The new Filipino cardinal, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, once worked as a muchacho (servant) in the United States.
Like many of his fellow Filipinos working abroad, Tagle had to take on a menial job when his scholarship fund dried up while he was studying in the United States in the early 1990s.
Tagle ran out of funds when Fr. Carl Peter, a prominent American theologian who had secured the scholarship for him, died during his last year of graduate studies at Catholic University of America in Washington.
He applied for and got a job as an assistant at the university’s library, according to
Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, the “dean” of Filipino theologians and a friend of Tagle.
Arevalo said that because Tagle did not introduce himself as a priest, he was assigned to do “dirty work.”
“He did not tell anybody and he started working as a muchacho in the library. He applied for a job as a working student and he was carrying books, doing dirty work there until they found out that he was a priest,” Arevalo said in an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“He introduced himself as a student and they gave him a job. [When] they found out he was a priest, he continued working. But they stopped making him carry boxes and things like that,” Arevalo said.
“When his mother found out, she cried. The Tagles are not very wealthy but they have some money. Both mother and father worked for Equitable Bank. They could have sent him more money, or his brother who was working [in the United States] could have, but Chito did not tell his brother,” Arevalo said, using Tagle’s nickname.
“He did his work quietly. He did not want to burden other people. Later on, while I was talking with him, he said he found it quite hard doing his studies while trying to earn the money he needed. This is the kind of person he is,” Arevalo said.
Prince of the Church
Now, 11 years later, the once lowly muchacho has become one of the six newest “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church. On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Tagle and five other churchmen to the College of Cardinals, the body that will elect the next Pope.
Tagle completed his doctoral studies in theology and graduated summa cum laude from Catholic University of America in 1991. He is now an internationally recognized theologian and is considered a rising star in the Catholic Church in Asia.
“As archbishop of Manila, he’s very intelligent, but without any ego. Somebody else who is as intelligent and who has the credentials that he has would have had an ego and so on, but he is a man of great intelligence [and] great simplicity and humility,” Arevalo said.
“Very few other bishops in the Philippines have that kind of competence, which is internationally recognized. It’s not just us here in the Philippines [who are] saying he’s a great theologian,” he added.
Yet Tagle never planned to become a priest. Although religious as a child, Tagle wanted to become a doctor—until a priest “tricked” him into taking an entrance exam for the Jesuit-run San Jose Seminary in Quezon City.
Arevalo said Tagle wanted to go to Ateneo de Manila University after high school, but his parents were worried about the cost if he would go there and live in a boardinghouse, away from their home in Imus, Cavite.
“Now, a priest who had great affection for Chito, decided on his own that Chito should be a priest. So he told Chito, ‘Do you want to take an entrance exam to Ateneo? I’ll take care of it,’” Arevalo said.
“But instead of giving Chito the [Ateneo] entrance exam, he [gave him the San Jose] entrance exam. [Chito] was ‘tricked.’ He passed without a problem and [he told] his parents he had gotten a scholarship because of his very high marks [but it was for the seminary],” he said.
“So he entered San Jose, not really because he wanted to be a priest but to try it and see,” Arevalo said.
Eventually, Tagle decided to become a priest.
Tagle never disclosed the identity of the priest, but Arevalo said he suspected it was the late Msgr. Redentor Corpus, who, together with the late Imus Bishop Felix Perez, was believed to have been a “major influence” in Tagle’s life.
“[Corpus] was a close friend of his and his family. He was ‘tricked’ but it was providential. Mrs. Tagle said, ‘Looking back, we feel that God was acting in his life, as if preparing him for whatever work God wanted him to do,’” Arevalo said.
“The parents sort of realized this so they have kept everything—his compositions, outstanding papers, medals. He is not superspecial, but there is a side of him, a certain goodness that is extraordinary, and ordinary people see that in him,” he said.
Arevalo said it was the late Bishop Perez who decided to send Tagle to the United States for graduate studies.
“He really loved him as a son and while [Chito] was studying here, Bishop Perez would often drop in and talk with us,” Arevalo said.
Arevalo said Perez sought advice on a school for Tagle and eventually settled on Catholic University of America because Fr. Joseph Komonchak, an eminent American ecclesiologist, and the late Fr. Avery Dulles, SJ, considered the dean of American theologians, taught there.
“The fact that Father Komonchak was there, probably the best of the American ecclesiologists, the fact that Father Dulles was at the time teaching there, and the fact that Fr. Carl Peter would facilitate his scholarship were the reasons why [Chito] went there,” Arevalo said.
Arevalo dismissed suggestions that Tagle’s theological positions were at variance with the Vatican because of his links to the “Bologna School” of scholars, which had been accused of promoting a “liberal interpretation” of the Vatican II.
“Chito is neither conservative nor liberal. His main concern is pastoral and [as for] the theological controversies, he’s not interested in them for their own sake. What is important to him is their pastoral meaning,” Arevalo said.
He pointed out that Tagle shared the Pope’s belief that the Vatican II did not represent a “rupture” or break in Catholic tradition. He blamed “politics in the Church” for attempts by some quarters to paint Tagle as a “super-ultraliberal.”
“The Pope knows Tagle personally and knew that he is not a militant superprogressive … Are his positions the same as Ratzinger’s in everything?” Arevalo said, referring to Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any significant difference between the two,” Arevalo said.
Arevalo said that as a cardinal and archbishop of Manila, Tagle would be able to explain the Church’s position on raging social issues like the reproductive health (RH) bill not just with clarity but also with humility.
“We know we have reached a point where bishops have to be clear in their own theological positions. It was not needed for a long time, but this RH bill brings that up. They should be able to present their case and not just simply use authority, not simply say, ‘This is the teaching of the Church, therefore you should follow,’” he said.
“[Chito] can explain it with humility and simplicity and present the case rationally and with clarity,” he said.
Arevalo said Tagle would also be able to help Rome and the universal Church in understanding the experience of Catholics in Asia and in launching the “new evangelization” on the continent.
“About two-thirds of humanity lives in Asia, with a population of roughly 4.5 billion to almost 5 billion. The population of the world is 7 billion-8 billion. Of that 4.5 billion, only 3 percent, or 140 million, are Catholics so evangelization in Asia is really needed,” Arevalo said, quoting an Indian cardinal.
“[The] mission has not yet begun in Asia, and the two greatest countries of the future —China and India—are not Christian. The new evangelization is very important in this part of the world,” he added.
Arevalo said Tagle would now have to learn how to walk on the world stage.
“I worked with [Manila Archbishop Jaime] Cardinal Sin for more than 20 years. Cardinal Sin practically met with every major figure in Church and state during his time. He sat down with American presidents and [European] heads of state,” Arevalo said.
“That’s the sort of international horizon that [Chito has now]. And cardinals have passports that have the diplomatic rank of members of royal families. So in that sense, by being a cardinal, you are elevated to the ‘royal family’ of the Holy See,” he said.