A Filipino pope?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Filipino Catholics are understandably excited by reports that the former archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, could be in the running to succeed Pope Francis, in case the hugely popular pontiff decides to retire for health reasons.

Tagle himself has doused the speculations as premature, even if he is widely seen to be favored by the pope, who appointed him as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

Fr. Aris Sison, rector of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral of Cubao, also reminded the faithful that a pope does not get to handpick his successor.

Instead, about 120 cardinals from all over the world attend a conclave to elect someone among them who will be the next leader of 1.3 billion Roman Catholics. Nearly all the cardinals are papabile – a possible candidate to become pope.

We watched such conclaves that were broadcast worldwide (but only from outside the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican) when Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected in 2005 and became Pope Benedict XVI following the death of John Paul II. Benedict was replaced by Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio who named himself after St. Francis of Assissi.

There is a saying in such gatherings, according to Father Sison: he who enters the conclave as a pope leaves as a cardinal.

Sison, who teaches Homiletics (the art of writing and delivering homilies or sermons) at the Immaculate Conception Graduate School of Theology, stresses that one does not lobby for the papacy. In fact, he says lobbying could doom the chances of whoever engages in it.

Bergoglio was a dark horse to replace Benedict, a conservative intellectual who lamented modern “cafeteria-style” religious devotion – the adherence only to Catholic teachings that suits a person.

Benedict’s hardline approach, which earned him the moniker “God’s Rottweiler” from the British press as well as “Nazinger” following his election because of his brief, involuntary membership in the Hitler Youth, must have been deemed to have a negative impact on Church following in the 21st century. Combined with the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Church, the challenges prompted him to resign in 2013 – becoming only the second pontiff to do so in the history of the faith, after Celestine V in 1294.

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Those who watched the exquisite movie “The Two Popes” saw the emergence of Bergoglio from a dark horse papabile to the hope for a different leader who can forge a new path in a modern Church.

And Francis has not disappointed. I know lapsed Catholics who were drawn back to the Church because of his accessibility and compassionate understanding of human frailties, of the spiritual challenges confronting troubled souls in this age.

The speculative reports about his retirement were triggered by the pope’s remarks at a recent gathering for the elderly. Sison notes that for the pope, who is turning 86 on Dec. 17, raising the possibility of his own retirement would have been appropriate in that situation.

The pope had part of one lung removed in 1957 and half of his colon last year. He suffers from a bad knee and sciatica. But is he seriously considering retirement?

Last month he visited Canada, during which he apologized to indigenous peoples for the “evil” policy carried out in that country to assimilate them into Christian culture.

Now he may be preparing to attend the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, scheduled in Kazakhstan next month. That doesn’t look like a pope who, although slowing down at 85 years old, is ready to retire. Nearly all popes, after all, kept their posts all the way to their deathbed.

Still, the speculations have triggered concern among some quarters that he might be replaced by a conservative like Benedict.

How will this impact the following of the Church?

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The pandemic forced the lockdown of places of worship nationwide. Father Sison says the faithful have been grateful for the availability of livestreamed masses throughout the lockdowns, with some attending mass every day instead of just once a week.

He says the challenge now, with 100 percent capacity again allowed in churches, is to persuade those who have grown used to online masses to physically return to church.

This could require innovation and special effort. My mother, who regularly attended mass in different churches pre-pandemic, has become spoiled by the ease of attending mass from the comfort of home. Her favorite is the Sunday mass livestreamed at noon from the SVD Mission House Chapel of Christ the King Mission Seminary in Quezon City. She likes watching Father Jerry Orbos playing the guitar and singing the Carpenters’ “Sing” at the end of the mass. I guess the lyrics are uplifting amid all the sadness of the times: “… Sing of good things, not bad. Sing of happy, not sad…”

What about the pastors? Are people still interested in becoming shepherds of the Catholic flock?

Sison told “The Chiefs” on One News last week that there has been no dramatic fall in the number of Filipino seminarians, and most proceed to ordination as priests.

He isn’t knowledgeable about the situation in the nunneries, but he confirmed that Filipino nuns are being deployed in other countries.

Globally, while Church attendance and interest in the priesthood are falling in Europe, Sison says the faith remains strong in other regions such as Latin America. He noted that Cambodia and South Korea recently had their first Catholic cardinals.

As of Aug. 8, there were 206 cardinals worldwide. At least 16 are expected to be added during a consistory on Aug. 27. Sison said only 116 of them are “cardinal electors” – those who get to attend the conclave that picks a new pope.

Ultimately, says Father Sison, “it is the Holy Spirit who will choose the next pope.”

His advice to those hoping to see Tagle become the first Filipino pope: shut up, and just pray for the cardinal.

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