Wanted: Brave prophet for Manila

Church workers toiling in the dangerous frontlines of social conflict in Manila are praying that Pope Francis will appoint a “brave, courageous prophet” to replace Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle as prelate.

At the same time, they hope that Cardinal Tagle, who will be moving to the Vatican, increases attention on socio-political issues that are also part of church priorities under Pope Francis.

“We need a brave prophet,” said Father Danny Pilario of the Congregation of the Mission, dean of St. Vincent’s School of Theology in Manila.

The priest ministers in a sprawling urban poor community that has reeled from hundreds of killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drugs.

“We need someone who can be a good shepherd not only with the ‘smell of his sheep’ but one who also protects them when the wolves begin to eat and kill his flock,” said Father Pilario.

He said the new pastor “should be able to place his life on the line, not like the hired ones who run away, as the Gospel says.”

Marissa Lazaro, mother of a young man killed by police in 2017, hopes that the pope appoints a new archbishop who is a vocal advocate for human rights.

“Church people need an example,” said the bereaved mother who braved a crowd of 50,000 in St. Peter’s Square last October to hand over her handwritten letter to Pope Francis.

“I am confident he has read our letters,” said Lazaro, who will monitor the pontiff’s first celebration of Mass with Filipinos on Dec. 15.

“I believe the pope will do something for the families who have felt the blows but also for everyone,” she said.

She said she hopes the pontiff will challenge Filipino priests “to speak up for life and rights and be more brave in showing opposition to the killings.”

“It pains me that there are so few in the clergy willing to speak up on this,” added the woman.

Powerful post

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, takes a more robust lead in tackling social justice issues around the world.

But Pope Francis’ 2013 Apostolic Exhortation titled “Evangelii Gaudium” in part frames the Church’s missionary stance against some evils that are the roots of violence in the Philippines.

The pontiff used the powerful “No” to stress opposition to “an economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money, a financial system which rules rather than serves, and the inequality which spawns violence.”

Cardinal Tagle’s new post has always been considered powerful, lynchpin of sustainability for the Catholic Church in its traditional but weakened bastions and for its spread and growth elsewhere.

The pope’s new document has raised the prefect’s role, with religious experts noting that evangelization now flows from the heart of the Church’s mission to the heart of the Vatican itself.

“All the official Church’s other activities will flow from — and be subordinate to — evangelization,” the international La Croix noted in April this year.

The report said a new “super-dicastery” for evangelization takes precedence over all other congregations, relegating the once supreme Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The pope has also merged the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Council for the New Evangelization, which Pope Benedict XVI created in 2010.

Cardinal Tagle, who effortlessly swings from polished and urbane to downright folksy, is a sound choice for the position.

Addressing poverty in the fringes of the Philippine capital Manila continues to be a challenge both for the government and the Church. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Prudent but not silent

The cardinal is a charming communicator known for wit and humor. But he has disappointed some of the faithful by trodding a wary path in tackling Duterte’s three-year crackdown on drugs.

The government’s centerpiece program has killed at least 6,000 Filipinos during police operations. Triple that number have died in what law enforcers dismiss as vigilante hits and gang war executions.

The cardinal has not been silent, however. He wept in 2017 while lamenting the spread of the culture of death.

In his 2018 Palm Sunday homily, he denounced “kings who use violence” to intimidate the weak.

In 2015, he visited indigenous refugees of war camped out in a Manila park, expressing understanding of their plight and praising their role as guardians of the environment.

But Cardinal Tagle, whose talk show has a big following, prefers to use parables and seems to consciously underplay his powerful position as head of the most influential diocese in the country.

He did not name Duterte in his Palm Sunday homily and framed it to give an opening for dialogue. “We want to believe that you do not rejoice in their death. But there are so many of them,” he said.

The cardinal knows that kings fall and he is more focused on the flock who receive the message, one close friend of Cardinal Tagle told LICAS News.

“Many of them voted for Duterte and remain devoted to him,” said the cardinal’s friend who requested anonymity.

“You don’t hector them. Appealing to their innate goodness and sense of justice could do more good.”

In the blood-drenched alleys of Manila, it is sometimes hard to believe in that goodness. But even the pope understands why so many of the flock have gone astray.

As in the secular political sphere, the yawning chasm between noble words and crass actions also besets the Church.

In Duterte country, that is a powerful tool to wield against clergy and the religious.

The right time?

The congregation Cardinal Tagle now heads is “very influential,” said Father Pilario.

“These socio-political issues are a crucial part of the Church’s mission. The prefect should be able to respond to these because these issues abound worldwide,” said the priest.

“Cardinal Tagle is a good theologian and communicator. As prefect, he can bring them into his agenda,” he added.

Edita Burgos, an activist, educator and member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, believes the Vatican and the pope are already aware of urgent issues affecting Filipinos, like the killings and human rights violations, as some of the victims are priests and religious.

“However, awareness and publicly acknowledging this awareness are two different matters,” she said.

“I feel that the distinct advantage in the appointment of Cardinal Tagle is that the pope will have someone, a Filipino, who has first-hand knowledge … whom he  can consult about the Philippine situation when the need arises.”

Father Raymond Montero-Ambray, who works in Tandag Diocese in the southern Philippines, said he mulled over Cardinal Tagle’s appointment.

“The pope is well aware about the situation of our country in terms of human rights,” he said.

The pope mentioned his concern for tribal communities in Mindanao during his 2015 visit to the Philippines.

Like other activists, Father Montero-Ambray struggles to understand Cardinal Tagle.

“I believe the cardinal is aware about what is happening to our country and we depend on his wisdom to deal with it,” he said.

“I understand his prudence in dealing with the matter but there is a certain immensity about the problem; to be silent is almost tantamount to approving it,” he added.

The priest, however, hopes the cardinal has just been biding his time.

With three priests killed over three years, many more red-tagged in the provinces, with bishops and clergy facing sedition charges by the government, the Vatican’s new top evangelist will increasingly face questions that have bothered the flock for some time: “When is enough enough?”

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