There’s the Rub

Pope from the boondocks

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If he ever comes close to it, Filipinos will have a field day choosing an appropriate name for him. “Pope Chito” would be great of course, though the tradition seems to be to adopt an official name of a past pope and affix a Roman numeral to it—Pope Benedict XVI, Pius XII, John Paul II, etc. The last of course spawning jokes about George and Ringo being thrown into the bargain as well.

But you never know, stranger things have happened. Traditions are there to be broken, continuities are there to be discontinued. Who in God’s name (the Christian one) could have imagined the current pope would resign, something that hadn’t happened in six centuries?

The idle speculation just got a little less idle after an Italian expert on Vatican politics noted that Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle had a crack at being pope. Maybe a slim one, but a crack  anyway. The expert, Sandro Magister, known as the “Pope’s Prognosticator,” or diviner of who the next pope would be, has added Tagle’s name to the pot.

Magister, an archconservative, had been critical of Tagle in the past because of the latter’s association with the progressive wing of the Vatican. But he also conceded that Tagle wasn’t altogether leftward of things, he had “balance,” which explained his acceptance by the doctrinal Benedict XVI, who in fact treated him like a son. No Latin American cardinal loomed in the horizon as a papal probable simply because none of them seemed to have the capability to secure the solid vote of the Latin American contingent. Tagle did, of the Asian vote.

It stands to reason. Latin America now hosts the most Catholics in the world and has no small number of cardinals to represent them. Competition among them is bound to be fierce. Asia, birthplace of most of the world’s greatest religions, has the least Catholics in the world, the Philippines hosting most of them. Tagle is a no-brainer for the Asian cardinals. That is quite apart from his other advantages, which are that he is no stranger to the corridors of power in the Vatican and he appeals to progressives and conservatives alike for his centrist views.

Of course I’m rooting for Tagle, but that’s not just because he’s a Filipino and not just because he’s a friend. He’s quite simply one of the most decent human beings I know. And one I think who will be good not just for Catholics but for people of other faiths. Indeed not just for faith but for morality in general, religious or secular. He’s one person who assures what the Catholic Church, local and universal, has not been able to assure in quite some time, which is the capacity to listen. Which is the fountainhead of communication, which is the fountainhead of dialogue, which is the fountainhead of relevance.

Tagle himself emphasized the importance of it during the reproductive health debate. Of course as a Church official, indeed the highest one of the land, he took the Vatican position, which was to oppose it. But he also said something then—he had just come home after a triumphant sojourn in Rome, which saw him transformed into a cardinal—that struck me and stuck with me. Truly, I thought, if the Church was to experience renewal or rejuvenation in these parts, it would need someone like him.

While expressing his opposition to RH, he also criticized the local Catholic Church for becoming deaf and blind to the existence of the faithful, indeed to the painful reality of the poor. The Church hierarchy, he said, no longer seemed to be able to walk with the poor, break bread with the poor, talk to the poor. It was time they got back to it. That was where the spirit of the gospels came from, that was where the life of the faith drew from.

Tagle knew whereof he spoke. Magister, even in his earlier remonstrations with Tagle for lacking doctrinal purity (not unlike the ideological purity of the communist world!), observed on the other hand: “Especially striking is the style with which the bishop acts, living simply and mingling among the humblest people, with a great passion for mission and for charity.” Tagle is a rarity in that respect: He is one bishop, or cardinal, who practices what he preaches, who does as he says.

What he said about the local Church in fact he could very well have said about the Vatican too. The days of the Theology of Liberation, when priests and nuns walked with the poor, talked with the poor, and often enough took up arms for, and with, the poor, spawning in its train some of the Church’s greatest bishops, particularly in the Third World, particularly in this country, are gone. In its place have arisen blindness and deafness to the pedophilia scandals rocking the parishes, in its place have arisen arrogance and dogmatism in the face of the faithful’s demand for the Church to see the times. It could do with going back to roots.

Those roots are not always easy to see. Not when the Church is knee-deep in pomp and ceremony, not when its officials are garbed in flowing robes and finery, not when the cardinals dazzle with the symbols of pelf and power. Such as when they gather to vote for the new pope, all garbed in crimson and walking through a haze of incense, as you saw in “Angels and Demons.”

Easy enough to forget that all that owes to someone born in a barn among the animals for lack of a place for his mother to birth him in. All that is dedicated to the memory of someone who was a carpenter’s son who kept the company of fishermen and a known prostitute and who preached and worked miracles on the side. All that is by way of following the example of someone who walked with the poor, talked to the poor, and said weird things like the exalted will be humbled and the humble exalted.

Who knows? Maybe he was right. Maybe the humble will be exalted.

Maybe we’ll have a Pope Chito in the last reel.

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