Cardinal Tagle: Stop talking about a Francis 'revolution'

Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle at a press conference in Manila, Philippines, in July (CNS/EPA/Francis R. Malasig)

Rome — Philippines Cardinal Luis Tagle has called on people to stop referring to Pope Francis' papacy as a "revolution" in the church, saying the pontiff's emphases are "not new" for Catholics across the continent of Asia.

Speaking Tuesday at an event focused on the church's mission in Asia, Tagle said Francis' tone and focuses are less a sea change and more an affirmation of work Asian Catholics have been undertaking for decades.

"I am always surprised when someone -- in the media, in the congregations -- asks me, 'What do you think about this revolution of Pope Francis -- the revolution to go to the periphery, to be a church for the poor?' " Tagle said.

"But I ask: 'What revolution?' " the cardinal continued. "It's not new for us. ... It's not a revolution. It's an affirmation of various intuitions of the church in Asia and of the universal church."

Tagle spoke at a symposium dedicated to the theme "Mission in Asia: From Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis" that the news organization AsiaNews hosted at the Pontifical Urbaniana University.

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A print magazine and news website dedicated to reporting on the continent, AsiaNews is an agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, an Italian order of priests dedicated to missionary work.

The head of the Manila archdiocese in the Philippines, Tagle dedicated his talk to showing six stages of development in the Asian church since the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. The cardinal also elaborated on what he sees as the priorities of the church in the Philippines and gave hints of what he expects to happen during Francis' visit to the country.

Francis will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines from Jan. 12-19 in what will be his seventh visit outside Italy as pope.

Tagle said he hoped one highlight of the pontiff's Philippines visit would be an emphasis to talk to families touched by rampant government and commercial corruption in the country.

In the Philippines, Tagle said, there is a "sad dichotomy between the professed faith and the ordinary life" of people. One of the church's key challenges, he said, is "the formation of families that walk with justice and faith."

"For us Filipinos, this is a challenge: evangelizing the family," the cardinal continued. "Because in our experience, corruption begins in the family and politicians commit their corruption in the name of the family and for the love of family."

On Francis' first day in Manila -- scheduled for Jan. 15 -- Tagle said he will host a meeting between the pope and a number of families who have been touched by "the typhoon of corruption that comes every day" that "destroys the daily life."

"When the pope meets the families, certainly these wounds will move the Holy Father to give a missionary and evangelical response," Tagle said.

The cardinal said another priority of the Philippines church is to "go out toward the poor," serving their needs in diverse ways. But Tagle also criticized what he called a temptation to "institutionalize" service to those in need.

"Certainly, there is an advantage to systemizing charity, but love is not an institution," Tagle said. "The true love, the true charity, comes from orienting your heart toward another person."

The poor are "a great teacher of the faith," he said. "There is mutuality. The poor are teachers of the faith, of hope, of compassion. Their story of courage has a right to be listened to."

Mentioning Francis' visit to South Korea in August, Tagle said the pope had the opportunity then to meet with several groups of impoverished people. The cardinal said he hoped the pope had not only spoken to them, but also learned from them.

"I hope that the Holy Father felt the faith of the poor," Tagle said. "That it was not only the poor who received from the Holy Father but that the Holy Father received from them their testimony and faith."

Tagle also said he and many Filipinos recognized a need to "confess our sins to the creator of the planet" for environmental destruction and see as a priority promoting a simple lifestyle and a spirituality of stewardship.

Referring to the fact the Francis will visit the Philippine city of Tacloban, a coastal city largely destroyed by 2013's super Typhoon Haiyan, Tagle said the pope "will see in person the effects of climate change ... and the challenge to develop a spirituality of stewardship."

Tagle closed his remarks by reflecting on what he thought Asian Catholics could offer to the rest of the church.

"We in Asia are accustomed to being a small flock in this vast continent," he said. "But the numbers do not determine the vitality of the church. It's life and it's mission."

"In our smallness, our community remains always the church, the presence of the people of God," Tagle said. "The missionary joy can be experienced also in a minority situation by an unthinkable force provided by the faith in our weakness and suffering."

"The church in Asia might always remain a small flock, but has numerous martyrs, the major part of them without names," Tagle said. "It is properly a church without name -- but that professes, and continues to profess the name that is above every other name, Jesus Christ."

Other speakers at Tuesday's event included retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen; South Koran Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik: and Archbishop Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church in Iraq.

Sako spoke at length about the massive struggles his community, based in Baghdad, has faced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to estimates, as many as 1 million Chaldeans have fled the country over the past decade.

The situation for Christians in Iraq, Sako said, is "truly dramatic."

"Like fathers, like pastors, like all of us bishops when we see the suffering of our people in front of us ... we feel like death," he said, calling on Christians to pray and work for his community so that they "will not remain alone" in their struggles.

Zen, who retired as the bishop of Hong Kong in 2009, was highly critical of the Chinese government's treatment of Christians and its response to the ongoing street protests in his country.

In a brief interview after the event, Zen said the Chinese had recently "intensified the persecution" of Christians, saying they had demolished churches and even taken crosses away from believers.

"There's not much we can hope for immediately" in way of improving treatment of Christians in China, he said.

Zen also responded to questions about a possible thaw in relations between the Vatican and China. While the two governments have not had official diplomatic relations since 1951, Francis became the first pope allowed to fly over the country en route to Korea in August and sent a telegram of blessings from the papal plane to the Chinese president.

"We cannot work for immediate success at any cost," Zen said. "But I see the Holy Father is patient and he's ready to work hard but also to be ready for a long struggle."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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