tagle was a young theologian when he wrote a key chapter in the series in 1999. He studied at the Catholic University of America under the American editor of the series, Father Joseph Komonchak.
Francis’ visit to the Philippines, with the theme “mercy and compassion,” comes after a difficult period of armed conflict and natural disasters, including Typhoon Haiyan, which leveled entire villages and left thousands of people dead and missing in November 2013 in central Leyte province, where the pope will spend a day to console survivors.
Campos said the combined presence of Francis and Tagle during the pope’s trip will be a doubly reassuring sight.
While all the attention could help their evangelical work, the two church leaders apparently don’t relish the attention heaped on them.
“He doesn’t want his humility extolled,” Tagle’s spokeswoman Peachy Yamsuan said.
Tagle said as much for the pope. After meeting Francis in November to discuss the Philippine trip, Tagle said the pope told him people were “creating their own Pope Francis.”
“Who creates those stories? Who creates those legends?” Tagle quoted Francis as saying. “… Don’t focus on me. Focus on Jesus.”
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