Vatican appointment puts Philippine Cardinal a step closer to papacy

A photo taken on Jan 16, 2015, shows Pope Francis, with Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, holding a Mass at the Manila Cathedral. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Pope Francis has named Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle to a top position in the Vatican in a move likely to increase the Filipino's chances of one day being elected pope himself.

The Vatican said on Sunday (Dec 8) that the 62-year-old archbishop would move to Rome to become head of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.

Established in 1622, the congregation oversees a third of the Roman Catholic Church's work, mostly in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Cardinal Tagle now heads part of the Roman Curia, which acts like the Pope's "Cabinet", making him one of the most powerful men in the church hierarchy.

Those who have occupied the post have often been referred to as the "Red Pope", in reference to the red hat worn by cardinals.

Cardinal Tagle is only the second Asian to hold that post, after India's Cardinal Ivan Dias, who served from 2006 to 2011.

"The appointment reflects the Pope's deep desire for a missionary church. It is also a further expression of his outreach to Asia," said Mr Gerard O'Connell, Vatican correspondent of the Jesuit-run online journal America.

Cardinal Tagle, who is popular at home and around the Catholic world, has been mentioned in the past as a potential candidate for the papacy, including in the conclave that elected Francis in 2013.

By moving him to the Vatican, Pope Francis gives Cardinal Tagle the chance to gain experience at the heart of the Church's central administration, which would round out his qualifications as a future candidate for the papacy.

The online news site Rappler, citing three Church insiders, said Cardinal Tagle would likely step down as head of the 80 million-strong Catholic church in the Philippines should the Pope insist that he leave Manila and relocate to the Vatican.

Cardinal Tagle was appointed to the College of Cardinals in 2012.

At 55 at the time, he was the second youngest prelate to be named to this powerful body, which elects the leader of the world's 1.5 billion Catholics.

He is a progressive who sees eye-to-eye with Pope Francis on social issues from poverty to immigration.

But his views have been described as "balanced", although 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.

But in a display of his steadfast adherence to traditional Catholic values, he led a tumultuous campaign in the Philippines against a Bill that gave poor couples access to contraceptives.

His supporters see in him the same charisma that the well-loved Pope John Paul II exuded.

As a priest, he preferred taking the bus or a "pedicab" - a bicycle-drawn carriage - when moving about.

Even when he was already a bishop, he would ride a bicycle and go to a run-down neighbourhood to say mass because he had to cover for a priest on sick leave.

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