Manila’s 33rd

"Who could be next?"



Now that His Eminence Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle has left Manila and assumed his new assignment as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Archdiocese of Manila has officially become “sede vacante”—a vacant see. The time of anticipation for a new shepherd for Manila’s more than two million Catholics has begun. Given the post’s prominence, not just in the Philippines, but in the entire Southeast Asia, naming the next archbishop would probably be the one of the most significant appointments that Pope Francis will have to make in his entire pontificate.

Manila is technically the Philippines’ primatial see, making her “primus inter pares” among the country’s Catholic archdioceses and dioceses. Founded in 1579, it was the first ecclesiastical circumscription to be so created in the Philippines and was later on elevated to the rank of archdiocese in 1595. Until the death of Jaime Cardinal Sin, Manila was also one of the most populous dioceses in the world, encompassing the entire National Capital Region. At present, the territory of the Archdiocese of Manila may be confined to the cities of Manila, Makati, San Juan, Mandaluyong, and Pasay, but its influence as the archbishop of the nation’s capital, definitely extends to the rest of the country.

According to canon law, a bishop is elected, albeit in practice there is only one elector—that is the pope. A long, detailed process usually governs the election of a bishop, one that is marked by strict confidentiality and century old protocol. A “terna” or a list of three candidates is usually presented to the pope who can either choose one from the list, or ask that a new list be drawn, or even choose someone who is not on the list. Pope Francis is known to have made unpredictable appointments before, and it is not unlikely that he would make the same choice for Cardinal Tagle’s successor.

The selection of Manila’s thirty-third bishop has probably started even before Cardinal Tagle’s appointment was announced. “Probably” because it is assumed that bound by the “pontifical secret” – all Catholics involved in the process have to observe absolute confidentiality about their participation. But the Church has a very long institutional memory. Thus, the historical pattern of promotions and appointments is likely to repeat itself.

Three factors are seen to shape the selection of the new archbishop. First is the fact that the apostolic nunciature to the Philippines is presently vacant with the transfer of Archbishop Gabriele Caccia to the United Nations. The role of the nuncio is important in the search for a new bishop is very important, as he is expected to conduct the “field work” so to speak, and prepare the “terna.” Without a nuncio in residence, that role would be subsumed by another diplomatic staff in the Manila nunciature, or directly by the Congregation of Bishops, which is primarily responsible for the appointment of bishops around the world.

The second factor is the fact that this vacancy in the archdiocese has been created not by the retirement (or resignation in official church language) or the death of an occupant, which in both cases, the role of the predecessor is diminished or even inexistent. In the experience of the Church, a successor to a diocese, or even the papacy, is seen as a “correction” to his predecessor—that is his stark opposite—whether in terms of pastoral priorities or management style. But that would unlikely be the case in naming Manila’s thirty-third, given the fact that the immediate emeritus has been transferred to a Vatican position, from where his advice would definitely be sought in the process of selecting his successor.

The third factor is the pope himself. Having made unexpected appointments before, Pope Francis is expected to take into consideration the social or even political issues of the day. He has for long objected against ecclesiastical careerism, and has often selected simple unassuming priests to very prominent church posts. He is also not oblivious to the present political conditions in the country today, and given that Manila is also the country’s capital city—it is not implausible that he would select a candidate that would reaffirm the Church’s commitment not only to faith and morals, but also to social justice and peace.

As supreme pontiff, the pope is free to select whomever he prefers to be Archbishop of Manila. History, however, will teach us some “leads” on who could be Manila’s thirty-third. In selecting a new archbishop, usually bishops within the metropolitan province are usually first considered, before a wider search is carried. Cardinal Tagle, for example, was bishop of Imus before his transfer to Manila.

Presently, that list of possible successors would include Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan and Bishop Mylo Hubert Claudio Vergara. Known for to be outspoken on social and political issues, Ongtioco and David were recently exonerated of sedition charges. Of the three, Bishop Vergara is the only one to be ordained as a priest of the archdiocese of Manila. But if you would factor in Pope Francis’ pastoral style, two suffragans could also be in the running—Bishop Dennis Villarojo of Malolos and Bishop Roberto Gaa of Novaliches. Bishop Villarojo was formerly auxiliary of Cebu and previously handled the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, while Bishop Gaa used to be rector of the Holy Apostles Senior Seminary, Manila’s formation house for late vocations to the priesthood.

Another pool of possible successors would include incumbent archbishops. For example, Archbishop Gabriel Reyes, Manila’s first Filipino archbishop was formerly archbishop of Cebu, Jaime Cardinal Sin was archbishop of Jaro (in Iloilo) while Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales was archbishop of Lipa before they were appointed archbishop of Manila. With the vacancy in Manila, likely to be considered would be Manila’s own Socrates Villegas who is now serving as archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, and the Bicolano Gilbert Armea Garcera, presently archbishop of Lipa. Archbishop Villegas’ institutional knowledge of the archdiocese will work in his favor, but his strained relations with the Duterte administration could create some difficulty. Archbishop Garcera’s relatively young age and pastoral style echo much that of Pope Francis. Senior archbishops could also be considered such as Archbishop John Du, who welcomed Pope Francis to his archdiocese in 2015, and Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu who presided over the International Eucharistic Congress in 2016.

In appointing archbishops, the position and prominence of the archdiocese within the country as well as its unique needs and socio-economic realities are also taken into consideration. But needless to say, the selection of a new archbishop is far from simply secular political jockeying. While the Church is a human institution, its spiritual purpose must precede all its intents and actions, and thus the search for a new archbishop will definitely be accompanied, as it should be, by constant prayer and deep pastoral reflection.

“Send us a good, holy, learned, and wise man to become our next archbishop. Inspire us, the clergy, religious, and laity to work generously with him so that we might grow together in your love and continue the good work you have begun in us for the sake of all people.”—Prayer for the New Archbishop of Manila.

Topics: Jude Acidre , Manila’s 33rd , His Eminence Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle , Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples , Archdiocese of Manila
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