Category Archives: Readings in Religion

Column: The Iglesia’s show of weakness

Written on the afternoon of Monday, August 31, 2015, an hour or so after the Iglesia Ni Cristo protesters left Edsa, and published the following day. The lucky timing led to over 60,000 page views of the original column (my 360th, as it happens), and about 17,500 shares on Facebook. Plus hundreds of very interesting comments.

Wow. What just happened?

As I write this, the smoke has cleared from the Iglesia Ni Cristo protest action on Edsa. The protesters have gone home; the intersection of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, the main site of the mass action, has been tidied up; the major satellite rallies in Cebu and Davao have been called off.

Protest organizers eagerly declared “victory” when they announced the end of the protest, saying the thousands of church faithful who had taken to the streets can now go home because the Iglesia ni Cristo had reached an “agreement” with the government. What that agreement stipulates they did not say. Neither (as of the time of writing) has the government.

I am skeptical that any agreement has in fact been reached—aside from the strictly logistical understanding needed to allow the protesters to leave Edsa in orderly fashion. Of course I could be wrong, but it does not seem likely to me that a famously stubborn president like Mr. Aquino, buoyed by renewed popularity and unfailingly loyal to his friends, would abandon Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on the altar of political expediency. Continue reading

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“Sons and Daughters of the Church, Citizens of the Republic”

On Sunday, the country’s influential Catholic bishops issued a set of six reminders to guide Filipino Catholic response to the ongoing protest actions by the Iglesia ni Cristo. The title of the circular, written by the first rector of the only Catholic shrine built on a historic protest site, accurately sums up the dual basis of the bishops’ reflections.


Sons and Daughters of the Church, Citizens of the Republic

Catholic Response to the Iglesia ni Cristo Rallies

What do we Catholics do as our brothers and sisters of the Iglesia ni Cristo throng around the EDSA Shaw area?

We, your bishops, offer you these guidelines:

1.   PRAY WITHOUT CEASING for a peaceful and just resolution of the present dispute, in a manner both pleasing to God and in conformity with the democratic convictions enunciated in our Constitution.

2.  BE CHARITABLE AT ALL TIMES AND IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES.  Jesus, the Lord, willed His disciples to be known by their love.  No Catholic should fan the flames of dissension by rumor-mongering and by inflammatory statements.  Let all be kind in disposition, respectful in speech and prudent in action.

3. SEEK ENLIGHTENMENT.  We appeal to our Catholic lawyers, jurists and law professors to contribute to the on-going discourse in a constructive manner, without condemnation.  We seek to be enlightened on what the fundamental law of the land provides, the boundaries of the freedom of religion and the rights and the prerogatives of State.

4.  RESPECT HOLY SITES.  The EDSA Shrine is a Catholic center of worship.  It is a church.  There is a Catholic priest assigned to it.  We ask that all respect the sacred character of the Edsa Shrine.

5.  ABIDE BY THE LAW.  Unless it is convincingly shown that a law offends moral precepts, obedience to the law is a Christian duty.  Sons and daughters of the Church cannot be less observant of the law than other citizens of the Republic.

6.  NO TO OPPORTUNISM.  No politician should gain political ground by abetting dissension or, worse, fostering disregard of the Constitution and the law.  Neither is it morally correct for any political party to aim at gaining an advantage by controlling a religious sect known to propose to its members a chosen set of candidates.

If we turn to the Lord in sincere prayer, then, we are firm in the faith that all wounds shall be healed.

From the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, August 30, 2015


Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan
President, CBCP


Postscript: Three Inquirer stories on the CBCP statement, three different angles

Catholic bishops call for charity, warn against opportunists

CBCP tells Catholics: Don’t attack Iglesia members

CBCP to politicians: Don’t take advantage of Iglesia protest

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Column: The most subversive text of the year

Column No. 350, published on June 23, 2015.

For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most subversive text we will read all year, or indeed for many years. The extraordinary eco-encyclical from Pope Francis contains explosive truths, not about the science of climate change, but about the persistence of poverty, the excesses of a market economy, the fetish for technology and the technocratic solution, the consequences of middle-class aspirations, the failings of the media, even the role of the human in a “rapidifying” world.

“Laudato Si” offers the kind of radical reading that subverts our assumptions, challenges our deepest convictions, makes us see anew. The lengthy document attempts to give a truly global treatment of the ecological catastrophe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be familiar to us, but taken together, the whole acquires a resonance unheard since “Gaudium et Spes” signaled the reconciliation between the Church and the modern world. Continue reading

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Column: Not ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ but ‘radical’ Catholic

Published on January 27, 2015.

To Church-watchers, the pivotal moment of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the Philippines may have been his unscripted remarks at the Meeting with Families, on Jan. 16, at the Mall of Asia Arena. When he invoked Pope Paul VI (by name) and his predecessor’s controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (by implication), it was global news—but it was news for the wrong reasons.

In particular, it was the following passage (about 140 words in all) that led many observers or commentators to speak of the Pope’s “conservative” turn, or to cite it as confirmation that the first pope named after the saint of Assisi was not as “liberal” as he was reputed to be. Continue reading

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Column: The Pope’s challenge to the powerful

Published on January 20, 2015.

At the final press briefing Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, held with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the long-serving Vatican spokesman attempted “a synthesis of the trip”—Pope Francis’ first visit to the Philippines, his second to Asia, and his seventh outside Italy since his election in March 2013. The substance of the Pope’s remarks was the second element of Lombardi’s synthesis.

He noted “the coherence of the message of the Pope: integrity, corruption, scandalous inequality, poverty.” Especially that last point: “The poor at the center of the Gospel.”

This was an echo of Francis’ own summary of his message to the Filipino faithful, which he explained in the news conference on the flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Manila. (Hats off to Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, who if I’m not mistaken became the first Filipino journalist to ask Pope Francis a direct question.)

“The central message of this trip will be the poor, the poor who want to carry on; the poor who suffered from Typhoon ‘Yolanda’ and who are still suffering the consequences; the poor who have faith and hope. The people of God, the poor, even the exploited poor, those who suffer many injustices, material, spiritual and existential. I’ll think of them when I’m in the Philippines.” Continue reading

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Column: The Pope and the politicians

Published on January 13, 2015.

It is a safe bet that many Filipinos want the upcoming papal visit to be a politician-free zone. Even the politicians themselves are wary, all too aware that just being seen with Pope Francis as he visits the Philippines could be mistaken for that new state of disgrace we can call “epal-ness” or, worse, as an abuse of political privilege. With the exception of the Pope’s courtesy call in Malacañang, there is good reason to keep the apostolic visit free of politics—but not necessarily of politicians.

I would wager that Pope Francis himself, while acutely conscious of the corruption, the venality, the self-seeking and self-perpetuating culture of politics, would welcome politicians of all shades of conviction in his audiences. He has the same high regard for the calling of politics that the pope of his formative years in the priesthood, the intellectual diplomat Paul VI, expressed often and emphatically.

In a characteristically candid interview with veteran Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli in December 2013, he spoke about the relationship between the Church and politics. Continue reading

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Column: The most important papal visit

Published on January 6, 2015.

The most consequential papal journey of the year will not be to Sri Lanka or even to the Philippines next week, although Pope Francis’ second visit to Asia is important indeed. It will be in September, to the new center of gravity of Catholic conservatism: the United States.

Apart from its intrinsic importance, then, the Pope’s second-longest journey outside Italy to canonize the Apostle to Sri Lanka Blessed Joseph Vaz and to condole with the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in the Philippines can also be understood as a series of way stations en route to a historic encounter in Pittsburgh. (His longest journey, longer by a few hours, was the eight-day swing to Brazil in 2013.)

I do not wish to minimize the significance to the fourth papal visit to the Philippines. I understand that the Pope wanted to visit the country as early as late 2013, or just several months after his election—after all, it hosts the largest Catholic population in the world’s most populous continent and, despite the parochialism of much religion news in the country, plays a pivotal role in Asia in the new evangelization.

Unlike the visit to Seoul (his first to Asia, in August last year) and the one to Colombo that’s coming up in a few days, there is no beatification or canonization ceremony to perform in the Philippine visit. Unlike his visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013 or the one to Istanbul last November, there is no World Youth Day to grace or Joint Declaration to announce in the Philippines. He is, simply, a pastor visiting his people. Continue reading

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Column: Rizal as Catholic

Published on December 30, 2014.

The mature form of Rizal’s thinking on the Catholic religion can be found in his correspondence with a former Jesuit teacher. Written in his Dapitan exile between September 1892 and the middle of 1893, the five letters addressed to Fr. Pablo Pastells, SJ, are Rizal’s attempt to examine “what little has been left to me by the shipwreck of faith”—that last phrase an allusion to a remark from yet another Jesuit mentor.

What exactly was left? Not enough by the standards of his day; a surprisingly robust amount, by today’s measure. He was no longer a practicing Catholic, but remained very much a cultural one. (I believe this is why he ridiculed the notion, repeated by Pastells in one letter, that he had become a Protestant. Part of this cultural Catholicism was precisely the religion’s embrace of reason. To appropriate a quote from a third Jesuit writing two generations after Rizal: Catholicism “was a reasonable faith.”)

The following excerpts (from Dr. Robert Yoder’s excellent online resource, now maintained by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) paint a vivid picture: Continue reading

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Column: #popeselfie

Published on December 23, 2014.

I have had the privilege of writing on Pope Francis for different media in preparation for next month’s pastoral visit. Writing has helped turn anticipation into active waiting—very like Advent. Like many, I am drawn to the Pope’s emphasis on mercy and compassion; but I am also magnetized by his candor, his demonstrated capacity for frank talk.

On Oct. 26, for instance, I wrote a “Daily Reflection” for, on what Pope Francis considers Christ’s “most powerful message.”

“‘First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching.’

“We can understand Pope Francis’ repeated emphasis on mercy as an attempt to restore a sense of proportion to Catholic discourse. In one of his very first homilies as pope, he introduces the theme in a memorable way.

“‘I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think—and I say it with humility—that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.’ Continue reading

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Column: Did Pope Francis lose the battle?

Published on October 28th, 2014.

I can understand the struggle-for-reform narrative that allows commentators to call the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Pastoral Challenges to the Family a setback—but I doubt whether Pope Francis sees it that way. The narrative arc is clear, for example, in James Politi’s dispatch from Rome dated Oct. 26: “[I]t is hard not to see the turn of events in the Vatican this month as a setback for a Pope who has energized the Catholic world with his quest to make the religion more accessible and modern.”

It is even more hard to see the turn of events as going according to the Pope’s plan, but I will attempt to show, if not exactly that, then at least the nearest thing: That the Pope could not have seen it as a setback, and himself as “losing the latest battle.” (Politi again.) Continue reading

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Column: The quotable Pope: 7 ‘astonishing’ statements

Published on October 14, 2014.

Reading various interviews that Pope Francis has granted since at least 2009 (when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires), I have realized that behind the pastor with the common touch is a priest of deep culture and massive learning. Three sets of interviews, in particular, reveal a man with a sure sense of self and a certain, expressive, style.

Beyond his celebrated quotes—“pray for me,” “the church of mercy,” “the culture of encounter” and perhaps most famously “who am I to judge?”—he has given us in these three interviews a trove of precisely calibrated statements, that either force us to reconsider something familiar or see something altogether, and wholly, new. Continue reading

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Column: Benedict and Francis on social media

Published on June 3, 2014.

In a column I wrote over a year ago, I teased the country’s two cardinal-electors for asserting, in a news conference they called after they returned from the conclave that elected Pope Francis, that the Holy Spirit did not read social media. It was their good-natured way of expressing just how surprising the turn of events had been: the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, the first pope from the so-called New World, the first pope to be named after Francis of Assisi.

But I thought it was a mistake, theologically, to consider any form of media to be off-limits to God. I traced my argument back to Benedict XVI’s own thoughts on social media. As it happens, in the message he prepared for last year’s World Communications Day, Benedict had chosen to focus on social media. The title of the message was a useful summary: “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”

If online social networks are spaces where the evangel can be shared, then by definition it cannot be off-limits to the source of the same good news. Continue reading

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Column: Jinggoy et al as Pontius Pilate

Published on April 22, 2014.

I realize that many Filipinos will readily volunteer a comparison they think more apt: Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile and others deeply implicated in the pork barrel scam are Judas. The defining act of the crimes they are charged with is the act of a traitor; that is, someone who betrayed the people’s expectations, the public’s trust.

But it is also possible to argue that the senators and congressmen and their staff who allegedly looted pork barrel funds are, in fact, Pontius Pilate. Allow me to make that argument, but first I must prove another point: Pilate’s liability in the judicial murder of Jesus Christ is not the learned helplessness of a pragmatic bureaucrat (“What is truth?”), but rather the sophisticated use of the political power of a ruling elite (“What I have written, I have written.”) Continue reading

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Column: The Pope’s older son

Published on March 18, 2014.

I liked the way it was phrased: Pope Francis has “an older son problem.” That seemed to me to be exactly right: The context was both biblical and within the framework of a famous parable of mercy. Hearing eminent Vaticanista John Allen Jr. say it out loud was satisfying indeed. The definition of the problem itself hinted at the solution. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I had the chance to hear Allen deliver his lecture at the 50th anniversary rites of the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City last Wednesday, and see him engage in conversation with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in Quezon City the following day, at a fund-raising dinner.

Allen has been a constant reference in my Newsstand blog; he is the primary English-language source for Vatican news, and his reporting on the last days of John Paul II, the remarkable papacy of Benedict XVI and Francis’ turn on history’s stage has been marked by deep understanding of both the Vatican as a beat and Catholicism as a creed, and (not a small thing) by boundless energy. Continue reading

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Column: ‘If a sermon goes on too long…’

Published on December 24, 2013.

Before you listen to tonight’s Christmas Eve homily, you may want to prepare for the ordeal with the following joke. “We know… that both [the faithful] and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!”

Ah, you might say: That’s exactly how I feel. Or perhaps: I didn’t realize the priests themselves dreaded the sermon. But the passage’s puckish note almost gives the author away. In a year of papal surprises, Pope Francis wrote an extraordinary document, classified as an apostolic exhortation in the Vatican’s elaborate schema, that enjoins all Catholics to rediscover and share the “joy of the Gospel”—and was itself proof of that joy, rediscovered and shared.

Much of the coverage I’ve seen or read on the Pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” however, focuses on the startling denunciations of consumerist capitalist culture to be found in it. One of the most quoted passages is a stinging rhetorical question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (I am humbled that Francis’ first example of what he calls “an economy of exclusion” involves the use, or misuse, of journalistic judgment.) Continue reading

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Batik-inspired Good Samaritan

This unusual rendering of the central event of the Good Samaritan parable, a color lithograph by the Dutch artist Lion Cachet, from 1896, caught my eye when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last September. It took me some time to figure out why. Finally, I read the explanatory text. Turns out the piece was inspired by Indonesian batik – a modest example of the colonial periphery making an impact on the center, and a nice inversion that parallels what happened on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.


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Column: The Good Samaritan parable as news story

Published on September 17, 2013.

Some readers have asked about the “writing experiment” I attempted last month at the Loyola School of Theology, when I sought to discuss the church-media dynamic by, among other things, rewriting a famous Gospel parable. Perhaps the best way to explain what I was up to is to show, not tell. If you will allow me then, here is an extended excerpt:
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Column: Back to Ninoy, forward to PCP 3

Published on September 3, 2013.

I promised reader Lyndon Rutor I would link to columns I’ve written before that argue an important historical truth: that Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino followed the same path to heroic martyrdom. They suffered in the last 10 years or so of their life in the name of a higher cause; they chose to risk a return from exile; they embraced the near-certainty of death.

These columns may be found through the search function or the tag cloud in my Newsstand blog (at One, in particular, may serve to stand for all the others. In “The Aquinos in our life,” the third installment of a four-part series prompted by the death of Cory Aquino and written in August 2009, I repeated a distinction between the old and the new Ninoy that I first discovered in late August 1983.

“What became obvious to me and to many others, after Ninoy was assassinated and Filipinos who grew up during the martial law era scrambled to discover a clearer picture of the new martyr, was that the man who died on the tarmac . . . was very different from the helicopter-riding whiz kid whose political ambition had known no bounds.”
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Column: Looking for church at the #MillionPeopleMarch

Column catch-up, all over again. This piece was written after the so-called Million People March, and was published on August 27, 2013.

In August 1999, or just over a year after the popular Joseph Estrada took office as the country’s 13th president, a major protest rally brought the Makati central business district to a standstill. A hundred thousand people, perhaps 120,000 at the most, occupied the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas; they were there, mainly, for three reasons: They went to signal their disapproval of the Estrada administration’s Charter change campaign; they went to sympathize with the plight of the Manila Times, then recently shuttered, and the Inquirer, then undergoing the second month of an unprecedented advertising boycott, both in circumstances many believed to have been orchestrated by Malacañang; not least, they went because Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino asked them to.
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Column: What would Ignatius do?

Still playing catch-up, but only six more to go before the Newsstand column archive becomes current. Six entirely different columns, beginning with this one on the Ignatian approach to discourse. Published on July 16, 2013.

Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.

The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.

Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.

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Column: Let us now praise a holy man

Excerpts from a pastor’s journal. Published on July 9, 2013.

“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.

Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.
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Column: The true test of a Catholic vote

Published on April 16, 2013.

I see that Brother Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai Catholic charismatic renewal movement is up to his favorite old trick again: preaching to the converted. With the usual fanfare, he named the first six senatorial candidates endorsed by the so-called White Vote, a bloc of Catholic Church-affiliated organizations, at a prayer assembly last Saturday. It is no coincidence that five of the six are doing well in the surveys.

JV Ejercito, Koko Pimentel, Cynthia Villar, Antonio Trillanes and Gringo Honasan rank among the Top 9 in the latest available Social Weather Stations survey; only Mitos Magsaysay is—as of that mid-March survey—statistically still outside the probable winners’ circle.

In other words, even without Velarde’s White Vote, five of the six candidates stand a good chance of winning a Senate seat. By a kind of political alchemy, many of these candidates will feel a sense of gratitude, perhaps even a sense of obligation, to Velarde for the endorsement—even if in fact they did not need it. It will be 1998 all over again.

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Column: Does the Holy Spirit read social media?

In which I suggest, ever so gently, that two cardinals revisit their theology of the media. Published on March 26, 2013.

The retired cardinal archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, had a ready answer when asked, upon returning from the conclave in Rome, why the media failed to predict the identity of the new pope. “God does not read social media,” he said.

That is the quote as found in Lito Zulueta’s comprehensive March 17 report in the Inquirer. On Zulueta’s Twitter account, the quote, tweeted at least a day before the newspaper came out, specifically names the third person of the Holy Trinity: “because the holy spirit does not read social media” (no caps).

The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog remembered Rosales’ quip in the same, specific, fashion. Cris Larano’s engaging post quoted Rosales as saying: “The joke in Rome is that Pope Francis was elected because the Holy Spirit didn’t read social media … or watch CNN.”
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“Habemus Papam”


The third edition of the March 14, 2013 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer–which went to press past three in the morning.

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August 20, 2013 · 7:12 am

Column: Tagle’s pope; Benedict vs the media

Published on March 12, 2013, at a time of heightened speculation about the possibility of a pope from Asia.

I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.

“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”

This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”

This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
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