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All Things Catholic

Meet the Philippine Pope Francis

Pope Francis marked the one-year anniversary of his election last week, triggering another round of effort to pin down the exact nature of his “Roman Spring.” There may be no single answer, but one way to approach it is by examining the kind of church leader who seems emboldened by the new pontiff.

If that’s the measure, the fact that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines feels affirmed offers a pretty good indication of which way the winds are blowing.

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Before last year’s papal election, Tagle was known as the face of a distinctly Asian form of Catholicism. He rejects ostentation in dress and manner, preferring to be called by his nickname “Chito” rather than formal titles. He emphasizes the need for the church to listen as much as it talks, and he exudes a sort of slow-burn charisma that doesn’t smack you in the face so much as it gradually envelops you.

Today, there’s an easier way to say all that: He’s the Asian Pope Francis.

Francis clearly likes what he sees in the popular Philippine prelate, who at 56 is the fourth-youngest cardinal in the world. The pope recently appointed Tagle one of three copresidents for a critically important summit of bishops in the fall. Francis also reaches out informally.

Tagle tells a story about forgetting to turn off his cellphone while saying Mass recently and then ignoring a call, only to realize later it had been the pope.

The parallels between the two men are striking.

Before taking over in Manila in 2011 Tagle served as bishop of the smaller Philippine diocese of Imus, where he was famous for not owning a car, preferring to either walk or to hop on one of the cheap minibuses known as a “jeepneys” that working class Filipinos use to move around. He was also renowned for inviting beggars in the square outside his cathedral to eat with him.

I was in Manila last week for a talk to mark the 50th anniversary of Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City and for a dinner event with Tagle downtown on Thursday night. In between, I sat with him for an interview.

Like Francis, Tagle has a big pastor’s heart. We spoke about the estimated 10 million Filipinos who have left the country to work overseas, often trying to escape grinding poverty, and his anguish was palpable.

“Knowing the Filipino psyche, I know they’re suffering being away from family, from home,” Tagle said. “In a way, it’s a form of forced migration.”

Tagle said he dreads going to Manila International Airport for precisely this reason.

“Every time I fly out, I see these gut-wrenching goodbyes at the gate,” he said. “It tears your heart out.”

In another parallel with Francis, Tagle is a moderate who prefers seeking compromise to bringing down fire and brimstone.

“Many people have told me in the past that I’m not strong enough, that I don’t condemn enough,” Tagle said, adding that the new pope’s example has helped resolve any doubts he once felt.

“Now I hear the pope saying, I’m a son of the church, I know the teachings of the church, but why should I condemn anyone?” Tagle said, citing Francis’ instantly classic line on gays, “Who am I to judge?”

In the Philippines, one flashpoint raising questions about how hard a line Catholic leaders should take has been a bitterly debated Reproductive Health Law, which requires the government to make contraception widely available. It was passed last year over the church’s vigorous opposition, and is now on hold awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionality.

Though Tagle took a clear stand against the bill, he was criticized by some for not pushing harder. When a Philippine bishop threatened the country’s president with excommunication, Tagle didn’t join the fray.

When Catholic activists targeted backers of the law for defeat by labeling them “Team Death,” Tagle declined to put up attack-ad posters in Manila churches.

That nuanced stance does not square with some Filipinos’ sense of how a top cleric should behave.

One such person came up to me last week and said the law would never have passed if the legendarily tough Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was key to the People Power uprising that swept Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1986, were still around. (Sin died in 2005.)

Tagle’s moderate streak is also clear on internal church questions.

In his Globe interview, he said that he’s open to considering the arguments for allowing Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, a declaration from a church court that the first marriage was invalid, to receive communion and the other sacraments.

“We have a principle we have to believe in,” he said, referring to the idea that marriage is for life. “But the openness comes on pastoral judgments you have to make in concrete situations, because no two cases are alike.”

One can debate the merits of those positions, but there’s no question Tagle and leaders who think like him appear strengthened in their convictions one year into the new regime.

If you’re looking for a “Francis effect,” in other words, that’s one way to gauge it.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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