Cardinal Tagle and Me-A A +A
Monday, March 11, 2013
LUIS Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s rapid rise to Church superstardom can only be described as phenomenal: his appointment as archbishop of Manila in October 2011, his elevation as cardinal in October 2012, and his dark-horse status in this week’s papal elections all happened in just the last 16 months.
Middle of last year, when Holy Angel University opened the nomination for our next honorary doctorate, I remember telling the selection committee, “He could be the next Pope.”
And last January 5, when I accompanied our University President, Dr. Arlyn Villanueva, to Cardinal Tagle’s office in Intramuros to personally confirm his acceptance of the honorary doctorate, I remember telling him, “You could be the next Pope.”
And I remember him breaking into a hearty laughter and saying, “Kapag siguro wala nang mapagpilian (Maybe if they’ve run out of choices)!”
That meeting was held in the same morning Fr. James Reuter, S.J., was laid to rest. Cardinal Tagle had arrived from the funeral Mass huffing and puffing, apparently not wanting to be late for our appointment. (I remember thinking, he could be late for three hours and I’d still be waiting for him with a big smile.)
Actually, I had been nervous about the meeting. I had read that he was a world-renowned theologian and intellectual heavyweight. The story goes that Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) was so impressed with him that he recommended him to Pope John Paul II as a member of the International Theological Commission, an influential advisory board based in the Vatican.
He was only 40 at the time and not even a bishop. When he was presented to the Pope, the joke was that Cardinal Ratzinger had to assure the Holy Father that Fr. Tagle had already had his First Communion.
And so as I waited for him I thought he would be stern and unsmiling, just as I imagined Hans Kung, Teilhard de Chardin, and other great theologians would be. Would he talk over my head? Would he grow impatient with me after listening for two minutes?
Well… surprise! His Eminence was cheerful and talkative and genuinely interested in all my opinions, stories and jokes, no matter how corny and insipid. In fact, we chatted for one full hour.
“Naku, napakahirap!” he said, after I asked him if he had already gotten used to being a cardinal. He narrated how news reporters tried to interview him even during Fr. Reuter’s interment. “Lahat tinatanong, pati kung dapat bang maging National Artist si Nora Aunor,” he said in amusement.
It was a no-holds-barred talkfest that covered everything from RH bill and Church sex scandals to Gov. Ed Panlilio, the Pampanga clergy and the Kapampangan Center. I told him about the religiosity of Kapampangans (which he knew) and all the Kapampangan pioneers in the Philippine Church, including the first cardinal (which he also knew). He also knew about Felipe Sonsong’s cause for beatification, saying that Bishop Pablo David was already seeking help from the Jesuits in Rome.
We also discussed the role of Caviteños and Kapampangans in history, and the touchy subject of the capture of Gen. Aguinaldo in the hands of the Macabebes. He talked about his great-granduncle Col. Jose Tagle, hero of the 1896 Battle of Imus, who is also Sen. Richard Gordon’s great-grandfather.
Cardinal Tagle said he used to go to Angeles City when he was still a student at the San Jose Major Seminary. He had a co-seminarian named Lambert Tanhueco, whom I also knew from my Mother of Good Counsel Seminary days.
We went on and on, like old friends catching up after a long separation. Cardinal Tagle had the rare gift of making even strangers feel important and interesting. He threw his head back when he laughed, his eyes narrowing to mere slits, which made me feel he was really having a good time with me.
You never get the sense that he’s trying to impress or outclass or bear his intellect and stature down on you. You feel you’re just prattling with a neighbor or having coffee with a jolly officemate. You forget you’re in the presence of a towering intellectual who is also a Prince of the Church.
To think that this is the man who told the Synod of Bishops in Rome that bishops and cardinals who shield their erring priests from prosecution are actually not being charitable towards them. “The best way to care for the offender,” Cardinal Tagle told them, “is to make him face up to the misconduct.”
At the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec five years ago, he admonished lay people not to pamper their priests, and warned priests not to succumb to the temptation. “I am disturbed,” then-Bishop Tagle had said, “when people conclude that my being a prelate automatically makes me closer to God. If I am not cautious, I might just believe it and start demanding the best food, car, money, house, etc. 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.”
Before our meeting ended, we set a date for the conferment of his honorary doctorate. “Qualified ba talaga ako?” he asked again. “Your Eminence!” I said, “of course you are more than qualified!” “Eh di sige, kung hindi nakakahiya,” he meekly replied.
Oh my God, I thought, this man is genuine. He really believes he doesn’t deserve an honorary doctorate, which is the least we can do for someone whose holiness and humility have helped and inspired more people than he can imagine.
After Dr. Villanueva and I had said our good-byes and were going down the stairs, an awkward moment ensued when we realized we had forgotten to take his measurements for the toga that comes with the honorary degree.
So we rushed back to his office and again, he gamely bowed and bent his legs and submitted himself to the necessary indignity of having a lady (Dr. Villanueva) wrap a measuring tape around his head, stretch it across his shoulders and the length of his arm as well as down to his ankle, while I recorded the numbers on my cell phone. We must have been a sight, the three of us.
What if Cardinal Tagle does become Pope this week? The unthinkable has suddenly become possible, and my mind cannot even begin to wrap itself around the idea of what it means to us Filipinos.
I know that the eagles and wolves operating in the Vatican’s backrooms and shadowy corridors will push their own candidate, and I know that the Holy Spirit will inspire those gathering this week in the Sistine Chapel to write the name of the most deserving cardinal.
But as far as I am concerned, I know in my heart that I have met the future Pope. He may not be chosen in this conclave, but I am sure he will be in the next.
Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on March 12, 2013.