MANILA, Philippines — Persistent rumors that Pope Francis would resign because of old age and various infirmities, including a recent colon surgery, have fueled speculations on who the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church would be.
All bets appear to be on Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, former Manila archbishop, who heads the very important Dicastery for Evangelization, and is the third most important figure in the Holy See after Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state.
Tagle’s various Vatican positions, including being head of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican’s foremost charity and disaster relief agency, have made him a global figure as well.
Being appointed by Pope Francis to several offices has been widely seen as the Pope’s way of grooming his successor, that is, if he were following the example of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who renounced the papacy in 2013.
Benedict, who said he could no longer cope with the mental and physical demands of the world’s biggest Christian denomination, abdicated his post when he was 85. Francis turned 85 on Dec. 17 last year.
In July, before making an apostolic visit to Canada, Pope Francis denied he was resigning soon. But he revived speculations when it was announced he would visit L’Aquila in Central Italy to open the “Holy Door” of the Basilica of Santa Maria Collaggio, where Celestine V is buried.
Opening the “Holy Door is part of the annual Feast of Forgiveness, which Celestine V himself instituted.
Pope Benedict XVI visited the tomb when he went to L’Aquila in 2009 to inspect the quake damage. After prayer, he left his pallium, the papal stole, atop the tomb. Years later, in February 2013, the significance of this symbolic gesture became apparent to many Catholics when Benedict gave up the “munus Petrinum” (Petrine ministry) that jolted the world.
Would Pope Francis’ opening of the “Holy Door” be a similar indication of what may lie ahead?
Incidentally, Pope Francis’ Aug. 28 visit to L’Aquila comes a day after the consistory names 21 new cardinals from 16 countries. The College of Cardinals now consists of 208 cardinals, 117 of them electors — those who have yet to reach the age of 80 — and 91 nonelectors. In his 1996 apostolic constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II put the maximum number of cardinal-electors at 120. By Aug. 27, there would be 229 Cardinals, of whom 131 are electors who are eligible to vote and be elected.
Because he is promoting the “Church of the peripheries,” Pope Francis has elevated bishops of minority churches in the Far East as cardinals, thus increasing their number as cardinal-electors.
Last June, he announced he would name 21 new cardinals, five of whom are from Asia: former Seoul Archbishop Lazarus Heu Yeung-sik, prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy; Goa-Daman Archbishop Felipe Neri Ferrao; and Hyderabad Archbishop Anthony Poola from India; Dili Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, SDB from East Timor, and Singapore Archbishop William Goh. In previous consistories, the Pope had made cardinals of bishops from Burma, Brunei, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Because Pope Francis is Argentinian, the next pope is widely expected to come from the “new world” and not from Old Europe. This means the Americas (South, not North), Asia and Africa.
Touted to have the best chances of becoming pope, according to the Catholic Herald of London, are Cardinal Tagle and Cardinal Péter Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary.
As immediate former metropolitan archbishop of Manila, the most important See in the Far East, Tagle is the most prominent cardinal-elector and a leading papabile.
But aside from the southward drift in electing the pope, other geopolitical factors may come into play. One is that the pope is supposed to be the Bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter who was martyred in the Eternal City.
In past decades, there have been calls within the Italian Church of restoring the papacy to the Italians, especially since Pope John Paul II is Polish and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is German.
The first pope from the Americas, Pope Francis, was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian of Italian descent, who was elected in the conclave of 2013. To some extent, his election was an “Italian restoration.”
So between Tagle and Erdö, the former definitely has an edge because, aside from being Asian, he’s been based in Rome since 2019 after being appointed head of the Sacred Congregation of the Evangelizations of Peoples, the former Propaganda Fide, and now revamped as the Dicastery for Evangelization.
What may hobble Tagle’s chances is his lack of fluency in Italian and even Spanish, the language of the biggest Church in the world, betraying his thoroughly “Americanized” education at the Loyola School of Theology of the Jesuits in Quezon City and the Catholic University of America in Washington.
However, Tagle’s Rome stint will still enable him to acquire greater fluency in Italian and other Romance languages, so he could burnish his global credentials: the Pope after all is an international figure.
Prior to his Propaganda Fide appointment, Tagle was made head of Caritas Internationalis. As such, he has been to disaster hot spots around the world, becoming a familiar figure in what Pope Francis has called the “Church of the peripheries.” Caritas has become Tagle’s global platform.
After the G-20 meeting in 2020, Cardinal Tagle called for debt forgiveness for poor nations. “The international debt of the poorest countries in Africa, some parts of Latin America and Asia, has had major social and economic consequences,” he said. “Pope Francis has consistently urged that the debt be canceled to give those countries the possibility to pursue paths of recovery and development.”
As head of the Propaganda Fide, Tagle is in charge of Catholic missions around the world, mostly in the Third World. He is also grand chancellor of the Pontifical Urbaniana University, which trains missionaries.
Statistics published on World Mission Sunday on Oct. 24, 2021, showed there are 1,117 dioceses, missions, and other ecclesiastical divisions dependent on the Propaganda Fide. Most are located in Africa (517) and Asia (483), followed by the Americas (71) and Oceania (46).
The former Manila archbishop is also a member of other important Vatican offices, such as the Dicastery for Catholic Education and Culture; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Oriental Churches; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Inter-Religious Dialogue; Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Cardinal Commission for the Supervision of the Institute for the Works of Religion.
All of these appointments have made Tagle a Vatican insider and an honorary Roman.
Cardinal Erdö in Cebu
The fact too that all of these Vatican offices have been revamped, streamlined and updated by Pope Francis in his apostolic constitution, Praedicate Evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), issued early this year should make Tagle the most qualified to oversee the continued implementation of Franciscan reforms, post-Francis.
Like Tagle, Erdö also seems to enjoy the confidence of Pope Francis, who appointed him relator general of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2014.
Erdö was in the Philippines in January 2016 during the 51st International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu. He headed the Hungarian delegation that successfully lobbied for the congress to be held next in Budapest in 2020.
The 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest last September was graced by Pope Francis himself.
In contrast to Tagle, who reflects the Pope’s progressive views on ecclesiology, liturgy, and pastoral ministry, Erdö is a conservative. He supports the celebration of the Latin Mass and invokes the Christian heritage of Europe in the face of secularism, materialism, and moral relativism.
But Erdö holds progressive ecumenical views. He has called for the forging of stronger ties with the Eastern churches amid the presence of many Ukrainian Eastern Christians in Hungary.
He is likewise seen as another Karol Wojtyla, a prelate from the Catholic-devout Central Europe, a clutch of countries under the former Iron Curtain, that acts as a foil and contrast to much of Europe’s secularism and often antireligion multiculturalism.
Like Poland, Hungary is overwhelmingly Catholic and has taken a conservative and nationalist path against Western Europe’s conflicted welcome of mainly Muslim immigrants.
Turning deeper South
Still, there are speculations that the next conclave would turn deeper South and might go the way of Africa. The leading African papal contenders are Ghananian Cardinal Peter Turkson, former head of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
North American cardinals who have been eyed as papal nominees are former Quebec Archbishop Marc Ouellet, head of the Dicastery for Bishops and of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, and Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has succeeded Turkson as head of the human development dicastery.
But geopolitically speaking, prospects are nil that the next pope would come from North America. Canada has become too secular, even more secular and post-Christian than Europe. As well, the global Church has always shirked from even nominating a pope coming from the world’s No. 1 superpower.
Despite Tagle and Erdö leading the race, the full Italian restoration of the papacy remains a compelling possibility, especially since there are 26 eligible Italian cardinal-electors. They are led by Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state and another favorite of Pope Francis.
The other Italian papabiles include Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe; Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, penitentiary major of the Apostolic Penitentiary and former prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy; Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who headed the Pontifical Council for Culture; and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, a progressive and a favorite of Pope Francis.
After the Italians, the other European cardinals who have strong papal potential include Prague Archbishop Emeritus Cardinal Dominik Duka, a Dominican and a conservative like Erdö. He was imprisoned by the Communists and after the collapse of communism, led the funeral liturgy in 2011 for his former fellow prisoner, President Vaclav Havel. (He will turn 80 in April 2023 and will thus cease to be a cardinal-elector.)
Then there’s Vienna Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, noted for his efforts to bridge differences between the rigorists and the more pastoral-minded in bishops’ synods, especially on marriage and family. A student of Benedict XVI, Schonborn was the editor of the very important Catechism of the Catholic Church and is considered a top theologian and thinker.
Also in contention is Utrecht Archbishop Willem Eijk, a physician and bioethicist, a conservative, and a stern critic of Pope Francis’ controversial “Amoris Laetitia,” which he says doesn’t defend marriage as “one and unbreakable.” A Catholic who marries after divorce should be denied Communion, he has insisted.
Surprisingly, no Latin prelate has generated enough buzz as to be considered a papabile in the league of
Cardinals Parolin, Tagle, and Erdö.
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(The author has covered for the Inquirer key Vatican events, among them the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, which
elected Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respectively.)