ROME – On a misty Sunday evening in Rome, Sister Gloria Bongkonoy scuttled back and forth from the Santa Pudenziana church to the small parish office next door.
“As you can see, we are busy this weekend,” she grinned, as worshippers filed down the narrow steps from the sloping Via Urbana 20 feet above. The Mass they were gathering for was celebrated not in Italian or Latin or even English, but in Tagalog, the national language of Sister Gloria’s homeland, the Philippines.
When asked about hopes that Manila’s Cardinal Luis Tagle – “pronounced Tag-lay,” as she corrected me – would be elected Pope, Sister Gloria merely smiled and said “we are hoping that the will of God will be done in the conclave.”
Perhaps Tagle’s youth – he is 55 – worked against him, as his election would have raised the prospect of another John Paul II-length pontificate. In the end, the Filipino’s name was not the one called out by France’s Cardinal Tauran to a crowd of around 200,000 waiting in the rain on the evening of March 14. It appears God’s will was for an Argentine Jesuit — who took the name Francis, after the famous saint from Assisi — to become Pope and the first Latin American to lead the church.
Gollowon Allesandro Cabangcla, a Filipino living in Rome for 10 years, feels “a little disappointed” that Tagle was not elected. “Maybe he was a bit too young still,” reckons Cabangcla, who hopes the new Pope will visit the Philippines, following from John Paul II’s trip there in 1995 when he celebrated Mass in front of an estimated four to five million people, reckoned to be the largest papal audience in history.
Filipinos in Rome might hope that the new Pope will visit their historic church in the meantime. Santa Pudenziana is about a mile from the Colosseum and the Lateran Basilica and has an ornate and layered history. The church is built on the house of the early Christian Pudens, who was killed on the orders of the Roman emperor Nero and later canonized. The apostle Peter – the first Pope – is said to have stayed at the house prior to his own crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
Inside, art and sculpture down the centuries is mixed with some of the most ancient remnants of Rome’s Christian heritage, as well as icons from the Philippines, such as a statue of Lorenzo Ruiz, a missionary who was killed in Japan in 1637 and since 1987 has been venerated as the first Filipino saint.
Another Filipina worshipper at the church, Aileen Joy Ribera from Vigan, said before the conclave reached a decision that she was hopeful Tagle would win out. But, explaining what Catholics are meant to believe about the conclave process, Ms Ribera said “whoever is chosen we believe is chosen by the Holy Spirit, so we will be happy for that, whoever it is.”
The 55-year-old Luis Antonio Tagle has had a meteoric rise in the Church, appointed cardinal in October 2012 by Benedict XVI, and, long before that named a member of the International Theological Commission by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Filipinos in Rome seem to have taken to him. Maria Victoria Villenueva, living in Rome for 30 years, was in St Peter’s Square waiting for the outcome of the conclave. She said “he (Tagle) is our singing cardinal and is well known to our young people all over the world.”
Of the 115 cardinal-electors who voted in the recent conclave, 11 were from the Asia-Pacific region, home to 12 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Tagle, one of the 11, was touted among the papabili – possible candidates to become Pope – prior to the March 12-14 vote, with Vatican watchers citing his youth, outgoing nature and popularity at home.
The Philippines is by far the biggest Catholic-majority country in Asia, and one of only two countries in the continent that have majority Christian or Catholic populations, the other being East Timor. In both countries, however, evangelical Protestant groups are making inroads and converts, marking – as is the case in his own region of Latin America – one of the main challenges for the new Pope, and for Cardinal Tagle.
“The Catholic Church hierarchy no longer enjoys the kinds of monopoly privileges it maintained in so many realms of Philippine society and so many regions of the Philippine archipelago over preceding decades and centuries,” said Professor John Sidel of the London School of Economics.
There are other challenges for the church in the Philippines, where 76 million people are listed as Catholic, the world’s third biggest Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico. The church there took a recent hit with the passing of the so-called “RH Bill” as it is known in local shorthand — a new reproductive health regime approved by the Philippine legislature and signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III in late 2012.
The law aims to make contraceptives and family-planning education more widely-available to poorer Filipinos, something proponents say is necessary because of the country’s fast growing population of 105 million, but which contains elements contrary to church teaching on sexuality.
However, the same day that Pope Francis was inaugurated, the Philippines’ Supreme Court put the law – formerly entitled the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 – on hold for 120 days pending review of petitions challenging its constitutionality.
Nonetheless, the fight over the RH Bill shows that the influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines has diminished, says Prof. Sidel, co-author of Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: Colonial Legacies, Post-Colonial Trajectories.
“The success of President Aquino in pushing through the RH Bill does prove that Filipino politicians today enjoy – and/or avail of – much more freedom of manoeuvre on social issues,” he said in an email.Show