A year ago, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle seemed to enter a strange sort of limbo.
It began with the publication of the new Vatican constitution, Praedicate evangelium, on March 19, 2022.
Up to then, the Filipino cardinal had served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the powerful curial department responsible for mission territories whose head is known as “the red pope.”
Tagle had arrived at the Vatican in 2020 in a blaze of publicity after eight years as the Archbishop of Manila. He was known as “the Asian Francis,” a charismatic speaker and servant of the poor often described as “papabile” despite his relative youth.
But in 2022, a new Vatican constitution absorbed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples — formerly known as Propaganda Fide — into a new department, the Dicastery for Evangelization, led directly by Pope Francis.
The department’s day-to-day activities would be overseen “in his name and by his authority” by two “pro-prefects.”
One pro-prefect would be responsible for the dicastery’s first section, devoted to “fundamental questions regarding evangelization in the world,” and the other for the second section, “for the first evangelization and new particular churches.”
The dicastery was listed first among the Vatican departments in Praedicate evangelium, underlining its centrality in the reformed curia.
Observers assumed that Tagle would be pro-prefect of the second section. But curiosity grew when the Vatican failed to refer to the Filipino cardinal by that title.
In a press release days after the new constitution’s publication, the Holy See press office described Tagle as the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. That was probably because the constitution only came into full force on June 5 that year.
But in July, the press office mentioned Tagle without giving a title. That happened again in October and December. It did the same for Archbishop Salvatore Rino Fisichella, who was widely believed to be pro-prefect of the dicastery’s first section.
Speculation over Tagle’s standing at the Vatican heightened in November 2022 when Pope Francis swept away the leadership of Caritas Internationalis, including Tagle, who had served as its president since 2015.
Had the cardinal fallen out of favor? Not according to official Vatican media, which presented Tagle as one of the figures responsible for the organization’s renewal, rather than a casualty of the changes.
It was only on Jan. 27 this year that the Holy See press office confirmed what most people had originally thought: Tagle was indeed a pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization. On Feb. 18, the press office indicated that he was in charge of the section for first evangelization and the new particular churches, and Fisichella was responsible for the first section.
Defining the dicastery
One possible explanation for the uncertainty over Tagle’s title was that the small, hardworking Holy See press office had simply forgotten to inform the media that Tagle had moved seamlessly from one role to the other.
An argument in favor of this interpretation is that Vatican media referred to Tagle as the pro-prefect in July. But Vatican News wasn’t consistent in its references to the cardinal. At other times, it simply referred to him without a title.
A second possibility is that Praedicate evangelium had failed to define the role of pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization’s second section with sufficient clarity, and this had to be addressed before the cardinal could be attributed that title.
The constitution was, after all, released suddenly and replete with errors that required swift correction.
Last Friday, the Vatican released two documents that shed light on Tagle’s status.
A decree issued March 17 said that the second section’s pro-prefect had deemed it “opportune to establish that full legal representation for the temporal affairs and in relationships with third parties shall be vested” in the pro-prefect, and that Pope Francis had complied.
A rescript released the same day clarified that the second section would have two adjunct secretaries, reporting directly to the pro-prefect.
Curiously, both these documents were dated Aug. 1, 2022, meaning that it took more than seven months for them to be released publicly. Neither the Holy See press office nor the Vatican media offered any explanation for the delay.
The documents seemed to clear up any doubts about whether Tagle continued to exercise the powers and relative autonomy long associated with the figure of “the red pope.”
A flagship awaiting a full crew
Yet while the Dicastery for Evangelization is now supposed to be the Vatican’s flagship department, it seems to be struggling to establish a distinctive identity.
One small measure of this is that the dicastery doesn’t appear to have its own unified website, simply a collection of sites related to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, which was also absorbed into the dicastery alongside the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The department’s organizational chart is still being filled out. Last week, Pope Francis appointed the experienced Vatican diplomat Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu as the secretary of the dicastery’s second section. But the corresponding post in the first section remains vacant.
Perhaps it will be some time before the dicastery is able to embrace its leading role in the reformed Roman Curia. That may depend partly on whether Tagle continues to maintain a conspicuously low profile or steps in to fill a void left by the coming departure of Cardinal Marc Ouellet and other curial veterans.