VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In a surprise move, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, as the head of Propaganda Fide, the major Vatican department for evangelization, on Sunday (Dec. 8). It’s a move that emphasizes this pontificate’s efforts to highlight the global peripheries and taps the cardinal as a possible successor.
“Thank you very much to all of you. I will ask for your prayers,” has so far been the only statement released by a teary-eyed Tagle after a Mass for the Immaculate Conception celebration on Monday (Dec. 9).
Tagle’s appointment required some reshuffling of the Vatican hierarchy. Pope Francis accepted the resignation of U.S. Cardinal Edwin Frederick O’Brien as the head of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, having reached the age limit of 80 years old. In O’Brien’s place, he appointed Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who formerly headed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, usually referred to by its former name, Propaganda Fide.
At 62, Cardinal Tagle will oversee all of the Catholic missions in the world, a natural transition from his current appointment as president of the global Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis.
The appointment underlines three important issues that help clarify the intentions of this pontificate and possibly make way for the next.
The first is the continued focus, not on Western centers of power, but instead on the countries where the majority of tomorrow’s Catholics live. Secondly, it places a premium on evangelization over doctrine, which has been at the heart of reforming efforts by Pope Francis. Third, appointing Tagle to such an influential position in the Vatican has led observers to look at him as a viable candidate for the next papal election.
Tagle is the second person from Asia to occupy this important position in the Vatican, following the now-deceased Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias, who headed the department from 2006 to 2011. His taking over the Vatican’s evangelization efforts embodies Pope Francis’ repeated appeals to “reach out toward the peripheries” and the developing world.
A little over a week after the pope’s fourth apostolic visit to Asia — when he visited Thailand and Japan — the appointment of Tagle makes clear Francis’ intention to focus on reaching more of the East with the Catholic message.
Born in Manila, from a Catholic family of Chinese descent, Tagle became a priest in 1982 and studied theology in the United States and in Rome before becoming a member of the influential International Theological Commission in 1997, which advises the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly known as the Vatican Inquisition.
He became bishop of Imus, Philippines, in 2001, and archbishop of Manila ten years later. Tagle was named a cardinal by then Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
The Philippines is home to the largest Catholic population in Asia, but Tagle’s appointment points to an even larger trend. According to 2018 data from the department that Tagle has been tapped to head, the global Catholic population has grown all over the world but predominantly in Asia, Latin America and in Africa.
Tagle’s appointment also reveals a new emphasis on evangelization within the Vatican. Several reports have suggested that Pope Francis plans to strengthen Propaganda Fide to become the strongest department in the Vatican, even more than the CDF, which essentially would place a premium on evangelization over doctrine. With his theology background, Tagle might be the right person to manage that transition.
Finally, the head of Propaganda Fide is often referred to as “the red pope” due to the tremendous influence that role exercises over Catholic missions around the world, mainly in Asia and Africa. The appointment of Tagle has been interpreted as a powerful endorsement by Pope Francis as his possible successor.
Not only will Tagle have a chance to be groomed on the comings and goings of Vatican politics, he will also have a privileged position next to the Argentine pontiff and will in this way be another ally for Francis amidst turbulent times in the Catholic institution.
Though it remains unclear as of yet whether Tagle will have to step down as archbishop of Manila, the possibility that the next pope may, like Francis, hail from “the end of the earth” has suddenly become more likely.