New cardinal: ‘Spokesman’ from the poorest islands

Paterno Esmaquel II
Pope Francis has pulled Cotabato from the fringes, and newly named Cardinal Orlando Quevedo vows to speak out on the challenges facing southern Philippines

FIRST FROM MINDANAO. Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, officially a cardinal in February, gives a louder voice to the Philippines' poorest islands. File photo by Roy Lagarde/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – For half a century, the country’s loudest Catholic voices came from Manila and Cebu, both home to the only bishops in the Philippines who advise the Pope and get to elect his successor.

Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, said the cardinals from Manila and Cebu “for a long, long time… have been trying to persuade Rome” to name a cardinal from Mindanao, the Philippines’ poorest island group.

People who know Quevedo, who has served Mindanao for 5 decades, have seen in him a potential cardinal. “Of course there were many rumors before, but always, if there was any rumor about me, I would just put it aside and then forget about it, because I don’t want to think too much about those things,” the prelate told Rappler.

On Sunday, January 12, the rumors came true. The first Latin American pope who, in his own words, came from “the ends of the earth,” reached out to Mindanao. Francis named Quevedo its first cardinal. (READ: Mindanao cardinal fears ‘crowning with thorns’)

The man who tends to “shy away from interviews” is ready to be a “spokesman.”

“As a cardinal, you are in the forefront. You cannot stay just here. And you are expected to lead,” said Quevedo, former secretary-general of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

“Even though the other bishops in Mindanao are your co-leaders and they are co-equals in ministry, as a cardinal, you are expected to be a spokesman for them, to do the leading,” the archbishop added. 

Mindanao, after all, faces “very many” challenges – “the poverty of people, the need for new leaders, the peace situation, the dialogue between Muslims and Christians, and the possibilities of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement.”

“As a cardinal, one has to know all these issues in and out – at the same time, offer intelligent alternatives, whatever it is that might be asked of you,” Quevedo said. “If you were simply one more bishop, you can sort of let the others do the job and follow.”

‘Explosion concluded homily’

LONGING FOR PEACE. A building is seen on fire after a bomb explosion in Cotabato City, on the southern island of Mindanao on Aug 5, 2013. File photo by AFP/STR

Born in Ilocos Norte, Quevedo has seen the worst in southern Philippines – from a spate of bombings and kidnappings over the past decade, to the high-profile murder of a missionary priest in 1985. 

In 2009, a bomb even exploded outside a church while he was saying Mass. “The explosion concluded my homily,” he said in an interview with MindaNews.

“But there is great hope in the future,” Quevedo said, as he pushed for peace in the land of one of the world’s longest running Muslim insurgencies. (READ: Quevedo: Mindanao’s first cardinal)

For more than a year, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have struggled to ink a final peace deal that will end the 4-decade-old secessionist movement. The two parties will base the deal on the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement signed in October 2012. (READ: FAQs: Bangsamoro peace deal)

Shortly after the two panels signed the agreement, Quevedo told MindaNews it is “realistic and doable.”

Now, he hopes that “every section of the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” which will govern the proposed political entity, “would be presented to the public for scrutiny and for suggestions.”

He also prays radicals, either from the government or the MILF, “will not sabotage” the peace process.

In a statement on Wednesday, January 15, the government panel in talks with the MILF called Quevedo “a beacon of hope.” 

‘Two faces of poverty’

CONFLICT, POVERTY. Muslim children await rice rations during a feeding program in a remote village in Pikit town, North Cotabato province in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Feb 19, 2008. File photo by Jason Gutierrez/AFP

The impact of his appointment echoes beyond the Philippines.

By pulling Cotabato from the fringes into the center of his papacy, Francis practices what he preaches: to reach out to the world’s “peripheries.”

Quevedo explained: “I think it’s true – what I have read in the commentaries so far – that the appointments of bishops, 16 bishops, many of whom come from poor countries, represent a new face of the direction that Pope Francis is taking: more focused on the poor of this world.”

He said two of the best examples come from the Philippines, a “struggling poor country,” and South Korea, one of the “more developed countries in Asia.”

Francis appointed Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, archbishop of Seoul, as one of the two new Asian cardinals along with Quevedo.

Quevedo said: “These two faces, to my mind, represent two faces of poverty. One is material poverty – the Philippines. And the other one is poverty in the sense of poverty in the spirit – well-developed, but very few Christians.” 

Reacting to Quevedo’s appointment, critics however bring up a 3-year-old controversy.

In 2011, reports said Quevedo and 6 other bishops received personal vehicles from the government for personal use. The soon-to-be cardinal denied the accusation, but admitted he received a vehicle from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office “to be used by our social action program.” (READ: Calling on the ‘SUV’ bishops)

Despite this, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines described him as “an intellectual giant with a very simple lifestyle and very warm fraternal manners.”

Quevedo said he dreams, like Francis, for “a simple Church, a poor Church, a humble Church.” (READ: Q & A: Mindanao cardinal dreams ‘like Pope Francis’)

Enough of priests who ask, “What’s in it for me?” Quevedo said: “What is in it for the people? What’s in it for the people? That’s the important question. I want to have a Church like that – at the service of people, at the service of the Kingdom of God.” – Rappler.com

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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.