If the College of Cardinals had a rock star, it would be Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of the Philippines.
Enormously popular on Facebook, the youngest of the leading contenders to be pope is known for tooling around the streets of Manila on his bike, delivering charismatic, inspiring liturgies and welcoming the homeless to his dinner table. His relative youth perhaps diminishes his chances — such a long reign on the throne of St. Peter could push the next conclave back decades. But it has also made the baby-faced cardinal among the most out-of-the-box choices and a favorite among those who are pushing for change.
The election of Tagle (pronounced TAG-lay) would be unconventional in multiple ways. As the first Asian pope — and the first non-European in modern times — he would signal the shift of the Roman Catholic Church away from Europe and toward the developing world. He is also viewed as man of the people, delivering a strong anti-poverty message.
Widely known in the Philippines by his nickname “Chito,” Tagle is media savvy, regularly appearing on religious talk shows and becoming a YouTube sensation for his dulcet singing solos.
He hews closely to the teaching of the church, but has often used conciliatory language while doing so. He opposed, for instance, a push in the Philippines toward state-sponsored use of contraception, but he refrained from harsh, dogmatic statements and encouraged dialogue.
“He didn’t engage in [labels] like ‘a culture of lies and culture of death,’ ” said the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, professor emeritus of theology and religious studies at Catholic University in Washington. Tagle worked as Komonchak’s research assistant there in 1986 and later produced his doctoral thesis under his supervision on aspects of the Second Vatican Council.
“There was always room for conversation that could follow,” Komonchak said. “His tone is much more moderate in comparison to American bishops. His position on the doctrine isn’t different to Benedict, but his way of addressing these issues in the public realm differs.”
Tagle has openly addressed the crises battering the church, including his attendance last year at a symposium in Rome, “Toward Healing and Renewal,” that called for more openness and an end to the culture of shame that tended to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct.
A native of Manila and a banker’s son, with Chinese forebears on his mother’s side, Tagle initially planned a career in medicine before being recruited to religious vocation by a Jesuit friend. After earning his doctorate at Catholic University, he rose quickly in the church, becoming bishop in 2001 and archbishop of Manila a decade later. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI welcomed him into the College of Cardinals.
“I realize that the sufferings of people and the difficult questions they ask are an invitation to be first in solidarity with them, not to pretend we have all the solutions,” Tagle told Vatican Radio last year. He continued, “You may be saying the right things, but people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution.”
Eliza Mackintosh In London contributed to this report.