2012 Storylines

by Juan L. Mercado

“(He) is someone utterly uninterested in building ecclesial empires.”  That’s one of the more striking lines written  about Luis Antonio Tagle, the new archbishop of Manila by a widely followed international reporter on the Vatican: John L Allen, Jr.

He is special correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. And Allen’s year-end  feature on the “Top 10 Under-covered Vatican stories of 2011” said of the former Cavite bishop “At the tender age of 54, Tagle is positioned to be a major face and voice for Asian Catholicism for a long time”.

That sparked an outburst of local commentary on Tagle. Will a cardinal, one day, address waiting crowds at St. Peter’s  Square: Habemus Papam (“We have a Pope!”) — then introduce the first Filipino pontiff ever?

Others recall stories that give an insight into this self-effacing priest. He used a bike to reach a barangay to say Mass for one of his priests who was ill. A housewife, frantic over the absence of a ne-er do-well husband, found him having lunch with Tagle.

Tagle’s elevation to the post of Manila archbishop takes place in the context of historically unprecedented changes worldwide, Allen writes. These range from from an  Africa “where Catholicism grew by almost 7,000 percent during the 20th century” to a “global war on Christians” from  Egypt to Yemen .”

Start with Allen’s assessment of what Tagle’s assumption of the mitre and staff of Manila archbishop:  “Manila in the Philippines is another one of those mega-dioceses whose leader automatically becomes a global point of reference. (It) usually draws at least a look as a papal contender.

“That alone would make the Oct. 13 appointment of Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, 54, an important move. Yet the choice is revealing for other reasons too,

“Tagle flies in the face of conventional stereotypes about the type of leader who usually prospers on Pope Benedict  XIV’s watch.  He is a theological and political moderate, associated with a controversial history of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) whose progressive interpretation Benedict has spent much of his career contesting.

Yet Tagle is also known as a talented theologian, a remarkably un-clerical personality, a good listener and someone utterly uninterested in building ecclesial empires — in other words, not unlike the reputation of Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election to the papacy. “In any event, at the tender age of 54, Tagle is positioned to be a major face and voice for Asian Catholicism for a long time.”

“Popes vote with their feet,” Allen adds.  “Their pastoral and geopolitical priorities are often revealed by where they choose to travel”.

Benedict XVI’s Nov. 18-20 trip to  Benin was his second trip to Africa, making it his second most-visited continent after Europe. There, he unveiled a document containing conclusions from a 2009 Synod of Bishops endorsed the socio-political agenda of African Catholicism — especially the struggle against corruption’.

Get your own house in order in terms of accountability, transparency and good government”, he challenged African bishops.  “In every situation, (the Church must)  persist in esteem for Muslims” —  a call that will resonate with Filipino Muslims.

Has Benedict XVI become the “Pope of the Agnostics?”,  Allen asks.  Probably the biggest headline from his September trip to Germany was his praise for “agnostics….. desirous of a pure heart.” Such folk, the pontiff said, are actually “closer to the Kingdom of God than ‘routine’ believers who only see the apparatus of the church without their hearts being touched by faith.”

He also invited to his conference in Assisi, not just spiritual leaders but also agnostics. He thanked them because they “challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others.”

“Who would have predicted that from a pontiff who was supposed to be “God’s Rottweiler,” the ultimate cultural warrior?”, Allen asked.

Last year opened with the bombing of a Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt.  That left 23 people dead. The year closed with Christmas Day attacks on three Christian churches in Nigeria. At a Catholic parish,  27 people died.

In between were numerous other assaults on Christians. That included the Oct. 9 “Maspero Massacre” in Cairo, where the Egyptian army opened fire on unarmed Coptic protestors.

These were generally interpreted as localized events. Others claim they formed part of another narrative — the aftermath of the Arab Spring or inter-ethnic tensions, as in Nigeria. “Yet taken together, what emerges from these atrocities is a picture of a global war on Christians”

Fully 80 percent of all acts of religious intolerance today are directed at Christians, asserts the secular Institute for Human Rights, based in Germany. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe estimates that about 200 million Christians now suffer discrimination, harassment and outright violence.

This global war on Christians has consequences across the board, including in ecumenical relations. In September, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican ‘s top official for relations with other Christians, gave a little-noticed speech. All churches these days are witnessing the rise of a new generation of martyrs, said the Vatican ‘s top official for relations with other Christians. An “ecumenism of the martyrs” could  well be  the new foundation of Christian unity

“Sadly, it’s a safe bet that the global war on Christians will remain a top storyline in 2012,” Allen foresees.

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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