Tagle joins 10 Asians to choose pope

Paterno Esmaquel II
A papal contender, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle belongs to a minority in a largely European group that will elect Benedict XVI's successor

POTENTIAL SUCCESSOR. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle joins 116 other prelates who will elect – among themselves – the next pope. In this picture in November 2012, Benedict XVI officially makes Tagle a cardinal. File photo from AFP

MANILA, Philippines – He has the rare chance, like 116 others, to choose the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And who knows? He himself may become Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, who has ignited hope he would become the first Asian pope, belongs to a minority. He is among 11 Asian cardinals among a group of mostly Europeans, who have traditionally chosen one of their own to lead the Catholic Church.

While Asia is one of the fastest growing churches in the world, only around 9.4% of the 117-member group of electors is Asian, according to data released by the Vatican. From the shrinking church in Europe, 61 cardinals, or 52.1% of the whole group, can vote for the new pope.

Most cardinal electors come from Italy, which has 21 prelates, or 17.9% of the group, joining the conclave days after Pope Benedict XVI steps down on February 28.

Other cardinal electors include 19 Latin Americans, 14 North Americans, 11 Africans, and one from Oceania. (Watch more in Rappler’s video report below.)

The last two popes came from Europe – Benedict XVI from Germany and John Paul II from Poland.

Son of Imus

The 55-year-old Tagle came from Imus, Cavite, and was considered a potential papal contender even before Benedict XVI, his mentor, named him a cardinal.

Foreign journalists and prelates have taken notice of him for his hardline stance against clericalism and pedophile priests. (Read: ‘Terrified’ Tagle takes global center stage.

CHARISMATIC BISHOP. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle is seen as deeply connected to the grassroots. Photo from Tagle's Facebook page

In a much applauded speech in Quebec in 2008, Tagle blasted those who “have exchanged the true God for idols like profit, prestige, pleasure, and control.” 

In a thundering voice with impassioned gestures, Tagle said: “How many factory workers are being denied the right wages for the god of profit? How many women are being sacrificed to the god of domination? How many children are being sacrificed to the god of lust? How many trees, rivers, hills are being sacrificed to the god of ‘progress’? How many poor people are being sacrificed to the god of greed? How many defenseless people are being sacrificed to the god of national security?”

(Watch more in the video below.)

Does culture matter?

Calls for an Asian pope, like Tagle, already came about in 2005 when John Paul II died. Benedict XVI’s resignation reignited this hope, particularly because the Catholic Church has steadily been attracting more people from non-European continents.

Data from the Vatican show that in 2012, Africa registered a 0.21% increase in Catholics, followed by America with 0.07%, Asia with 0.06%, and Oceania with 0.03%.

Only Europe – the traditional breeding ground for popes – recorded a decrease, by -0.01%.

Recognizing the importance of an intercultural Church, Benedict XVI himself addressed this in an unexpected appointment of cardinals in November 2012. The Pope appointed 6 non-European cardinals, including Tagle, “to complete the one held in February in the context of a new evangelism… showing that the Church belongs to all peoples, speaks all languages.”

“It is not the Church of one continent but a universal Church,” he added, addressing claims he was too Eurocentric. That was after he appointed 16 Europeans among 22 new cardinals in February 2012.

An Indian cardinal, Mumbai Archbishop Oswald Gracias, has said he will welcome an Asian pope.

“I would say why not?” said Gracias, secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, in an interview with the Vatican Insider in November 2012.

But he quickly added: “To tell you the truth, for me nationality does not matter so much at the moment. I think what we need is a holy man. We want someone who can lead the Church, who can give good directions. I think we must take out of our minds any prejudice against any nationality; it could be an African, it could be a South American, it could be a North American, so long as he is a good man.”

And it will all depend on the 117 men, mostly European, who will cast their secret ballots in March. – Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.