MANILA, Philippines—“Oh, look at this young boy,” the man in a white robe said, stepping out of the elevator.
The man was Pope Francis, elected Pope just the day before. The “boy” was Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, on his way to lunch in a black shirt and sweater. Tagle did not expect the encounter.
Tagle, feeling improperly dressed as he faced the Pope, felt embarrassed. The Pope reached out and touched the sweater.
“This is a sporty look! I like the way you look,” Pope Francis told Tagle, smiling.
“Ako, hiyang-hiya (I was so embarrassed),” Tagle said. “But the Pope knows how to put you at ease. He spontaneously reaches out to all,” he said as he regaled last Monday’s churchgoers at a Lenten activity of St. James Parish, Ayala Alabang in Muntinlupa City.
Seat reservations were strictly prohibited. Days before, parish priest Msgr. Albert Venus had asked Mass goers not to send their “yayas and drivers” to reserve seats as villagers are wont to do. So as early as 6 p.m., people started filing into the church for Tagle’s 8 p.m. talk.
At the Mass prior to the talk, the officiating priest started his homily with: “I’m glad to see people filling up the front rows first. Usually, people stay at the back!”
Such was the excitement in the church as all awaited Tagle’s first speech in St. James as a cardinal.
Tagle as usual kept his audience at the edge of their seats. His talks teemed with anecdotes. He paused, let silence still the air a few blinks, and tilted his head every time as a prelude to painting vignettes about the “conclave … alam ko interesado kayo ’dun (I know you are interested in those)” and about his own experiences.
Before he left for Rome to attend the conclave, he said he shunned newspapers, television and even his e-mail. There was much speculation on who would be Pope, and his name constantly cropped up.
“Part of the discipline we cardinals were told to possess was ‘focus’ so we could listen intently to the Holy Spirit and ward off other ‘spirits’ of ambition, of ah, sikat ako, ganun (my being famous, things like that).”
The airport scene in Manila surprised him. Media people jostled to get their soundbytes, quotes and photos. The cardinal said they were even interested in his passport.
“Baka maging (this might become a) relic” one day, they told him. He was so uncomfortable he tried to get the person next to him to smile.
“Ngumiti ka, ikaw pala kinukunan (Smile, it’s you they’re photographing).”
Rome was another surprise since he thought he would be unknown there.
“Cardinale de Filipino!” shrieked those in the historic city of Rome.
Tagle: “Pati ba naman dito (Here too)?”
While en route to a meeting at the Vatican in a car provided by the Collegio Filippino, home in Rome to visiting or studying Filipino clergymen, a group of students happened to spot the cardinal.
Taking one look at him, they called out, “Il Papa(bile) Cinese!” mistaking him for a Chinese. Tagle promptly put his hands together and, in true Oriental fashion, bowed low.
When invited to dinner one night at a restaurant, an Italian family at a nearby table saw Tagle.
“Wait a minute, are you the one from the Philippines?” they asked him.
Not long after, the entire restaurant went agog over the Manila archbishop’s presence. “At binigyan ako ng libreng (And they gave me free) dessert,” he said.
Letters from future Pope
Pope Francis and the Manila Archbishop know each other, having worked together from 2005-2008. They were “in many activities,” Tagle said, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires often sent his congratulations to Tagle after reading articles Tagle wrote.
“But not even once did I respond to his letters,” Tagle said, sounding regretful.
The archbishop is all praise for Pope Francis’ humility, simplicity and his need to be with the “little ones”.
The day after the conclave, Pope Francis called the cardinal-electors to a Thanksgiving Mass at the Sistine Chapel. A “hall” where all of the cardinal-electors’ vestments were placed (“you looked for your name to see your own”) was abuzz with the cardinals’ noisy chit-chat.
Dressing up with the Pope
Suddenly, the Pope entered the hall. The cardinals fell silent. Why was he not in his own dressing room?
“‘Uy, bakit? Naligaw ba ang Pope (Why? Did he lose his way)?’” we asked. He told us, “I will dress up with my brother-cardinals.” The Pope issued prior instructions that his vestments be placed also in the hall.
At the Pope’s first public Mass, “I was watching the conclusion when he went to the crowds to greet them. I was watching with some Swiss guards who, covering their faces, were muttering, ‘Oh no, no, no!’ concerned for the Pope’s security.
The Manila Archbishop took the chance to assure them. He said: “Relax. That’s how we are as pastors in our dioceses.”
Although he began his voyage to the conclave loathing being the focus of attention, being speculated upon as the next Pope, he eventually accepted it.
New respect for OFWs
The change happened after he met a domestic worker, a Filipino woman, in Italy.
“Ano man po ang mangyari (Whatever happens),” she told Tagle, referring to the outcome of the conclave, “nagpapasalamat po kami sa inyo, kardinal (we are thanking you, Cardinal).” With his getting into the prestigious list of papabiles from all over the world, a warm flame of new respect was lit for the working Filipinos in Italy.
“Ang amo namin, naging mabait sa amin (Our employers have become kind to us). Para bang lumabas ang dangal namin (It’s like our dignity has surfaced).”
“When I heard that, sabi ko, ‘Ok na, at peace na ako, ’di pala ang atensyon para sa akin. Ginamit lang ako ng Holy Spirit para kahit sandali, maranasan nila na itinataas sila, (I said, I’m at peace now. The attention, after all, was not for me. The Holy Spirit just used me so that even if only momentarily, my countrymen would feel respected),” he said.
Even in Padua, Venice
After the conclave, he visited Padua and Venice in Italy where, as usual, tourists, German and the English among them, readily recognized him. The “Filipino Cardinal”, they would squeal, and would ask to pose with him. They were meeting a changed man.
“Sige, halina kayo (Okay, come, all of you),” he would reply to the photograph-seekers. “Hindi ito para sa akin (This is not for me).
“In a surprising way, it was my way of asking them to ‘please respect my fellow Filipinos.’”
At that, Cardinal Tagle received the most resounding applause from his spillover audience.
(The author, a businesswoman, occasionally writes for Inquirer Lifestyle. She used to be special projects editor of BusinessWorld and reporter of the defunct Business Day.–Eds)