While the Pope's pick to oversee the church's worldwide missions – and, soon, the "New Evangelization" of the global north as well – only referred in allegory to his transfer to Rome, using the frame of accepting God's "narrative" as opposed to one's own, at the post-Communion of yesterday's packed Mass of the Immaculate Conception in Manila Cathedral, the Nuncio to the islands, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, put Francis' call to Tagle in not just deeply emotional, but strikingly biblical terms as the new prefect broke down in the cathedra he'll soon depart:
Especially with the now-pending vacancy for the capital already dominating the local focus, it bears noting that Caccia – who would normally oversee the succession – is himself outbound over the coming weeks: in late November, Francis tapped the Italian as the Holy See's new mission-chief at the UN headquarters in New York.
Notably (and unusually) a veteran of the First Section of the Secretariat of State – that is, the Curia's operational hub, in contrast to the Second Section, which manages diplomatic relations – the 61 year-old legate will inherit one of the Vatican's main geopolitical listening posts, and a major center of the "soft power" the Holy See has concertedly aimed to burnish under Francis. What's more, the UN mission has become one of Vatican diplomacy's most intensive postings over recent years, requiring a prodigious output of contributions on practically every question facing the international community, so much so that the Pope himself once joked that Caccia's well-loved predecessor, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, had to "write with both hands at the same time."
Himself a Filipino, Auza departed New York last week for Madrid to begin his new posting as Nuncio to Spain. While his public statements will be far fewer, the "both hands" skill will come in handy for all the reports he'll need to prepare – some three-quarters of the 32 Spanish archbishops will be reaching the retirement age of 75 over the next two years, led by the "cardinalatial" incumbents of Valladolid, Valencia, Sevilla, Barcelona, and the capital itself.
Back to Manila, meanwhile, much as a succession atop Asia's marquee diocese would be of immense, worldwide importance in any period, it is all the more so given the present scene, specifically in terms of the prominent tensions between the Filipino bishops and the country's authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, a convert to an Evangelical church who has used the church's leadership as a consistent target in his ongoing campaign to impose "law and order," including through extrajudicial means.
For context, the islands' Catholic population of 80 million-plus (more than 80 percent of the total population) constitutes the global church's third-largest national bloc after Brazil and Mexico.
In that light, though Tagle has pointedly dialed back the open activism of the Manila archbishopric – a history that saw his predecessor, Cardinal Jaime Sin, effectively preside over the 1986 "People Power" revolution (based at a city shrine) that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos – with several of the bench showing considerably less reticence in confronting Duterte (and receiving death threats for it), the preferred tenor of the capital church's next occupant toward the Filipino "White House," Malacañang, is arguably the frame that will define the choice.
Yet at the same time, it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Francis is the Pope who declared Óscar Romero a saint.
To be sure, with his 83rd birthday coming next week, Francis is showing no signs of slowing down. However, it can be said that by calling Chito Tagle to Rome, a new phase of his nearly eight-year pontificate is underway – one which will bring several long-gestating projects to completion.
Of course, one of those was already on tap for these weeks, with the crucial Post-Synodal Exhortation on Amazonia promised for "the end of the year." On the broader front, meanwhile, as 2019 marked the year in which Francis' voting cardinals first comprised a majority of the College – a figure only set to increase with time – that reality highlights two unique angles set to dominate the making of the next Pope, whenever it should come.
On one side, as Papa Bergoglio has halted Benedict XVI's practice of convening the College for a day of consultation prior to each Consistory – in large part so they could size each other up – what's now a majority of the current body of electors simply don't know each other at all, rendering anyone among them with a significant profile an immediately outsize figure, to an even greater degree than in the past.
Yet what's more, given Francis' insistence on turning away from the traditional centers of prestige to spread the bulk of his red hats across the church's far-flung "peripheries," and usually to smaller dioceses at that, the flip-side to the diversity and pastoral depth of his choices is the extent to which many of them, if not most, lack the administrative experience of running a sprawling, complex local church – let alone the Vatican – above all in terms of the bureaucracy that comes with it.
Here as well, Tagle's backstory stands out: even before taking the helm of Manila's fold of 4 million in 2011, his prior diocese of Imus in Cavite (his own hometown) comprised some 2.5 million Catholics.
As the selection of every new Pope essentially boils down to a sliding scale between pastoral gifts and aecumen in governance – that is, which mix of the two is deemed optimal for the ecclesial moment – how the incoming "Red Pope" fares in the crucible of a major Curial post (especially in the team he recruits to fill out his weaknesses) could well prove determinative for the future of the church, full stop.
Indeed, only a fool would dare prognosticate what a post-Francis stakes will look like – beyond the historic axiom that "Il Papa si fa in Conclave" ("The Pope is made in the Conclave," and there alone), what happened 2013 is more than sufficient proof of the perils of looking too far ahead.
Still, given the past century's precedent that anytime a single figure was perceived as "the man to beat" going in, he's tended to emerge in white – think Pius XII, Paul VI, even Tagle's own "maker," Benedict XVI – what was already one of the most compelling possibilities next time around just got bigger still. And whatever might happen from here, at least for now, that's nothing to sneeze at.