This Filipino Cardinal Could One Day be Pope; for now, he tells us how he Nearly Missed Being a Priest


Aleteia sits down with Cardinal Tagle, a leader of the Church on the world stage, to talk vocational discernment and finding God’s will for our lives.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle is increasingly well known in the Church around the world. In fact, the 60-year-old archbishop of Manila is sometimes proposed as a future pope.

But regardless of what God has planned for the cardinal’s future, what’s clear is that his journey to today has already been full of both surprises and surrender.

Aleteia sat down with Cardinal Tagle in the lead-up to next year’s synod on young people and vocations to talk about the challenges of finding God’s will for us.

Monika Burczaniuk: A synod whose motto is Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment will take place next year. What would Your Eminence like to tell young people? How can they discern their vocation?

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle: Some young people think that a vocation is some miraculous sign: a voice from heaven or a lightning strike. Not really (laughter). This probably happens, too, but very rarely. This was the case of St. Paul and Moses, but it does not happen to ordinary people like us. I always say to young people that God works in our human conditions. God’s vocation is God’s intention for us. He created every person for a purpose. And this purpose is already being realized. We just have to discover it. It is very easy (laughter).

Is it really?

You have to look into your heart! You must know yourself, get to know the gifts you have received, your talents and interests. Then clear your head and your heart to realize that we do not live for ourselves only. Then we will be able to discern how our talents can serve others. This is the beginning of vocational discernment. All our gifts, interests and talents come from God; He gave them to us, deciding that they are not exclusively for us.

We live at a time when it is not easy to hear our inner voice. The world deafens it effectively.

Yes, that is correct. Before the Synod, we’ve heard from many young people, saying that they do look, yet the conditions for listening are not always appropriate. Especially nowadays, when we are hooked up to so many things: the phone, the internet, mail, messengers … They are good, but sometimes through these connections, we are present all over the world.

You are in Europe, but you are connected to what is happening in Australia. And even if you do not seek noise, all the communications possibilities can create it. That’s why we need some discipline. I tell young people that in order to make their relationships with other people more meaningful, they have to remain alone every now and then.

This does not mean severing ties with others! Loneliness, prayer, reflection, and even rest are the way to know oneself better and thus to engage in better relationships with others. When we are busy and are constantly on the run, we fail to notice the people around us and the poor who need us. Sometimes even in the family, each member is so absorbed in the virtual world that they lose the connection with one another. Therefore, time for yourself is not misconstrued isolation. It is meant to improve the quality of your relationships with others.

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All right. What if someone has two options in the discernment of his vocation? He would like to be a physician and a priest? Which of the two paths should he choose?

A very good question. There are decisions where both choices are good and proper. It is easy to choose when one option is good and the other bad. We know that you will choose the former. Yet sometimes, when you want to discern your way you notice that you are predisposed to both options. You can be good at both. What is more, the world needs both and both serve other people. It is very difficult, yet I believe that in this case you should take into account one factor: what will help me follow Jesus better? And it is not that the priesthood is the answer in each and every case.

Should we take this factor into account also in the context of marriage? What if we have two good choices?

First of all, you need to realize that you cannot have it all.

This is the problem of the world today!

Right, we want to have everything. We want an ideal life, an ideal partner and an ideal job. As soon as we spot an imperfection, we say: “No, this is not for me.” You will never find an ideal! Choosing the right person, you need to verify your motivation during prayer and simply “plunge into your faith.” And you need to answer once more the question: “With which of these persons could I be closer to Jesus? Who can I better serve others with?”

How about Your Eminence’s vocation?

Initially I was planning to be a doctor.

So my question was right!

Yes, you were (laughter)! I thought of becoming a doctor early on, as I was a child. My parents were happy about it, too. When I was 14 years old, a new community for young people was set up and I was invited to take part. I did not like it at first, but it was this community that helped me see another reality. We helped the children of the streets, those from poor families and those living in the slums. I helped others, yet was focused on medicine. Other people would ask me if I wanted to become a priest, but I ignored it. “No, no, I am going to a medical school and I only help in the parish.”

And then, all of a sudden, something happened. A priest I knew asked me if I realised that it was possible to get a scholarship at a Jesuit university. He said, “You can attend a preparatory course for the medical school there. If you land this scholarship, you will be able to help your parents.” So I took the exams. During the first examination, I realised that this was no exam for a medical school but for a seminary! I was furious! “Why did you lie to me, Father?!” I cried out to the priest, and he answered: “All I wanted was to open your eyes; you limit yourself to medicine only!”

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I was angry, but I started to ask myself questions then. When I was inclining toward the priesthood, it turned out I had flunked the exam. Instead, I passed an entrance exam to a medical school and could start studying medicine. And I started to wonder and talked with many people.

I was confused but I prayed a lot then: “Lord, show me your way among all this confusion because I cannot see it myself.” Slowly, slowly … I decided to return to the seminary and ask if I could try one more time. I was turned down. After two or three rejections I decided that since the seminary door was closed for me, I was to become a physician.

On the last day of enrollment, I was standing in a line to pay. The Jesuit father who interviewed the candidates saw me and asked: “What are you doing here? You are so obstinate; Father Rector told you that he would not admit you!”

“I know and that is why I am not going to try again. I have chosen medicine,” I replied.

He turned to me and said: “Follow me.” He interviewed me, called someone, and said after a while: “Since you have demonstrated an interest, let’s give it a try. But only for one semester!” … They let me stay after that one semester.

And now you a cardinal! Life is so unpredictable.

The conclusion is: Seek your way but be open to what life offers to you. Not everything is under our control. Who would have thought? I was the last on the admissions list and now, as you have pointed out, I am a cardinal (laughter). Seeking your way requires your own effort but you need others, too. You need people who know you and who will see something you are blind to yourself. I was furious at this priest, yet in fact, he was a tool!

What an amazing story!

This is what life is. It seems you have made the final decision … It only seems so (laughter). Therefore, I tell young people not to give in to frustration. Sometimes young people break down when their plans go awry. Then you need to apply a broader perspective: perhaps God has a better history in store for you?

I think that freedom is the first step toward vocational discernment.

This is true. Yet freedom does not mean I can do whatever I want. To be free means, to be honest, free from lies and delusions. I am free since I know who I am. I know my strengths and my weakness. I am free in that I know what is possible for me. If I am not good at math, I cannot be an accountant and I have no problem with that. Freedom means giving of yourself to others, and this is the goal of any vocation. Freedom rests on truth and love. If you are not free in love, it means this is not love.