Interview with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila
(The interview took place during the Fifth IACM Congress in Nairobi (Kenya) on the topic "Inter Gentes", 45 min) IACM on 18.07.2013
The Institute of Missiology (MWI) Aachen has promoted your postgraduate studies (PhD) in Washington. How important were these postgraduate studies and the scholarship for your work?
First, I want to say that I was very grateful for the opportunity of the scholarship - and that I'm still grateful for it. The MWI has co-sponsored my PhD in Washington DC. I had a scholarship for the stay there by the university and by my diocese. But only this wouldn’t have been sufficient for research, such as the purchase of books. Just at that moment came the MWI to help out. It was like a rescue [laughs heartily]!
The postgraduate course was a "TURNING POINT" in my life. I thought I would go back to the seminary as a theology teacher after the graduation. But, it wasn’t like that. I was invited - after completion of the doctorate to participate in the Theological Commission of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC). My horizon has expanded from my diocese and my seminar towards this beautiful and fascinating world of the Asian continent, where the missionary dimension of the Church is lived as a dialogue.
And my studies in Washington are of course important for my current work. Would I have thought - when I was studying - that I will become bishop, or archbishop of Manila? Or even cardinal? No ... My studies were a good formation for my service in this sense. I can say that the promotion was a theological and missionary preparation, especially for my work in other parts of the world church outside the Philippines.
Our readers and donators are also interested in your family background. Could you tell us something about your background?
I come from a normal, simple family: I was born in Manila, but I grew up in the city of Imus, province of Cavite. This is my home diocese, where I later became Bishop. My father is Filipino, for 40 years he has been working at a bank. My mother is a Filipina with Chinese roots, namely my grandfather comes from China. As a teenager, he came to the Philippines and stayed there. My parents are of a modest background, they met each other at their work place – at the bank!
I had a younger sister, she died after her birth. And I have a brother working in the United States. So we are two. My background: A normal family knowing the world of work and migration.
My parents have given us perhaps the most beautiful gift on our path of life. They have cared for a good education for us and given us values with which we can contribute to the society. I think that the most important aspects are: the unity of my family, attending school, contact to the parish, thus: responsibility in the community.
How did you decide to become a priest?
My plan was actually to become a doctor. My parents and other relatives believed it was a good idea. So, I was determined already as a young man and that was the only idea I thought about. At the age of 13 or 14 years, I have engaged myself in the life of the parish. This was the youth work directly on site. I remember a municipal program for the street children and our activities after a typhoon. We have provided food and clothing for all the people who have lost their homes. During this time, I had contact with young priests and missionaries. There were people with a vision who believed in social change - and that in the midst of the times of the difficult political crisis of the 1960s and in the most critical moments of the country! In this environment I grew up, located in the parish and thrilled by the idea of the mission: So many women and men, priests, religious women and men who are working with their entire life, who are standing for the life of the church, the community, the others. However, I still wanted to study medicine. And then, a priest invited me and promised me a promotion for just these [medical] studies ... but it wasn’t a medical test, it was an exam for the seminary. I only realized it afterwards. “Why have you done this to me,” I asked him after the test. He replied, “Because you have only one idea in your mind so far: to become doctor. But there are other dimensions to consider, other options." I was a little confused with this answer and have again thought about it. Do I want to become a doctor? Should I study theology? With the help also of others, I finally thought: I’ll decide for theology.
And here I discover the deep meaning of vocation. Really, it is a call: It was not me, but God calls himself. My own choice and my wish were to become a doctor, initially. But since I have discovered this secret of vocation. There is something that satisfies me, someone who appeals to me. And I was sent to a complete different way than I had thought, a way that opened my eyes. Who am I really? It was not my own plan anymore and finally I only could say: "Here I am!"
After having completed your studies you have started teaching and you are often requested for theological statements. How important is the theological education for the Church? What are the challenges for the theologians in the Philippines?
More and more, I realize that a good missionary and pastoral practice go hand in hand with a solid theology - and a good theology has a missionary and pastoral impact. It belongs together, one supports the other, and one depends on the other. I am happy that I had the life option to become a priest and that I have chosen this option during the challenging period of the dictatorship. Under the difficult conditions under which the church was living, I got my own inspiration from people of the church, men and women, of religious and priests; they could provide answers for people in the most critical moments of their lives. This was a living witness and the answers may not be a "WischiWaschi" [sic], something invented, cleverly thought out, imagined. But, it always needs a solid theological foundation, a solid theological tradition, etc.
So both are inspired from each other: pastoral and missionary practice is enrichment to the theology and theology is vice versa an inspiration for the pastoral.
In this sense, the challenge for the theologians of the Philippines is the one that applies to all of Asia:
How do we get in a dialogue with the poor?
How we shape a dialogue with the culture?
By culture I do not mean a tightly lead understanding of the culture with the many references to music, art or concerning the customs. That all certainly is very important.
By culture I mean the whole and existential significance of human values, the question of what gives meaning to life. The challenge is: How do we discover the Christian message so that it can offer more life to the culture? The Philippines are today marked by migration, by diversity and pluralism. We engage the dialogue with other religions. So far, the Philippines were dominated by Catholics, but now we also have to consider – because of migration – other worldviews.
The new Pope speaks of "theological narcissism". What do you think of this statement and what should change in theology?
Narcissism always is a temptation. It does not only affect theology. This example can be found in other areas such as in politics. Politicians like to take care of themselves; there exists also narcissism in art, in business. I also see it in theology. All that can be very entertaining if you keep to yourself. There is even a temptation of only your own ideas, a beautifully equipped private office with your own books and articles. This could be a temptation. Theology only for theology? Theology is not an end in itself. The "professional" theologians must engage dialogue with the local people, must be in conversation with the practice of pastoral and mission!
And, here too, we have the reciprocal relationship: The theological thinking should be taken seriously by practitioners. Not only small things are of concern, not just this or that, but it turns around a solid basis of the Christian faith. The theology is at the service of the proclamation of the Church, of its pastoral ministry.
That is why we have to agree the Holy Father - not only for theology, but for the entire Church. It is a challenge to overcome the "self-reference" of the Church, of which the Holy Father is speaking.
The new pope wants a church of the poor, a church that goes to the poor. Do you have time as archbishop to meet all the poor of the city of Manila?
As Archbishop I visit the parishes to very different occasions. I know the "fiestas", but also the meetings and programs of evangelization, the activities of the catechists, the meetings of charity or of the youth. There are many options in the megacity of Manila. And everywhere, I meet the poor! In each parish are poor people, particularly in the outlying areas of the city. I think about the normal visits that are part of my service. But I also have short contacts and conversations before celebrating a mass, for example, or visits at the peoples’ homes. But, I also meet them in the slums; I have conversations with the children, at the Caritas, in the hospital. All this is part of my episcopal ministry.
And, I also have informal contacts with the poor, when I'm walking in Manila by foot in the evening, when people do not know that it is the Archbishop who is passing by. Then, I see at 9 o’clock at night families who are looking for a corner to sleep. Or, I see children, who have nothing to eat and take drugs to satisfy their hunger. This is the daily life without much propaganda, without press, without photographers. This takes place in secrecy.
In addition, there are also organized and structured contacts with the representatives of public life. In dialogue with them I see myself as the voice of the poor. I am also in contact with the government. I call it to tell our politicians that they know what is going on. Thus, the Church enables better living conditions for the poor.
For the first time you have taken part in a conclave. How did you feel?
First, I could almost not believe that I should participate in the conclave. So many Cardinals before me have never taken part in a conclave. Others are already over 80 years old. And I was only cardinal for just three months. I only just learned to deal being "Cardinal". Just at that moment, I had to assume the most important function or rather, the most important service of being a cardinal: the conclave. What happened to me? There is no feeling of pride; I can rather say that this new experience makes me feel humble. This experience ... I suddenly realized, that I am the only Filipino taking part in the conclave and then I'm almost afraid that my voice [literally: hand] and my decision stands for 90 million people of the Philippines.
It was a moment of grace, a historic moment, because every conclave itself writes history. I am very aware of the scope of the decision by my voice. Every day we make decisions: What will I eat? What clothes should I wear? What am I doing today? And we take decisions affecting other people. But the decision in the conclave was different. The decision really needs to be examined in conscience before God, since it is a decision for the whole Church. It was an important moment. It was a spiritual experience to accurately look at the motivation to sort my thoughts. I can not talk about the innermost processes however, it is known to be part of the "mystery" ... [and he laughs again].
The new pope comes from Latin America. How or what should be the role of the "young churches" of Asia, Africa and Latin America?
So far, we have spoken of a classic European church that sends missionaries to the so-called "young churches". Today, we know that the whole Church is missionary sent. Africa, Asia and Latin America are stronger than ever active in the church world. We should accept this responsibility conscientiously. The World Church needs the participation of Latin America, Asia and Africa, when she wants to be a truly "catholic" church. I said this morning [during the lecture on the topic "Inter Gentes" at the Catholic University in Nairobi]: The universality, the catholicity are not abstract things, they should always be specific. The "Catholica" is truly catholic, when we contribute by our identity as Asians, Africans or Americans: one faith, one church. We should think seriously about our identity, our experiences, our dreams, desires, struggles as well as our successes. All this belongs to the community of "Catholica".
Is the Church’s view still very European? What should change?
The long history of the church is closely connected with Europe. I do not think that the more than 1000 years of history of the Christian Occident can be denied, during which Europe has played a very active role in the development of the Church in Europe. This is a historical fact. But, we have to accept the change of mentality and historical challenges. It's not about rejecting Europe, but it's about to hear the other continents. We are there for each other! Europe will not disappear. No, not that! Europe will have to learn to listen, to live with the others. But that also means that the Churches of other continents must have got the will to get involved, to inform each other. If we do not move, then people will naturally say: "This is only a European church." This change we have to face: to share each other! That's "missio inter gentes": people and nations that are in mutual exchange, live dialogue, listen to each other. In this process, we will continue to develop as a church and we will become what we are!
Questions: MWI Aachen
Interview: Michael Meyer
Translation: Nadine Albrecht
Since 50 years the MWI accompanied, together with his partners, younger Churches in Africa and Asia on their way into the future. We support their leaders during their education and we share the vision of a common future.
Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann, Direktor des MWI