MANILA – Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle wants to bring the Catholic Church closer to people, a vision his fans say comes from a genuine passion for helping the poor and one that could make him Asia's first pope.
The 55-year-old cardinal from a working-class family close to the Philippine capital is being touted at home and abroad as a genuine chance to succeed Pope Benedict XVI during a historic Vatican vote next month.
Tagle has a reputation across the devoutly Catholic Philippines as a humble man with a lifelong commitment to helping the poor, while senior Church figures regard him as a moderate progressive who balances conservative doctrines.
Tagle, the archbishop of Manila who was appointed a cardinal in November, has refused to discuss his chances for the papacy since Benedict announced he would resign on February 28 due to poor health.
But speaking at a public seminar in Manila last weekend, Tagle elaborated on his well-known views that Church leaders needed to do a better job at reaching out to the people within their communities, particularly the youth.
"The young want to be connected," Tagle said at the forum.
"That is the basic of the faith -- (to be) connected to God, connected to others, to the Church. We need to go back to that fundamental."
Eloquent and with a soothing voice, Tagle has also made high-profile speeches in recent years calling for a humbler Church that is more open to the public's concerns.
Born in 1957 in the then-rural township of Imus, about two hours' drive south of Manila, Tagle's devout Catholic upbringing exposed him to religious work at an early age.
One of his mentors, Father Romeo Ner, 72, recalled that they first met when Tagle was a young boy and even then he showed remarkable empathy, as well as discipline and intellect.
"He was always number one in school. He was very interested in helping the poor even at a young age, and he was very close to the Church," Ner told AFP.
"I was amazed because he knew how to recite the rosary and all of its mysteries when he was just three."
Ner said that as a young priest, Tagle was involved in raising money for parishes that served poor areas, where the future cardinal developed a taste for braised chicken feet -- a staple in the slums.
"Giving the poor their true dignity is his passion. He loves them," said Ner, who as then vicar general of Tagle's hometown was instrumental in making him one of the country's youngest bishops at the age of 44 in 2001.
"When he was appointed as cardinal last year, I asked him whether he realised he was now the highest churchman in the country," Ner said.
"He just said 'yes', but appeared not to be very engrossed with the idea. He is very humble that way, and he never craved for any attention."
Respected Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote recently that Tagle could become the first developing world pope, in the absence of notable Church leaders in Africa and Latin America, where the majority of the world's Catholics live.
Magister wrote in Italy's L'Espresso magazine that a key point in Tagle's favour was the Church's increasing focus on Asia as the future bulwark of the faith.
Tagle is well-positioned because the Philippines is Asia's only majority-Catholic nation, a legacy of more than three centuries of Spanish rule.
And while Tagle is identified with the progressive wing of the Vatican, Magister noted that even the conservative Benedict had appreciated the Filipino's "balance of vision and doctrinal correctness".
At a time when many Church leaders are seen as aloof, Magister also emphasised Tagle's reputation for connecting with the Philippines' millions of poor people.
"Especially striking is the style with which the bishop acts, living simply and mingling among the humblest people, with a great passion for mission and for charity," Magister wrote.
Bookmakers rank Tagle as among the favourites going into the cardinals' secret conclave in Rome. One popular Irish site has him at 16-1 odds.
Nevertheless, other analysts also point out the momentous nature of electing the first pope from Asia, Africa or Latin America, arguing that another European pope is a safer bet.
In the Philippines, there has been nearly uniform support for Tagle since Benedict's shock resignation announcement.
"If he becomes a pope, it will be a loss to us, but a gain to the Vatican and the Catholic world," said Ner, Tagle's former mentor, reflecting sentiments expressed by politicians, Church leaders and media commentators.*AFP
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