At Large

It’s all up to the Spirit

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The Philippines has three living cardinals but only one—Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle—is qualified to vote in the consistory which will choose the next pope.

Filipino Catholics—and indeed, the whole world and not just the faithful—reacted with surprise, if not shock, when Pope Benedict XVI announced the other day that he was retiring from the papacy by month’s end. Citing poor health, he said he would vacate the “Petrine ministry,” the first pope to do so in 700 years, because he “no longer had the mental and physical strength to carry on.”

Cardinal Tagle, in a statement yesterday, said he, and perhaps the rest of the Filipino Catholics, “felt like children clinging to a father who bids them farewell.” But, he added, “sadness gives way to admiration for the Holy Father’s humility, honesty, courage and sincerity,” noting that the Pope’s “paramount desire is to promote the greater good of the Church.”

But back to Cardinal Tagle’s role in the coming consistory. At 55, he is young by the standards of the Catholic hierarchy, but he is qualified to take part in the process of choosing Benedict XVI’s successor. At more than 80 years old, Jose Cardinal Vidal, retired Archbishop of Cebu, and Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Tagle’s predecessor, are deemed too senior to take part in the vote, which is itself a grueling procedure.

According to tradition, the members of the College of Cardinals will be sequestered in locked chambers at the Vatican attended only by one butler and one cook, and one chamberlain who will supervise the balloting, counting and burning of the ballots cast. As popularized in novels and movies, the world awaits the color of the smoke wafting from the chimneys of the consistory chambers. Black smoke signals that no one has received the majority vote, white smoke (the result of burning the ballots with wet straw) means a new pope has been elected.

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On the way from today’s reality, to the possibility of waking up to a new papacy, lies many a story—of political maneuvering, personal bargaining, ideological struggle, and of course the possibility of grace and miracles occurring.

So even if only one Filipino prelate will be voting for the new pope, he stands an equal chance with all the other cardinals of succeeding Benedict XVI.

It is a possibility that tickles the Pinoy imagination. After all, Cardinal Tagle’s rise from bishop of Cavite to archbishop of Manila and thence to the cardinalate has been, by the Church’s own glacial standards, quite meteoric. Much has also been made of Tagle’s “closeness” to the retiring Pontiff, who counted on him, while still an “ordinary” priest, as a staff member of the International Theological Commission.

Just last month, Cardinal Tagle was appointed by the Pope to serve as a member of the main committee of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants—a particularly apt position for a Filipino prelate.

“But most new cardinals are named to serve on pontifical councils,” comments Peachy Yamsuan, who heads the communications ministry of the Archdiocese of Manila, perhaps in an attempt to quash speculation about the coming consistory. But the truth is, any member of the College of Cardinals—and any Catholic priest, for that matter—may be chosen as the new pope.

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“He really kept it close to his heart,” says Yamsuan of the Pope’s decision to retire from office. His public declaration made before a gathering of cardinals was the first inkling anyone got of his intentions, although the foreign media began trolling their archives for hints and inclinations toward retirement that the German-born Pontiff had made before then.

Here in the Philippines, says Yamsuan, “the Cardinal (Tagle) did not know, the Nuncio (the Vatican’s “ambassador”) did not know.”

“Perhaps he was aware that the role of pope in today’s world demands presence,” she adds, especially since Benedict’s predecessor, the beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II, made a name for himself as the “Pilgrim Pope,” being the most-travelled pontiff in history, visiting the Philippines twice.

The rigors of travel may indeed have taken a toll on Pope Benedict’s health. He was, after all, 77 years old by the time he was appointed Pope, and was already quite frail. My own speculation is that the scandal that culminated in the arrest of his personal butler for alleged theft of secret papal documents may have dealt a blow, too, as did all the other troubles that hounded his papacy, from clergy sexual abuse to angering both Jews and Muslims.

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Long considered a “transitional” figure between the charismatic (but also conservative) John Paul II and a successor who could bring the Church either forward to the future or back to its calcified past, Benedict, says Yamsuan, played a valuable role in Church history. “Only someone with his intellect and rigor could guide us through the many crises we faced and explained everything through the lens of faith,” she says. “He was articulate and eloquent in the defense of values and fundamentals.”

For now, speculation is rife on who will succeed Benedict, with several Italians, a Brazilian and Argentine, and even African prelates being mentioned as papabiles or possible popes. “That’s a media creation” says Yamsuan of a possible “front-runner” for the papacy, including the chances of our own Cardinal Tagle (whom I will continue to root for). In the end, it’s all the work of the Spirit, as He moves the hearts and minds of the men gathered in a locked room in the Vatican.

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