Q & A: Mindanao cardinal dreams ‘like Pope Francis’

Paterno Esmaquel II
Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, who becomes cardinal on February 22, says he wants a 'simple Church, a poor Church, a humble Church'

NEW CARDINAL. Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo attends a meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City on Feb 20, 2014, two days before he officially becomes a cardinal. Photo by Fabio Frustaci/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – Like the first Latin American pope who named him cardinal, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo tells Rappler he dreams of a “simple Church, a poor Church, a humble Church.”

“What’s it in for the people? That’s the important question,” Quevedo says.

Starting Saturday, February 22, he faces this question in a more influential position.

On that day, Quevedo becomes the first cardinal from Mindanao, a historic appointment by the pontiff who reaches out to the world’s “peripheries.” At 74, he considers this a “crowning with thorns.” Still, Quevedo vows to serve as a “spokesman” for the Philippines’ poorest islands.

Below is the transcript of our interview with Quevedo on January 13, a day after Pope Francis announced his appointment. For brevity, a few questions have been translated into English.

RAPPLER: When did you learn of your appointment? 

QUEVEDO: Forty five minutes after it was announced in Rome, through Cardinal Tagle. We were eating dinner at 7, which is the time when it was announced in Rome, and when I went back to my room, I saw many texts and read the text of Cardinal Tagle, and he said, “Congratulations!” And I said, “You’re congratulating the wrong person. He said, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s you!” That’s how I learned about it. Then I read all the other texts and, “This must be true,” I said to myself. So that was the first time I heard about it.

RAPPLER: So some reporters knew it before you did?

QUEVEDO: Yeah, yeah. They were sending messages to me, but I didn’t look at my mobile phone until I arrived after dinner in my room.

RAPPLER: How did you react, archbishop?

QUEVEDO: Other than shock? (laughs) Well, I really didn’t have any… I was totally without, I was not reflecting at all. I was just looking at the texts, and figuring out what’s happening here. Only later did I realize that this is, this call to be a cardinal is quite a challenge. It’s not something that I’m prepared for. Nobody prepares for that. Nobody can be prepared for it. 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.

RAPPLER: Cardinal Tagle said he saw himself in you, in your reaction.

QUEVEDO: (laughs) Yes. Parang sinasabi ng ibang tao, parang pareho kami. (Some people say we’re alike.) We come from the same mold. I’m much older than him. Which is good for me, in a way. Now I see it as a challenge that is not joyful in the sense of, you’re happy, you’re satisfied. But now it’s more work for the people and more work in Mindanao, and more work for the Church in the Philippines. That’s how I see it, which is – somebody said, when will be your crowning? I said, “Crowning with thorns?” (laughs)

RAPPLER: By more work what do you mean?

QUEVEDO: More work – in other words, as a cardinal, you are in the forefront. You cannot stay just here. And you are expected to lead. 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. And the challenges in Mindanao are very many – 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 and all that. 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. Kaya mas malaki. If you were simply one more bishop, you can sort of let the others do the job and follow.

'INTELLECTUAL GIANT.' The former secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, Cardinal-designate Quevedo feels some 'insecurity.' File photo by Roy Lagarde/Rappler

RAPPLER: Arcbishop, what’s the significance of having a cardinal from Cotabato? Usually, cardinals come from Manila and Cebu, right?

QUEVEDO: There are two, you know. For a long, long time, I understand, the cardinals in the Philippines, the two cardinals, Manila and Cebu, have been trying to persuade Rome to have a third cardinal, and that third cardinal would be based in Mindanao, rather than simply Manila and Cebu. These are what they call cardinalatial sees, dioceses, so that anybody who becomes archbishop in one of these two places would be cardinal. But the cardinals themselves, for a long time, have been praying that there would be a third cardinal that would be based in Mindanao. And this happened. Number two, why Cotabato? I really do not know. But one can see how Cotabato, more or less, expresses the hard realities of Mindanao – its poverty, its underdevelopment, its peace and order situation, and the fact that the Archdiocese of Cotabato will be the seat, I suppose, of the Bangsamoro. I suppose it will be the seat because the MILF is based in Cotabato, and the archdiocese is 47% Muslim.

RAPPLER: Yes. Isn’t that the archdiocese with the lowest percentage of Catholics?

QUEVEDO: It would be the vicariate apostolic of Jolo, Sulu.

RAPPLER: But among archdioceses, it’s yours?

QUEVEDO: Sa archdiocese, yes. It is poorer than what they call the suffragan dioceses of Kidapawan, North Cotabato and Marbel, South Cotabato. These are the two, what they call the suffragan, belonging to the metropolitan province of the archdiocese. But Cotabato is poorer than these dioceses (laughs).

RAPPLER: Archbishop, on a local then on a global scale, what’s the significance of your appointment?

QUEVEDO: On a global scale, 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. And that focus, he is criticized by some that that focus is political, economic, rather than religious. No, no. That focus is part of the Christian Gospel: “Unless you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” So it’s about poverty, about marginalization. That’s the global focus. On the Asian thing, there are two bishops who have been appointed – the cardinal of Seoul, Korea and myself. Seoul, Korea is more or less part of the more developed countries of Asia, and the Philippines is a struggling poor country. And these two faces, in my mind, 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. And in the local scale, dito sa Cotabato, as I said already, why Mindanao, and why Cotabato? I veer away from the personal context, and think more about the social, political, economic context of Cotabato rather than who I am as a bishop, although I have been, people, Muslims know me as one who is promoting peace and dialogue in our area.

RAPPLER: Yes, didn’t MILF peace panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal congratulate you?

QUEVEDO: May nabasa ka? Nabasa ko rin ‘yon. (You read that? I also read that.) We had communicated with each other also when there was a meeting in Kuala Lumpur. I said prayers for the meeting. And when it successfully ended with the signing of Annex Number 4, sabi niya, “Thank you.”

RAPPLER: Archbishop, what are your hopes for the peace process?

QUEVEDO: Hopes, I think, my focus now on the peace process is not so much on the annexes. It is on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and that Bangsamoro Basic Law is supposed to incorporate and put in detail some of the agreements that are written both in the annexes and in the framework agreement. And that’s the important thing. And I pray and I hope that every section of the future Bangsamoro Basic Law would be presented to the public for scrutiny and for suggestions. And I hope that they don’t come up with the Bangsamoro Basic Law that is all finished without any scrutiny by the public. It’s important because as they go into details, like for instance, education. Education is in the exclusive power of the Bangsamoro. Many Catholic schools are affected by that. We need to go to how the Bangsamoro government, parliamentary government, would supervise the schools, would have some kind of administration of the schools. We have to take a look at that, close look.

QUEVEDO'S CONCERNS. 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

RAPPLER: Last two questions, archbishop. What are your fears as February 22 approaches?

QUEVEDO: My fears? My personal fears, of course, it’s insecurity. And am I equal to the task? That kind of thing. It’s always before an examination. You prepare a lot, then the same thing happens. “Am I ready to take the test?” Ganyan din. (It’s like that.) You prepare and prepare, but come February 22, the fear will come. I hope I will not cry as Cardinal Tagle did. I’m as sensitive as Cardinal Tagle, although my tears do not come as easily. But that’s my personal fear. In the future, you mentioned the peace process. I hope that in the future, the radicals in either group, in either group, whether it’s the Christian group or it’s the Muslim group, the radicals will not sabotage in the future the process, the democratic process, as in some countries already that have gone through – they’re suffering already because the radicals have co-opted the democratic process. That’s my fear. I mentioned that to the panels. But there is great hope in the future.

RAPPLER: A while ago you said a cardinal is expected to be a spokesman for his flock, the priests, the bishops. What do you mean by that?

QUEVEDO: By that I do not mean that he goes out and be interviewed by radio, like this (laughs). But when he is asked questions, he cannot pass the buck to anybody. But he has to be in touch with the issues and the realities, so that he can provide an intelligent, well thought of answer to questions. Although I tend to shy away from interviews, like this one, where it’s sort of an ambush interview. But you are recording, so I’m not afraid that you are going to misquote me (laughs). A spokesman who is ready to say something when asked, and who is ready to say I do not know when he really doesn’t know. And that’s it. A prudent spokesman, in a sense.

RAPPLER: And then what will be your new role in terms of promoting a Church for the Poor?

QUEVEDO: We have been promoting that in Cotabato through the basic ecclesial communities, empowering the poor farmers to run their own communities and to even have paraliturgical services, Liturgy of the Word, Bible services on their own, trained of course by our own staff. And that they know that they have dignity in their communities, that they can decide their own destiny in their own small communities. That’s how we are doing it. It’s easier to do it in the rural areas than in the urban areas.

RAPPLER: And then as cardinal, how will that role evolve, perhaps?

QUEVEDO: The vision of the Second Plenary Council is toward a Church of the Poor in the Philippines. And therefore, the bishops know all about the vision of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1990. And it’s easier to deal with the national, at the national level, when speaking about and arguing for and promoting basic ecclesial communities because there is, already, created in the CBCP a commission on basic ecclesial communities. It started with me. I was the first chair of that. And now it’s going on. And they have bi-yearly congresses, I think, gathering all dioceses together. They are doing that. It will continue, and I simply have to, with the other bishops, I simply have to encourage and promote it further, so that it doesn’t die.

RAPPLER: In a wider role.

QUEVEDO: That’s right.

RAPPLER: What are your hopes, archbishop?

QUEVEDO: My hope is that, number one, for the country, we would have a better formation, through our Catholic universities, of political leaders who are persons of integrity, who have the common good in mind, who are selfless, selfless. Love, in the idea of St Paul, is not self-seeking. It’s self-giving. So it would be like that. On the national level, leadership, political governance, good governance. And among our own people, that the people become empowered to speak out in support of, or in contra policies that are not for the common good. So that the government, looking at good governance and the people, collaborating with good governance or criticizing if there is not good governance, that they speak out, rather than simply saying, “Ganyan talaga ang buhay.” Mahirap ‘yan. (“That’s life.” That cannot be.) That’s my hope.

MINDANAO'S 1ST CARDINAL. Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, then secretary-general of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, gestures as he speaks during a press briefing at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila on Aug 15, 2009. File photo by Jay Directo/AFP

RAPPLER: What kind of Church do we need, archbishop, globally speaking?

QUEVEDO: I have the same dream, I think, as Pope Francis – that it is a simple Church, a poor Church, a humble Church, that leaders, bishops, cardinals, even the Pope, could be really the original meaning of servus servorum Dei – a servant of the servants of God. That is the Pope. And we, as cardinals, or bishops, would be servant leaders who do not aspire for anything, that is, ambitiously aspiring for high positions or bigger parishes or bigger dioceses, but who simply want to stay as servants of people, without really counting what’s in it for me. 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.