Friday, October 14, 2011

Man of the Poor, Successor of Sin: B16's Thrilla for Manila

Home to 3 million Catholics in a country where four-fifths of its 88 million residents belong to the fold, one would have a hard time finding a larger or more influential Asian diocese than that of Manila.

Yet with the Filipino church currently embroiled in two political storms which have severely tested its storied clout, the Pope yesterday chose a tricycling, stage-singing theologian who takes questions over YouTube as the capital's next archbishop...

...and one so young he could reign for a quarter-century.

All of 54, Luis Antonio Tagle (left) represents a dramatic generational shift from his now-predecessor, 79 year-old Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales. And as soon as late next year -- by which point the Philippines' traditional group of papal electors will all have aged out of a hypothetical conclave -- the prelate widely seen as a "Bishop of the Poor" is likely to become the youngest Latin-church member of the scarlet-clad College that'll elect B16's successor.

Born in the capital but having moved to its outskirts as a boy, Tagle is no stranger to North America. As opposed to Rome, the archbishop-elect was sent for graduate studies in theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, earning his doctorate there in 1991. Having been tapped to head his native diocese of Imus a decade later, the Manila designate returned to make a splash at the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City, delivering a rapturously-received catechesis (text/video) on the Eucharist that included the following passage:
It is interesting to note that quite often, Jesus was denounced as a violator of God's law when he showed compassion for the weak, the poor, the sick, the women, and public sinners. He offered new life to those considered impure by eating and mingling with them. He assured them that God was not distant and there was hope in God's loving mercy.

But he himself got no mercy from his adversaries, only ridicule for disobeying laws that were supposed to embody God's will. Jesus suffered on account of his self-offering for those loved by God. But he never wavered in his sacrifice. In the process he exposed the false gods that people worshipped, erroneous notions of holiness and the blindness of righteous people to the visitations of God. Jesus' sacrifice uncovered the link between the worship of false gods and insensitivity to the needy.

An idolater easily loses compassion for the weak. Though he was judged, Jesus was the one actually judging the untrue worship that kept people blind and deaf to the true God and the poor. The Church that lives the life of Christ and offers his living sacrifice cannot run away from its mission to unearth the false gods worshipped by the world. How many people have exchanged the true God for idols like profit, prestige, pleasure and control? Those who worship false gods also dedicate their lives to them. In reality these false gods are self-interests.

To keep these false gods, their worshippers sacrifice other people's lives and the earth. It is sad that those who worship idols sacrifice other people while preserving themselves and their interests. 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?

The Church however must also constantly examine its fidelity to Jesus' sacrifice of obedience to God and compassion for the poor. Like those who opposed Jesus in the name of authentic religion, we could be blind to God and neighbors because of selfrighteousness, spiritual pride and rigidity of mind. Ecclesiastical customs and persons, when naively and narrowly deified and glorified, might become hindrances to true worship and compassion. I am disturbed when some people who do not even know me personally conclude that my being a bishop automatically makes me closer to God than they could ever be. My words are God's words, my desires are God's, my anger is God's, and my actions are God's. If I am not cautious, I might just believe it and start demanding the offerings of the best food and wine, money, car, house, adulation and submission.

After all, I am "God!" I might take so much delight in my stature and its benefits that I might end up being callous to the needs of the poor and the earth. I remember an experience in the market of our town of Imus, the seat of our diocese. One Saturday morning I went to monitor the prices of goods and the condition of the simple market vendors. I saw a woman selling fruit and vegetables in a corner. She was one of those who went to Sunday Mass regularly. It was only 10 o'clock in the morning but she was already closing her store. So I asked her the reason. She told me, "I belong to a prayer group. We have a big assembly this afternoon.

Some tasks were assigned to me. So I want to be there early." Upon hearing this, the pragmatic side of me surfaced. I responded, "The Lord will understand if you extend your working hours. You have a family to support. You can benefit from additional income. I am sure the Lord will understand." With a smile, she said, "But Bishop, the Lord has been faithful to me. The Lord has always been there for us. We may not be rich but we have enough to live by. Why will I fear?" Then looking at me tenderly, she said, "Are you not a Bishop? Are you not supposed to be encouraging me in faith?" I was quite embarrassed. But for me it was an experience of spiritual worship. I, the religiously and culturally accepted presence of God was revealed to be a faltering representation of God.

That simple woman, offering herself to God in trust for love of her family, became for me the manifestation of the presence of God. She had brought the Eucharistic sacrifice and Jesus' spiritual worship from the elegant Cathedral to the noise and dirt of the market place. God must have been well pleased.
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Despite a CV that includes no formal Roman training or full-time experience, the archbishop-elect -- known widely by his nickname, "Chito" -- is likewise unusually well-known at the Vatican.

By 1997 -- while still serving as a parish priest -- Benedict's Manila pick was tapped to join the Holy See's International Theological Commission, then led by the now-Pope. Perhaps even more notably, though, even before his appointment to Curial slots, the new archbishop has spent 15 years on the Bologna-based editorial board of the controversial "History of Vatican II" project led by Alberto Melloni, which has been assailed by church conservatives for its thesis that, as opposed to "an insignificant meeting of ecclesiastical dignitaries," the Council represented an event "of global significance and a transition to a new epoch."

And elsewhere, it being the Philippines, the question of politics never lingers far from the limelight. This is, after all, Manila -- where, even recently, archbishops have taken to engineering successful coups.

Ergo, 25 years after the legendary Cardinal Jaime Sin helped set the stage for the "People Power" Revolution that toppled the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, it has been widely noted that Tagle enjoys a particular closeness with the family of President Benigno Aquino, whose mother assumed power following the 1986 overthrow of the longtime dictator.

Yet unlike the famously-devout "Tita Cory," the younger Aquino has broken with the hierarchy with his backing for a bill set to widen access to contraceptives that's garnered a ferocious protest from the bishops, telling a recent gathering with reporters that he didn't mind the "ire" of the church. The measure is headed for its final debate and vote in the Filipino Congress.

Meanwhile, the standing of the church's leadership on the islands was dented in the wake of June revelations that, in 2009 and 2010, several prelates had accepted cars paid for by national lottery funds in exchange for political support for Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

As far back as 2002, Tagle had taken to interviews to declare that his confreres "must also indulge in self-criticism to bring us back to the poor.

"We must rediscover our connection with the poor," he said. "We must examination [sic] why they feel so 'out' when the church is for them."

The future archbishop quickly added that the failure of post-1986 protests of government led by the hierarchy struck him him as "a sign that the poor are no longer with the church."

The fifth native-born cleric to head the Manila church, whose roots date to 1579, an installation date for the 32nd archbishop has yet to be announced.

While their proportion of the national population is significantly higher, the Philippines' roughly 70 million Catholics constitute an equal number of the church's global membership as does the fold in the US. The former's rightly-celebrated spirit of devotion and fervor, however, easily puts that of most relatively observant American Catholics to shame.