Asia’s most prominent Roman Catholic leader knows how to reach the masses: He sings on stage, preaches on television and brings churchgoers to laughter and tears with his homilies, and is also on Facebook.
However, Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s best response against the tide of secularism, clergy sex abuse scandals and rival faith competition could be his reputation for humility. His compassion for the poor and unassuming ways have impressed followers in his homeland — Asia’s largest Catholic nation — and church leaders.
Tagle’s rising star has opened a previously unimaginable possibility: An Asian pope.
The Philippine prelate’s chances are considered remote, as many believe that Latin America or Africa — with their faster growing Catholic flocks — would be more logical choices if the papal electors look beyond Europe. However, even the hint of papal consideration has electrified many in the heavily Catholic Philippines, where past pontiffs had been welcomed by millions with rock star intensity.
The talks surrounding Tagle have been fueled by prominent Vatican experts, who see in the boyish-looking cardinal the religious zest, stamina, charisma and communications skills that could energize a church facing many crises.
John Thavis, a Vatican analyst and author of The Vatican Diaries, said the selection of Polish-born John Paul II in 1979 shows the “unthinkable” can occur once the cardinals are in the conclave.
“There are people, even Vatican officials here, who have whispered to me: ‘Tagle, he’s the man,’” Thavis told reporters.
When asked about the buzz, Tagle said it was “only a speculation.”
“He’s an effective communicator and missionary at a time when Catholicism’s highest internal priority is a new evangelization,” Rome-based analyst John Allen wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.
“Tagle incarnates the dramatic growth of Catholicism outside the West, putting a face on the dynamic and relatively angst-free form of Catholicism percolating in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.
Still, Tagle’s relative youth — at 55, he’s the second-youngest among the cardinals — could be a liability. Cardinals could be reluctant to risk giving the reins of the Vatican to someone who could rule for decades.
People who know him say Tagle carved a reputation for simple, day-to-day acts that defined him as a man of deep faith and intellect.
One of two children of a pious Catholic couple, who worked in a bank, Tagle dreamed of becoming a doctor. However, he was redirected by a Jesuit friend to the priesthood at a seminary in the upscale Ateneo de Manila University, where he graduated summa cum laude, said the Reverend Catalino Arevalo, his theology professor,
He is gifted with communication skills: A wonderful storyteller with a bent for music, Tagle speaks fluent Italian, English and Tagalog. He also has proficient French and can say Mass in Latin. However, he prefers to stay in the background.
“He’s not somebody who sort of wants to, by personality, put himself at the center of the stage,” Arevalo said.
Tagle took clear positions on church and social issues, but was never confrontational or “super militant,” Arevalo said.
For instance, he encouraged dialogue when he helped lead an unsuccessful church campaign against the government-endorsed health plan that promotes contraceptives.
Tagle was ordained in 1982 and became bishop in 2001 at an old cathedral about a block from his family home in Imus, south of Manila.
Aside from his church work, he taught theology in a hilltop seminary, where he lived for about two decades, staying in a room that had no television or air-conditioning, seminary staffers said.
Even as a bishop, Tagle did not own a car. He took the bus to church and elsewhere. He ate with workers and sang for a church charity, impressing many with his baritone voice.
Tagle stood out for his powerful homilies. A few years ago, he started hosting a Sunday gospel show on TV where he preached and answered questions. Staffers then made him a Facebook page, which has more than 120,000 followers.