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Beholding: Cardinal Tagle as thinker

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I suppose that anyone who has seen Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle speak can testify to his gifts as a preacher: He is a truly engaging speaker, who connects to his audience both because he appears to be thinking on his feet, fashioning his words to suit or reflect the nuances of the occasion, and because his preaching is animated by a very strong sense of structure, and thus of direction. His audience knows where they are at any given moment, and where the good bishop is headed.

There is nothing of performance in his talks; he does not jump up and down, he does not wear loud colors, he does not use flashy graphics.

If anything, his reputation as a pastor exceeds that of his reputation as a much-sought-after speaker. His decade of service as bishop of Imus has recommended him to other bishops in other dioceses, and not just in the Philippines. But he has also been formed decisively by his experience as a director of souls and a rector of seminaries. One of his eminent teachers, the renowned theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo, described his pastoral background in these terms: “All this has obliged Father/Bishop Chito to be involved at the ‘growing edge’ of the life of the Filipino Catholic community, taking up the principal concerns of bishops at one end, and grassroots ecclesial communities at the other.”

That was said at the beginning of Tagle’s episcopal ministry (the use of “Father/Bishop” is a telltale sign of transition). Since then he has added to his international reputation with well-regarded interventions in several Synods of Bishops.

But how is he as a thinker? To a worldwide religion that seeks the unity of faith and reason, that is not an irrelevant question.

Every single priest I’ve talked to who knows the man they still call “Chito” describes him as brilliant, an academic whiz with multiple degrees and two summa cum laudes to his name (from the Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City and the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC). Alberto Melloni of the so-called Bologna project on the history of Vatican II has called him “a thinker of real value.”

I haven’t had a chance to read his doctoral dissertation, which deals (sympathetically, or so I heard) with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI on the complicated question of episcopal collegiality.  Indeed, I haven’t read anything of his which even he may classify as theology proper.

But a collection of “early” lectures and conferences given the title of the bishop’s motto, “It is the Lord!” (a disciple’s profession of faith, in John’s recounting ) makes for instructive reading. (I have also peeked at his “Easter People: Living Community,” which is available on Amazon.)

In his preface to “It is the Lord!” we find him explaining his preferred method. “It is very seldom that I write out in full the text of my conferences. I usually come to the conference with an outline. In my way of giving lectures, the outline suits my personality, manner and method very well. Why? As I give my lecture, the audience determines to some extent the questions I raise, the stories I remember and the images I use.”

The 11 lectures and conferences in “It is the Lord!” were given at various times; they weren’t meant to follow a particular design. I thought this was providential, because the book then allows the reader to see that Tagle’s main intellectual gift may be one of synthesis.

Here, for instance, is a pivotal paragraph from “Bishops, the Pope, and Collegiality.”

“Part of the drama of the council [that is, Vatican II] was the attempt to clear a path toward consensus among these diverse theological positions or a communion of minds and judgments among people who all loved the Church and desired to be faithful to the will of Christ. In other words, the council was waiting not only for the outcome of the doctrinal debate on collegiality within the council. The conciliar Fathers were not only talking about collegiality; they were trying to find their way into a collegial act.”

I see this candid admission of conflicting views inside Vatican II (“the drama”) and a generous attribution of motives to all participants (“all loved the Church”) as characteristic of his turn of thought; I do not know whether the paragraph’s last line qualifies as “journalistic,” to use the critical term a conservative Italian archbishop once used to describe the chapter Tagle wrote in the Bologna history, but I find it both idiomatic and deeply philosophical: Finding a way into an act seems like just the right synthesis.

To be sure, Tagle does not see his lectures and conferences as academic or technical enterprises.

“[My] talks are not so much attempts of the mind to discover truth by dissecting events and ideas. My talks take the posture, most of the time, of beholding. My talks come from the posture of allowing the mystery of God’s presence to unfold before our eyes in people’s stories of pains, sorrows, defeats, and also stories of hope and triumph…. My talks, for whatever they are worth theologically, wish to be nothing else but a graced recognition by someone of the presence of the Lord in the real-life stories of God’s people.”

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Postscript. Rereading the paragraphs I’ve just written, I see that I have over-intellectualized even Tagle’s considerable gifts as pastor-preacher. I perceive the connection he makes with his audience in terms of thinking on one’s feet, or rhetorical structure. Surely there are other factors at work: His well-modulated voice, his crisp English, not least his repeated use of stories from his own experience.

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jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com

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