By Cecil Morella

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines

MANILA, March 7, 2013 (AFP) – Asia’s best hope for the papacy, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, is a young, electric orator who has been outspoken about the need for Catholic Church leaders to be more open and humble.

Born to a working-class couple in a then-rural town two hours’ drive south of the Philippine capital, Tagle rose to become Archbishop of Manila in 2011 at the age of just 54.

He was named a cardinal in November last year, becoming the official chief spiritual leader to the Philippines’ more than 80 million Catholics.

This came shortly after Tagle was summoned to Rome for a synod to map out the way forward for the Church, which has been rocked by scandals over sexual abuse by pedophile priests going back decades.

“The Church must learn humility from Jesus,” Tagle said in a speech to the synod, arguing that spreading the faith in a secularising world would be more effective if the Church learned to listen to the people.

“(You) may be saying the right things but people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution,” he said according to an account of the speech by Vatican Radio.

At another Vatican conference last year, Tagle urged the Church in Asia to tackle the sex abuse issue before it became a full-blown crisis there, and put in place safeguard measures that take into account the region’s cultural norms.

Tagle, 55, is widely regarded as enthralling speaker, eloquent and with a soothing voice.

He has refused to discuss his chances for the papacy but, at a public seminar in Manila last month, said Church leaders needed to do a better job of reaching out to people within their communities, particularly the youth.

“The young want to be connected,” Tagle said at the forum.

“That is the basic of the faith – (to be) connected to God, connected to others, to the Church. We need to go back to that fundamental.”

Tagle showed remarkable empathy, discipline and intellect as a boy, according to one of his mentors, Father Romeo Ner, 72.

“He was always number one in school. He was very interested in helping the poor even at a young age, and he was very close to the Church,” Ner told AFP.

“I was amazed because he knew how to recite the rosary and all of its mysteries when he was just three.”

Tagle is well known in the Philippines for not riding in his official car when he was a bishop, chatting with all comers after mass, and even regularly inviting beggars to dine with him at his residence.

Ner said that as a young priest, Tagle was involved in raising money for parishes that served poor areas, where he developed a taste for braised chicken feet – a staple in the slums.

“Giving the poor their true dignity is his passion. He loves them,” said Ner, who as then vicar general of Tagle’s hometown was instrumental in making him one of the country’s youngest bishops in 2001.