THE life of a priest is not a dull one, as opposed to popular belief. Take this from an Argentine man of God who balances having a radio show, running a drug-rehabilitation program and reading best sellers in between.
The heavy workload did not end with Pope Francis’s last day in the country. In fact, Fr. Luciano Felloni, who has already met the Holy Father personally before the papal visit, has gotten his hands fuller these days, broadcasting daily gospels over social media and assisting in the care department for drug addicts amid the ongoing battle of the current administration against drugs.
Father Felloni does not mind the hustle and bustle. The dashing prelate said the different routine he experiences every day is what makes being a priest an enjoyable career path.
“In a parish setting, it is very difficult to have a reguar profile. Almost every day we have different schedules. You go with the flow of the parish needs, like funeral one day and then another day, a house blessing, another day a meeting with a government official. It is difficult to have a pattern for the life of a parish priest,” Father Felloni said.
Earlier in life, Father Felloni has set his eyes on more secular aspirations, wanting to take up law or become a teacher, but did not fully have something so serious until the calling to priesthood came in his junior year in high school.
“I think it is quite normal when you are 15 years old just studying, going out with friends. I did not have a clear direction in life. I was dreaming to be lawyer or to be a teacher, but nothing very strong,” Father Felloni said.
He added: “I became involved with that youth group, eventually, I started going to Mass to discover the Eucharist on a personal level. I became involved helping the poor and I started to feel happier than when I was outside the Church. I thought, maybe, this is something for life. And I decided why not try this, of feeling happy for life. That was what brought me into the idea of priesthood.”
Now with barely eight hours of sleep in hand, Father Felloni said he feels more fulfilled despite a busy schedule and balancing duties outside of Church.
“I cannot even imagine myself doing something else. The life of a priest is so interesting that I found thinking about other things that are [one-sided]. Especially being a lawyer or a teacher, or being married, it appeals to me as very boring, being focused on one thing and repeating the same thing every day. I am a person of wanting to start new things and venturing into new activities and like having 10 to 15 projects at the same time,” Father Felloni said.
The war on drugs
With the country’s full-on war against drugs and a series of extrajudicial deaths, earning Philippines both ire from human-rights advocates and impressed nods from some who see the campaign as a long overdue move, Father Felloni said there should be more attention shed to rehabilitating offenders, as well.
“Hindi sagot ang bala,” he would say in fluent Tagalog.
Father Felloni is involved in a community-based rehabilitation program in his parish in Camarin Caloocan. The program, which had its first batch on September 1, aims to address five areas in rehabilitating drug users: family, livelihood, psychosocial, health and spirituality.
According to Felloni, the project is funded by the city government and in partnership with different institutions, like the Philippine National Police, the Department of Health, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, Center for Family Ministries, Ateneo de Manila, Diocese of Novaliches and Couples for Christ, among others.
“It started with the feeling that the President was doing the right thing with the strong campaign against drugs, because drugs was destroying the couuntry and it was a feeling I had a long time ago, that if they do not stop this, it would like be in my continent, Latin America, where drugs control the country and not politics,” Father Felloni said.
Father Felloni strongly urged for people to understand the needs those under the influence of drugs, stop the killings and encourage them undergo treatments instead.
“We strongly want to support the government in the campaign against drugs. We want to repudiate the killings,” he said. “The best way is to sort of create a protection program that will accompany those who want to surrender. The important thing is the physical support of the Church and the barangay. The next thing is to offer a path from surrender into rehabilitation, because we believe that they are asked to surrender and they do comply but they are not offered any help. You are supposed to change, I do not know, by magic. It is basic Psychology 101 that when it is addiction you cannot just stop by free will. We saw a gap and we saw an area that we can help the government by sort of putting together a program that can help people in rehabilitation.”
The program runs from four to six months, from Monday to Friday. It caters to not only the health needs of the patient but also counseling, Zumba and other physical activities and exercises, feeding programs, and spiritual activities, like retreats and parish-renewal programs.
According to Father Felloni, the most important thing is the physical presence that is given to the drug users whenever they want to surrender. He mentioned that there should be more doing than talking in light of the situation going on where people are now being killed on a daily basis.
“We try to create a sense of protection because fear is very widespread. I hope it can change the mentality a lot of people thinking that bala ang solusyon and that it is better to just kill them. I hope it can make people realize that there is hope for people to change. People are very angry with the drug addicts, but, many of them, the crimes committed are also because of addiction to alcohol,” he said.
“We are lacking in a lot of doing. That is why I also tell the Church, if you want to stop the killings, create programs that will help the addicts. By lighting candles, we do not help anyone,” he added.
Culture shocks and the Catholic faith
Coming from Argentina, which is also a Catholic country, Father Felloni said the Filipino families are more religious seeing the faith in popular religiosity, piety and Mass attendance as very strong compared to his Italian-Argentine background.
He explains a typical Sunday in his hometown in Mar del Plata as sitting in a table for three or four hours and just eating and talking. The church, however, is more flocked in the Philippines, owing to the culture of families attending mass.
As his first brush with Philippines, Father Felloni was sent to Payatas and was able to witness the extreme poverty in the area. He had to learn two languages immediately: English and Tagalog, aside from some Filipino dialects.
“I was struck by poverty, extreme poverty. No water, no electricity for two years, no roads. Everything was putik. The first shock was poverty, then it comes the cultural shock that is longer. There was a strong language barrier in the beginning,” Father Felloni said. “When Filipinos tell you yes, you have to discern if it is a yes or maybe or no. Sometimes they mean maybe, sometimes politely no, and so that kind of nuances you had to know.”
Father Felloni admitted that Philippines was not in his mind as a young missionary, but eventually, grew to love the country, where he has been staying for 22 years already.
“I volunteered for mission and, in my mind, I was thinking of Africa. Asia was too distant for me to know anything about but they were in need of young blood in Payatas. There was no electricity and water, and if you are a little older, it would be difficult to adjust. So I did not know where I was going then. I remember opening an encyclopedia and looking where is it. I knew Philippines was in Asia but no more than that.”
In a social media-savvy world today, the Church is not to be left behind. Father Felloni also has radio program on AM radio and broadcasted in cable TV, as well as in Facebook, over its live feature.
The Argentine priest was not expecting to attract much attention until, slowly, it generated interest from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
“We opened this sort of Bible sharing. The format was that I read the gospel of the day, make some comments, leave a question and people will share. We did not realize it made a strong impact on OFWs. We were not really targeting the OFWs at all. They would share and say their loneliness, saying they did not have day off to go to church and no church is around,” he said.
According to Father Felloni, being a priest requires one to practice the gift of gab. He added that he has outgrown being shy in front of people but still has some tensions over a new crowd.
“In front of the microphone I feel more confident. In television, it is okay when I am not directly facing the camera, but if I am talking in scripted format, TV has a lot of scripted things, I do not like that. I really do not feel natural,” he said.
Being in the media also requires a lot of responsibility, Father Felloni said, noting heated arguments nowadays caused by press people wanting to pit people together.
With a lot of roles he is juggling, Father Felloni goes back to his statement of the life of a priest, being anything but ordinary.
“It is always a challenge to balance everything. Time management is a good challenge, how to divide your time. Basically, I see my job as an initiator and an empowering figure. It is my job to empower the lay people,” Father Felloni said.
This is coming from a priest who had just finished reading Me After You and its sequel, while handling confessions and house blessings and helping out in the concerns of the community.