It is a bit of a sad reality that when the conclave to elect the next Pope opens at the Vatican sometime between March 10 and March 20, only one elector will come from the Philippines. That voter is himself a papabile, the term used in Rome for a potential candidate as the next pope. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the 55-year-old Archbishop of Manila will be the lone voice representing 80 million Filipino Roman Catholics when the elections for the next pope will ensue.
Is Cardinal Tagle really in the running to be the next pope? I am here in Manila on a book project (which keeps me mostly inside the air conditioned confines of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Money Museum) and therefore I cannot feel the pulse of the people, as it were, unlike what I felt in Rome among Filipino expatriates and pilgrims when Pope Benedict XVI announced that Bishop Tagle was to receive the Cardinal’s hat shortly. Back then, everyone was agog over the fact that he was inching ever closer to the papacy with the pope himself seemingly showing the right signal that he was a worthy contender by giving him the cardinalate after barely a year on the throne of the Manila archdiocese.
Yesterday, I read a spoiler in the person of a former employee of Malacañang who questioned the Cardinal’s management skills. I wonder whether that nasty opinion had any objective basis, given the very brief period that Tagle has been archbishop of the largest archdiocese in the country. Be that as it may, it will not be his management skills that will come into question when the voting comes. Vatican has a bureaucracy that has been tested for nearly two millennia now. Any pope can come in and perhaps even turn insane inside but the whole bureaucracy there will continue to grind nonetheless. In other words, management skill is not the most important factor that will come into play when the conclave unveils in March.
For Cardinal Tagle, what will work in his favor is the perception of an imprimatur, an endorsement, from Pope Benedict XVI himself in the body language that is often talked about whenever the two meet in gatherings at the Vatican. The pope has been known to spend more time conversing with Tagle than with any other cardinal during these meetings. It was this same pope, in fact, when he was still Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, who introduced the young Fr. Tagle to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, where Tagle was to sit. Cardinal Ratzinger was allegedly heard to have jokingly said to the pope, “Don’t worry, he has already received his first communion.”
That joke, made over a decade ago, also serves as an important footnote to the cardinal electors who will most probably see the boyish-looking Cardinal Tagle as too young to be pope who, if elected, will be at the Vatican for three decades, much like Pope John Paul II did—far too long for other cardinals to feel comfortable. The election of 78-year-old Josef Cardinal Ratzinger after Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005 was in fact interpreted as a forceful point made of ushering in a leader that would not last too long and leave too much of an impact. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, in this sudden and unexpected resignation to take effect on February 28, has not failed those who saw to it that his papacy would be brief.
Given a strong anti-Eurocentric undertone reverberating all over the Roman Catholic world—something that one really feels also as one gets nearer and nearer to the Vatican—it will not be so much of a surprise if the next pope will come from outside Europe. Already some are saying that the next pope will most likely come from the Latin American countries (with about 11 cardinal electors) which now count about 1.2 billion Catholics or from Africa where the Catholic mission is ever-expanding.
As a Filipino, however, I do hope that the age factor will be overcome by the cardinal-electors who will then see in Cardinal Tagle the person who will bring Roman Catholicism out of its Eurocentricism and who will appreciate the vibrant expressions of faith that one can only see most especially here in the Philippines.
Let us hope then that come election time in March, the Holy Spirit will see to this.