ROME — Stories abound regarding the simplicity, humility, and accessibility of Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines, who currently serves as a pro-prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization, and who was recently tapped by Pope Francis as his envoy to the U.S. bishops’ National Eucharistic Congress this summer.

During the 10 years he served as the Bishop of Imus in the Philippines between 2001 and 2011, Tagle became well known to locals for not owning a car, preferring either to ride his bike or to hop on one of the cheap minibusses known as a “jeepneys” that working-class Filipinos use to move around. He rejected formal dress, and insisted that people call him by his nickname “Chito” rather than any ecclesiastical title.

Here’s a typical Tagle anecdote.

One day, a woman in Imus became concerned about her blind, alcoholic, out-of-work husband when he failed to return home for his daily lunch. She set out in search of him, fearing that he had ended up drunk in some local bar. She arrived in the town’s cathedral square, knowing it was one her husband’s favorite haunts, and began asking around.

To her astonishment, she was informed that her husband had been invited by Tagle to join him for lunch in the bishop’s residence, where she found the two men chatting amiably — and her husband, for the record, was stone cold sober.

Want another?

Shortly after Tagle’s installation as bishop, a small chapel in a run-down neighborhood needed a priest to say a 4 a.m. Mass for a group of day laborers. A youngish looking cleric showed up on his bike to celebrate, and while most people had no idea who he was, one astonished Massgoer recognized the new bishop and apologized for not arranging a better welcome. Tagle replied it was no problem, explaining that the priest who was supposed to come had called in sick the night before and Tagle decided to cover the Mass himself, without any fanfare.

I’ve even got my own Chito classic.

In 2014, I was in the Philippines to give a couple of talks, one of which was at the Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City. Tagle, who was by then the Cardinal of Manila, showed up, and in a complete reversal of the usual ecclesiastical protocol, upon greeting me he jokingly fell to one knee, in mock veneration, while I gave him an equally tongue-in-cheek blessing. (If you don’t believe me, I’ve got the photo to prove it.)

Post-March 2013, all this came together in the soundbite that Tagle was the “Asian Pope Francis,” incarnating the same lack of pretense, closeness to ordinary people, and passion for the underdog that characterized the new pope.

Tagle quickly became seen as a key Francis ally, serving as president of the pontiff’s all-important Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2014. When Francis brought Tagle to Rome as prefect of the then-Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2019, many observers regarded Tagle, now 66, as a serious contender to be the next pope.

Yet some of the luster appeared to go off that prospect in November 2022, when Francis fired the entire leadership team of Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based federation of Catholic charitable groups around the world, citing “real deficiencies” in management, and relieved Tagle of his role as president, which he’d held since 2015.

In addition, some figures in and around the Vatican scene have also tired over the years of Tagle’s heart-on-the-sleeve personal style, privately joking about how long it will take him to break into tears when the topic turns to migrants, exploited Filipino expats, or some other victimized group.

For some observers, these tics have sown doubts about whether Tagle has the gravitas to be pope.

All this makes his appointment to represent the pope in the United States in July at the National Eucharistic Congress, including celebrating the closing Mass on July 21 at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, an important opportunity for Tagle to reframe impressions.

Granted, in itself being dispatched to represent a pope at a Eucharistic Congress isn’t always considered a plum assignment. Since the modern tradition of staging such gatherings began in the late 19th century, the Vatican’s Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses said there have been 51 such events on the international level and around 266 national congresses, including 10 in the United States since the first in Washington in 1895.

In general, serving as the papal legate at these events isn’t exactly a starring role. Ask yourself: Without using Google, can you name the pope’s envoy to the last Eucharistic Congress in the United States, held in St. Louis in 2001? (Confession: I couldn’t. A brief search coughed up the late Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, at the time head of the Synod of Bishops.)

However, there are a couple of reasons to suggest things may be different this time around.

For one thing, Francis is now 87 and battling increasing physical limits, all of which can’t help but invite speculation about what might come next. In that context, anytime a perceived papal candidate steps onto a stage, attention levels go up.

Second, this isn’t just any venue. Not only is the United States simply a bigger deal than most other settings, owing not only to its large Catholic population (fourth largest in the world after Brazil, Mexico, and Tagle’s own Philippines), but its wealth and geopolitical significance mean everything that happens in the States has global echoes.

Moreover, from the beginning there’s been a perception — often overstated, to be honest, but a perception nonetheless — that the United States is Francis’ biggest headache, due to presumed opposition to this maverick pope from a majority of the country’s bishops, a strongly conservative cohort of younger clergy, and aggressively conservative and traditional currents among the laity.

As a result, the specter of the “Pope Francis of Asia” playing on what will amount to the biggest stage in American Catholicism this summer should be compelling drama indeed.

While the Eucharistic Congress affords Tagle the chance to reframe perceptions of himself, it’s important to note that it creates the same possibility for the American church.

At a time when many observers — including, to be painfully honest, some of the closest advisers to Francis himself — see the Catholic community in the United States as hopelessly politicized and divided, with some American Catholic currents seen as actively resisting the renewal called for by the pontiff, here’s a chance to project a completely different image — a large, multiethnic and multilingual community, united by an essential of the faith in Eucharistic devotion, and excited by the possibility to be engaged in something positive and constructive.

In other words, this Eucharistic Congress, aside from its stated purpose of rekindling Eucharistic faith and devotion, could also fundamentally change American perceptions of a Roman figure, and Roman perceptions of America.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible to imagine higher stakes for a big Catholic happening that isn’t a conclave, but those really ought to do.