Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila from 2011 to 2019 and now prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, has a long association with the Knights of Columbus. As a youth, he served as chief squire of Rajah Soliman Circle 2180 in Imus, Luzon South, while his father served as grand knight of Imus Council 5896. As a seminarian, he received the Knights’ Father George Willmann, S.J., Scholarship, and he later earned a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Currently a member of Mary, Mother of God Council 15427 in Imus, Cardinal Tagle also serves as president of Caritas Internationalis, a network of 165 Catholic national charities that operates in 200 countries worldwide.
During a recent visit to the Campo Sportivo Pio XI, one of the Knights' sports centers in Rome, Cardinal Tagle sat down for an exclusive interview with Columbia — reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the Catholic faith in the Philippines, the lessons he has learned from Blessed Michael McGivney and his hopes for his brother Knights of Columbus in the future.
COLUMBIA: The year 2021 marks 500 years since the Gospel arrived in the Philippines. What does this anniversary and its theme, “Gifted to Give,” mean for Filipino Catholics today?
CARDINAL TAGLE: First of all, we recognize that this is a gift of God. It is an unmerited gift. We know that the Gospel had reached other parts of Asia before coming to the Philippines. And we also marvel at the fact that this island group somehow received and has continued to receive it, such that the Philippines has the single largest Christian population in Asia. This is a moment of gratitude.
But as we are grateful to God for this gift, we know that we cannot keep the gift to ourselves. It must be shared — to begin, with Asia, the largest continent in the world, where the Church is a tiny minority. So, as we are grateful, beholding the gift, we also tremble at the responsibility that it imposes on the Filipino Christians. The danger is to say, “We have already been evangelized. There’s nothing more to do; we are a finished product.” This is not true. Every day we need to receive the gift of the Gospel, but then also to share it. Go share Jesus, share the Gospel, beginning with Asia and then the rest of the world.
The danger is to say, ‘We have already been evangelized. There’s nothing more to do; we are a finished product.’ This is not true. Every day we need to receive the gift of the Gospel, but then also to share it.
COLUMBIA: How has the Church in the Philippines celebrated this anniversary?
CARDINAL TAGLE: We actually started preparing 10 years ago. Every year was devoted to a pastoral priority leading up to the theme of 2021, which is Missio ad Gentes [Mission to all peoples]. We had a year dedicated to the youth, the family, the poor, the small Christian communities, etc. All of them, celebrating the gift of faith, and then listening to the calling, how to re-evangelize ourselves so that we can be evangelizers.
Because of the pandemic, many of the planned events this past year — like the festivities, pilgrimages, conferences and all of those things — had to be suspended. But thanks to social media and also the creativity of local communities, the celebration continued, but in another mode. For the national celebrations, I would say it worked out better. As originally planned, every diocese would send a few delegates to those national conferences or celebrations. But with the pandemic restrictions, anyone in a diocese could join in through online streaming. So I think more people in general were able to participate.
COLUMBIA: While the Catholic populations in Western countries are contracting, the Church in the Philippines is blessed with growth in many areas, including vocations to the priesthood and religious life. To what do you attribute this flourishing of the faith?
CARDINAL TAGLE: Just a few days ago I spoke with the apostolic nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Charles John Brown from the United States. He told me with joy and exuberance that the number of baptisms in the Philippines last year was almost equal to the number of baptisms of all the countries of Western Europe combined. He was ecstatic. He said, “I could barely believe it, but I’m joyful. And I’m glad to be here.”
I, too, was very happy, yet humbled, because we are just like other people in the world. We have our faults, our weaknesses, our limitations. But then there is this openness to the faith. Yet we should not rest on our laurels. I think we need to study and ask: Is this purely cultural Catholicism? Is bringing our children to baptism a social convention?
This is a calling for us: How do we continuously purify the understanding and practice of the faith? Let it penetrate the culture, well and good. But let it be a real ferment in the culture rather than becoming a cultural ritual, divorced from the faith.
COLUMBIA: How did you first become acquainted with the Knights of Columbus, and what impact has it had on your priestly ministry?
CARDINAL TAGLE: My father was a member of the Knights of Columbus and also a grand knight. So I grew up seeing my father go to council meetings. The Knights were very active in church, and then they started the Columbian Squires and made sure their sons joined. Even though I did not understand what it was at first, I became one of the founding members of the Squires in our parish. Since I was hesitant, my peers elected me as the leader so that I would be obliged to participate. And that brought me closer to the parish, not just attending Masses or the sacraments, but really getting involved with lots of projects for the parish.
Later on, when I decided to enter the seminary, I received a K of C scholarship. So my four years of philosophical studies in the seminary were supported by the kindness and generosity of the Knights. In this way, significant stages of my youth and my faith are connected to my father’s vocation to be a Knight of Columbus, and my being a Columbian Squire. I was just recently made an honorary Fourth Degree life member.
COLUMBIA: Last year, Blessed Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, was beatified. Would you agree that he and his witness are a sign for our times?
CARDINAL TAGLE: Yes, definitely. As a priest, I learned a lot from the witness of Blessed Michael McGivney. Leading up to the beatification, I was very much touched on reviewing his life how he had encountered poverty and the rejection of immigrants and of Catholics.
And when he became a priest, he was sensitive to the woundedness of the people. When he saw a brother, a sister, I imagine that he saw himself in them and had a soft spot for them in his ministry and preaching. He would also make sure that the Gospel took a social form of compassion in the family, especially when a family’s life was disrupted by a death or accident or sickness.
In Blessed Michael McGivney, there is this consistency of personal and religious experience becoming a ministerial experience. I’m really amazed by this consistency, because we often fall into the temptation of living a compartmentalized existence, with one aspect disconnected from the others. I pray that more of us priests would live such a consistency of life.
He was a simple priest with a simple background, but also prophetic in seeing what the Second Vatican Council would later stress: the dignity of all the baptized. The call to holiness of all the baptized is a call to be a servant Church, a missionary Church, according to our gifts. Blessed Michael McGivney, especially through the Knights of Columbus, harnessed the gifts of laymen in a prophetic way, calling them to holiness and, at the same time, to the service of others.
COLUMBIA: In 2015, as archbishop of Manila, you opened the cause for canonization of Jesuit Father George Willmann, who is sometimes called the “Father McGivney of the Philippines.” Could you say a word about Father Willmann’s witness?
CARDINAL TAGLE: Father Willmann came to the Philippines even before ordination and taught in a Jesuit school. After his ordination in the United States, he came back to the Philippines, and during the Second World War he was sent to a prison camp.
He went through rough times, but the wounds did not become purely trauma, or causes for resentment or bitterness. The wounds of life do not have to lead to anger and hatred and pessimism; wounds can lead to more compassion. Father Willmann could have said, “I’m too traumatized; send me to a safer place.” But he stayed. He then helped many communities to recover after the war and was very attentive to the poor.
So, aside from building up the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines, his main concern was the mission to help the poor — especially poor children through education. Charity, it was all about charity. All of this inspiration comes from a heart that was wounded, a heart that had every reason to say “no.” It is really a gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s Jesus. Jesus assumed the wounds of humanity, but from those wounds we are saved. This is what I see very much in both Father Willmann and Blessed Michael McGivney — what Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti calls a “penitential memory.” In our woundedness, we can journey together toward a more fraternal world.
COLUMBIA: As president of Caritas Internationalis since 2015, can you say a word about the importance of the Christian witness of charity today?
CARDINAL TAGLE: Because of my work with Caritas, I have to travel to different countries destroyed by typhoons, earthquakes and even wars. And in some of these places, Christians are a small minority. But the disinterested love of Christians always puzzles the non-Christians. And some are amazed.
I remember visiting a place where there was not a single Christian, and the people staged a program of thanksgiving for Caritas. The head of the village said, “You Christians, you are different from us — very, very different. Why do you think of us? Why do you come here?” He asked those questions with more than curiosity; I think he was magnetized by the mystery of these very concrete acts of love. I felt that he was opening the door for me to proclaim the Gospel, and I replied, “Our Lord and Master Jesus taught us to love everyone.” Later, he said privately, “I want to get to know your master.”
So, through concrete acts of charity, if we Christians do it clearly as an expression of love of God, that will be felt and sensed by others. And it’s also a point of healing. Peoples of different religions somehow get attracted to the message of love.
COLUMBIA: You also serve as prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. How can laypeople — and in particular, Knights of Columbus and their families — live out their Christian vocation as missionary disciples?
CARDINAL TAGLE: It’s significant that we are having this interview on World Mission Sunday. I noticed that these past years, the messages of the Holy Father on World Mission Sunday are a reminder that all of us are called to be evangelizers, and we are told to go back to the experience of the first apostles.
We are brought back to St. Peter being forbidden by the Sanhedrin to proclaim Jesus after the cure of the crippled man. And St. Peter said, “But how can we not speak of what we have seen and heard?” (Acts 4:20). The apostles lacked the educational, cultural preparation, but what they had was a gripping experience of the Son of God. And they were the first ones who were changed by their encounter with Jesus. And they could not keep that experience to themselves — it is the wellspring of what we call missionary zeal. So, I think the first invitation for all of us is to go back to that root, that experience of Jesus. Is Jesus real to me? Do I have a relationship with the Lord? And with that, then you go out.
My wish, especially now that I am in the Office of Evangelization, is for the Knights of Columbus to take evangelization seriously, so that fraternity is grounded in the Gospel. And then as fathers and leaders in their communities, they can impart the Gospel, especially through acts of charity. Many people are thirsting for the message of the Gospel. They want to get to know Jesus. We want the Knights of Columbus to be our partners in evangelization.
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