by Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — On Saturday, the Church’s largest charitable entity, Caritas International, elected Japanese Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo as its new president, a role held until now by Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, once widely seen as a top contender for the papacy.
Cardinal Tagle, the former archbishop of Manila, saw his star begin to rise with Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015. He was seen as sharp, organized, highly popular and incredibly charismatic, with a knack for reaching the multitudes and drawing people in from the peripheries.
The pope’s closing Mass in Manila during that trip is still on record as among the best-attended papal liturgies recorded, with an estimated 6-7 million people present.
Cardinal Tagle also shares many of Pope Francis’s pastoral priorities, from attention to the poor, his missionary drive, and his insistence on the need to be more welcoming of those who don’t fit the Catholic ideal, especially LGBTQ individuals and those who are divorced and remarried.
In the wake of the 2015 papal trip, Cardinal Tagle was dubbed “the Asian Pope Francis” and was seen as a frontrunner among the papabile, meaning those with the best odds of being elected pope.
His profile was further boosted when in May 2015, just a few months after the pope’s trip to the Philippines, he was named president of Caritas International, the world’s second-largest charitable organization, behind Red Cross International. Cardinal Tagle was re-elected to the position in 2019.
He was given a red hat by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and was named as a delegate to the 2018 Synod of Bishops on Young People. Pope Francis brought him to Rome in 2019 to lead the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in the midst of his revamp of the Roman Curia.
Cardinal Tagle has also enjoyed wildly successful TV and internet broadcasts, making him a Catholic rock star throughout much of Asia during his time in Manila.
The broad consensus is that he is a kind man and pastor who is deeply committed to his people and to implementing the Pope Francis agenda, although some of his fellow prelates quietly have raised questions over the years about his political and managerial effectiveness.
Last November, Pope Francis in a surprising display of papal authority when he fired Caritas International’s entire leadership team, including Cardinal Tagle; its secretary general, a Frenchman of Indian descent named Aloysius John; and the organization’s vice presidents, its treasurer and its ecclesiastic assistant.
The Nov. 22 announcement was accompanied by a lengthy statement from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, which oversees the Caritas confederation, which said the decision had been made as the result of an external investigation.
While finding no evidence of sexual or financial impropriety, the dicastery’s prefect, Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, in the statement identified “real deficiencies” in management that had seriously affected “team spirit and staff morale.”
Pope Francis named an interim administrator to draft new statutes and to run Caritas until its spring general assembly, which is taking place this week in Rome, and during which new leadership was elected. Cardinal Tagle was tasked with staying on as liaison with Caritas until the temporary administration was over.
Much of the blame for Caritas’s internal woes fell on John, whose brief 2019-2022 tenure has been described as problematic, with staff complaining they had been routinely harassed and bullied.
An internal investigation was carried out by the Caritas board after complaints began in 2021, however, no action was taken until Cardinal Czerny’s department stepped in last year to conduct their own external investigation, resulting in the firing of the leadership team.
In the wake of the decision, many were disappointed to hear that Cardinal Tagle had been aware of John’s mistreatment, but had failed to take appropriate action, leading to questions about his administrative abilities.
He also fell under scrutiny in the wake of a 2019 CNN report on the case of Belgian Salesian priest Father Luk Delft, who once served as director of the Caritas office in Central African Republic, but who in 2012 was charged with child sexual abuse and the possession of child pornography.
At the time, an internal Caritas investigation was conducted which found that Cardinal Tagle and other leaders had been made aware of Father Delft’s criminal conviction in 2017, a full year before Father Delft was tapped as director of Caritas Central African Republic, raising further questions about Cardinal Tagle’s oversight.
Some observers lay at least partial blame for the internal difficulties with Cardinal Tagle, suggesting he took a largely hands-off role during his second term as president.
Against this backdrop, Caritas’s new president, Archbishop Kikuchi, has a tall order to fill, as he is taking over for someone still seen as deeply popular, but whose internal mess he will have to clean up.
Archbishop Kikuchi was elected Saturday evening during Caritas’s general assembly, taking place May 11-16 in Rome, and has extensive experience within the Caritas organization and with missionary work. He will serve as president of Caritas for the next four years.
He began working with Caritas in 1995 as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Bukavu, Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo. He served as executive director of Caritas Japan from 1994-2004, and as president of Caritas Japan from 2007-2022.
Archbishop Kikuchi was also president of Caritas Asia from 2011-2019 and was a member of the Caritas International Executive Committee from 1999-2004, and a member of the Representative Council from 2011-2019, meaning he brings a wealth of experience with him to his new role.
Kikuchi, Archbishop of Tokyo since 2017, was sent as a missionary to Ghana immediately after his priestly ordination, where he served in a rural parish for eight years, meaning he also has vast experience with the remote communities Caritas often serves.
In an interview with Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-run information platform, after his election Saturday, Archbishop Kikuchi noted that Caritas is one of the world’s largest NGOs but insisted that “we are much more than that.”
“We are a Catholic Church organization, and the institute of the service of the Church. So, that means that Caritas is supposed to be a witness of the love of God. What we do is not only provide food or materials or any kind of assistance, but rather we want to be witnesses of the love of God to show people that this is how God loves all people,” he said.
Archbishop Kikuchi offered a message to Caritas staff and volunteers, saying their primary task is to be “a witness of the love of God” to everyone they meet, whether they are working in administration, or in the field.
Volunteers at the local level represent Caritas in a special way, he said, adding: “It is very important for each one of these volunteers to bear the characteristics of Caritas. They are Caritas. Those of us who are in administration, we are not Caritas alone. We, together with all these volunteers, we create Caritas.”