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[OPINION] On Manila's new archbishop: Expectations and prophetic listening

Hours after the announcement that Capiz Archbishop Jose Cardinal Advincula Jr was named the new archbishop of Manila, some of my former colleagues in the media and even some of my political activist friends based in Manila, knowing that I took the road less traveled of (hopefully) becoming a priest here in Capiz, quizzed me about who Cardinal Advincula is and what his political stance is.

Expectations from left and right abound as to what role – political role, in particular – Cardinal Advincula will play in the country's political scene given that he will soon occupy what is considerably the most powerful and influential Filipino ecclesiastical see.

I even saw a meme on Facebook comparing 1986 to the present: a dictatorial president (Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte), a widow leading the opposition (Cory Aquino and Leni Robredo) and a Manila archbishop from Panay island (Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cardinal Advincula).

I am sure that most of my media friends, and as well as observers of church politics, are waiting for what he has to say about the current political climate given that bishops, particularly Manila's outgoing apostolic administrator Broderick Pabillo and the rather popular Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, are quite vocal in speaking against the current administration sometimes frankly and at times indirectly.

Indeed, chaotic times do give birth to eloquent prophets who can speak truth to power. The Bible gives us the stories of Amos, Jeremiah, and even John the Baptist, while there is the radical Christian witness of Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and the saint of our times, Oscar Romero.

But the Philippine Church, all of a sudden, is given Cardinal Advincula: a lesser known bishop from Capiz who makes no bombastic statements in his homilies and is neither heard talking politics publicly, not even in local radio stations.

A journalist friend even opined that what they may get from the 69-year-old Capiznon prelate might just be plain old "motherhood" statements or, simply, generic quotes which may not generate any sort of buzz that would surely disappoint news producers.

But amid all these, it seems that Cardinal Advincula's appointment as Manila archbishop is critically viewed more in lieu of its political implications in as much as the See of Manila is almost equated as a see of political influence.

The mere fact that the choice of making a lowly Capiz archbishop a cardinal rather than the archbishop of Cebu is considered a hot news angle tells us that the Church's role in society is somewhat reduced to intrigues and its political worth.

In other words, it seems that the media and popular culture in general misses what is essentially the role of the Church in society which (let's face it, it's not juicy…) is to give witness to Jesus Christ.

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, the Capuchin friar who preaches to the Pope and the Roman Curia, in one of his Lenten meditations for 2021 said that the Church's depiction by the media in the world goes “etsi Christus non daretur” (as if Christ did not exist).

"It is the assumption on which the world and its media talk about the Church all the time. Their interest focuses on its history -– above all the negative one, not that of holiness – its organization, its point of view on current issues, its internal facts and gossip. Jesus as a person is mentioned once in a while if at all," said Cantalamessa, who was made cardinal in the same Consistory as with Cardinal Advincula last November.

The expectations exciting pundits with the new Manila archbishop is no different from the expectations of people with Jesus who, upon entering Jerusalem, was welcomed with palm branches and loud cheers of "Hosanna!"

They were expecting an ideological messiah who might rouse them with bombastic rhetoric to justify attempts to revolt. They were expecting an political messiah who might liberate them from Roman tyranny.

But to their dismay, what they've had is a Messiah who is silent in the face of chaos and persecution, amid chaos and persecution where Duterte said he would "send thunder" and spare himself. To their dismay, the Messiah isn't an ideologue nor a politician, but a "suffering servant" who simply submits to do the will of his Father whose will goes beyond what ideology and politics can promise.

We cannot certainly fault people, especially Filipinos in these rather uncertain times, to hope for some sort of a prophetic leader.

The low-key cardinal from Capiz who will soon lead the Church in Manila is expected to be this prophet. But with his seeming economic silence on presumed major political issues, what can we get anyway?

Perhaps it has to be the value of listening, of discerning. His episcopal motto "Audiam" which means "I will listen" speaks of an important dimension that makes one an able prophet. Had the prophets of old not listened first, they would not be able and credible speakers at all.

Father Brylle Deocampo, a priest who has closely worked with Cardinal Advincula, in an interview with Rappler, gave a glimpse as to what kind of prophetic role will the new Manila archbishop play.

"I think we've always thought of the Church as the teaching Church – the Church teaching this and that. But for me as someone who has worked closely with Cardinal Joe, he has shown to me, personally, that the Church is also a listening Church," Father Deocampo said.

"In the virtue of listening which I have personally witnessed in Cardinal Joe, we realize and see this aspect of a God who doesn’t only speak, but also listens and comes to be with his people," he added.

Rather than seeing the political implications of Cardinal Advincula's appointment, can we not recognize it, more than anything else, as a Spirit-inspired move first? –

Ted Tuvera earned his journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas. He covered a major beat for a national daily for 3 years. Currently, he is a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Capiz.