Of all countries in Asia, the Philippines probably has the biggest stake in the choice of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. Not only is it the continent’s bastion of Catholicism, but its own Cardinal Luis Tagle now could conceivably become history’s first non-European Pontiff.
Bookmakers have already picked three favourites - two from Africa and one from Canada – portraying Cardinal Tagle as a long shot, but if there is anything instructive about the Catholic church’s history, it is that miracles do happen.
Cardinal Tagle was appointed to the College of Cardinals only last year. At 55, he is the second youngest prelate to be named to this powerful body, which elects the leader of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics.
While some consider his age a liability – conclaves that select the pope are said to be wary of young candidates – there are those who believe his youth, tempered with a balanced view of dogma and secularism, is exactly what the Catholic church needs at this critical point in its history, when it is hobbled by one scandal after another and beleaguered by a growing number of defectors.
The 85-year-old Benedict himself has suggested as much when he said in his statement of abdication that in a world of “rapid changes” and with the Catholic faith “shaken by questions of deep relevance”, what is needed is a leader who has “both strength of mind and body”.
At least one pundit, CNN’s senior Vatican analyst John Allen, has Cardinal Tagle listed as a contender for the papacy.
“Youthfulness aside, a striking number of people who know Tagle believe that this is a guy who, one day, could be pope,” Mr Allen wrote in his blog.
Cardinal Tagle’s supporters make the case that their candidate possesses a charisma often compared to Benedict’s well-loved predecessor, John Paul II.
In his blog, Mr Allen recalls a speech the cardinal delivered before the International Eucharistic Congress in 2008 “that brought an entire stadium to tears”.
Those who know him personally describe Cardinal Tagle as “down-to-earth”, “generous”, “full of humour”, and “classless”.
He prefers taking the bus or a “pedicab” – a bicycle-drawn carriage – when moving about, and even when he was already a bishop he’d ride a bicycle and go to a shanty in some run-down neighbourhood to say mass because he had to cover for a priest on sick leave.
He has on many occasions invited those loitering around the cathedral in his old diocese south of the capital Manila to share a meal and a conversation with him.
“He is humble, he is meek, he is very bright, he is simple,” Father Francis Lucas, head of the mass media commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, told Agence France-Presse.
Another advantage Cardinal Tagle has over more senior peers is that he is an early adopter of social media, recognising its value in keeping the faithful within the Catholic fold and as a means to preach to non-believers. He hosts a programme on YouTube and has his own Facebook page.
When it comes to his theology and politics, Cardinal Tagle’s views have been described as “balanced”. He does not recoil from expressing opinions that some may consider liberal.
At the 2005 Synod of the Eucharist, he raised issues that opened debate about making celibacy more flexible for priests and wrote articles that CNN’s Mr Allen interprets as “the toughest language you’ll ever find denouncing clerical arrogance and privilege”.
Cardinal Tagle was also involved for 15 years with the “History of Vatican II” project that conservatives, including the Vatican’s own newspaper L’Ossevatore Romano, criticised as being too “progressive”.
Yet, despite these dalliances with liberalism, Cardinal Tagle is not expected to rock the Vatican’s boat by swerving too widely to the secular wing if he indeed becomes pope.
In a display of steadfast adherence to traditional Catholic values, Cardinal Tagle led a tumultuous campaign in the Philippines against a Bill that gave poor couples access to contraceptives.
With the support of President Benigno Aquino III, the Bill is now a law, but Cardinal Tagle has vowed to mobilise all the church’s resources to stymie its implementation every step of the way.
Miracles do happen
For now, Cardinal Tagle isn’t on the radar of leading Catholic watchers predicting who the next pope will be.
British and Irish bookmakers ranked Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Canadian Marc Ouellet as their favourites.
The more serious pundits believe control of the Vatican will remain in the hands of a European, specifically Italy’s Cardinal Angelo Scola. Those in Latin America, a key bloc that may determine the Catholic church’s future, are, meanwhile, clamouring for one of their own: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri.
In an interview shortly after he was named Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Tagle had said it would be a “waste of time” to speculate on who would be the next pope.
“It’s better if I deal with truths and real concerns,” he said, adding that the process of selecting a pope is “not a popularity contest or a reality TV race where the winner with the most text votes wins”.
He did point out that in most cases, a “papabile”, or papal contender, who entered a conclave usually came out as still a cardinal.
“What often happens is that the pope who gets elected is not the one expected to win,” he said.
In that light, fate may yet favour Cardinal Tagle.
The writer hails from the Philippines and has been in Singapore for six years.