Pope Chito?

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI opened the real possibility for His Eminence, Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle, to become the first Filipino (also first Asian and first non-European) leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Theoretically, anyone can be chosen pope, but in practice, only members of the College of Cardinals are elected to the papacy.

Not unthinkable. I think Cardinal Chito, as close friends fondly call him, has more than an even chance of being the new pontiff. The centuries-old tradition of electing only Italians was broken when low-key Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Poland became Pope John Paul II on Oct. 16, 1978.

Vatican watchers did not expect the Polish cardinal to be chosen because one of two elderly and popular Italians, Guiseppi Siri and Giovanni Benelli, was conceded to win. But on the eighth ballot, 99 out of the 111 cardinals voted for the young, 58-year-old Wojtyla.

It is not unthinkable for Cardinal Tagle to become the first non-European to lead the Catholic Church. Similar epochal transformations have happened during our lifetime: Cory Aquino, “a plain housewife” who never held any public office, became an icon of democracy and led our country out of dictatorship; and a colored, fire-belting orator, Barack Obama, was twice elected president of a predominantly white America.

Though only 55 years old, Cardinal Tagle is respected for his deep theological mind and uncanny ability to communicate via TV-radio and the social media. Personifying humility, purity of heart and rare exuberance, he will bring the Church to the doorsteps of the information and biotechnological age.

Not to be discounted is the leadership clamor of the Latin Americans who reside in the most populous Catholic region outside Europe, and of the young African Church yearning for recognition and salvation.

Nonetheless, I think Asia poses the greatest promise and the biggest evangelical opportunity. Its 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.1 billion Indians, 240 million Indonesians, 130 million Japanese, 100 million Filipinos, 90 million Vietnamese, 65 million Thais, 50 million South Koreans and several million other Asians constitute half of the world’s six-billion population. A Filipino pontiff would indeed usher in a long-awaited renaissance of the Catholic Church.

Choosing a new pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI pleaded advanced age and deteriorating health as reasons for his voluntary abdication. Nonetheless, after prayer and reflection, he must have considered the greater good of the Church to set up an exemplary, selfless model of governance. To prepare for his exit, he filled up the 120 members of the College of Cardinals and amended the rules of the conclave by requiring a two-thirds vote to elect, thereby assuring wide support for his successor.

However, to participate and vote in the conclave, the maximum age has been retained at 80 years. Thus, Pope Benedict XVI who will turn 86 on April 16 will not be able to join the conclave. Our very own Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, who turned 80 last Aug. 10, and Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, 82, will not also be able to participate.

Under conclave rules, the cardinals will take an oath of secrecy and meet after Feb. 28, the effective date of the resignation, at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. They will vote continuously in complete isolation until a new pontiff is elected. They will be sleeping also in isolation at the adjacent Casa di Santa Marta, a hotel-like facility built by Pope John Paul II.

They will first vote for a cardinal  carmelengo, a sort of officer in charge, who—assisted by three other elected cardinals—will preside over the conclave. Four balloting will be held each day, two in the morning and two in the evening. The ballots will be burned after each count. If a new pope is elected, the ballots will be flamed with a substance that emits white smoke out of the Sistine chimney. If the ballots do not show the necessary majority, they are burned with a substance that emits black smoke.

Once chosen, the elected will be asked for his acceptance and the name by which he is to be known. Once he accepts, he will immediately become the Pontifex Maximus, the Holy Roman Pontiff. The dean of the College of Cardinals will proclaim, “Habemus  Papam!” (We have a new Pope!). Finally, the new pontiff will then appear on the balcony and give his apostolic blessings to the waiting throng.

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Veterans appeal. Good luck to the Filipino veterans of World War II who are appealing the decision of the US Court of Appeals in “Recinto vs US Dept. of Veterans Affairs” (Feb. 7, 2013) to the US Supreme Court. The US appellate court held that the district court in Oakland, California, where the Filipino veterans originally filed their claims, “did not have jurisdiction to review a question of fact or law relating to or affecting veterans benefit decisions” of the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The US Court of Appeals did not necessarily say that the veterans did not deserve the benefits they aspired for; it merely ruled that they filed their claim in the wrong court. I wish them luck because the US Supreme Court is very choosy; it accepts and decides only about 100 cases every year, or about one percent of petitions filed.

In contrast, our Supreme Court decides well over 1,000 cases a year. Our Constitution does not give it as much leeway as the US Charter grants the US Supreme Court. This is one reason why the US high court does not have any backlog, while ours suffers from some.

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