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Sunday, 13 July 2014 18:27

Treading gently on holy ground

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Fr Luis Villavicencio csScalabrinian Father Luis Viovicente's approach to his new role as parish priest of Seaton, South Australia is guided by the words of Moses at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals because you are on holy ground,” writes Jenny Brinkworth.

When Father Luis A Viovicente CS, or Fr Loi as he calls himself, took over as the new parish priest of Seaton, he had a three-week transition period with his predecessor Fr Emilio Vaccaro, who has semi-retired in Melbourne.

Officially, Fr Loi’s appointment to the position began on March 20 2014 but he considers his first day in the job to be when he was handed the keys to the church and other buildings in the Mater Christi Church complex on Grange Road.

“I thought this is it, the key is mine and the responsibility is mine,” says the affable Fr Loi.

The 41-year-old Scalabrinian priest hails from Tagum Davao del Norte in the Philippines where he studied agriculture at university before deciding to join the Scalabrini seminary at the age of 20.

His mother was very happy with his decision but his father, a tricycle driver, tried to talk him out of it, wanting him to continue his studies and become an engineer. “He thought there was no money in being a priest…and he was right,” jokes Fr Loi.

After a three-day boat trip to the capital, Manila, he joined a group of ten seminarians in the “late vocation” stream.

Fr Loi said his interest in the priesthood was prompted by his involvement with the local Church youth group and music ministry but during his nine and a half years at the seminary he always took it “year by year”.

“Every year you have to re-apply and be evaluated,” he explained. “It was only two weeks before my ordination that I came to the realisation that this was where I belonged.”

“It’s not just about the will to do it, you have to work hard for it.”

It was a canonical requirement to do a seven-day retreat before his ordination, and he returned to his home town for this and for his subsequent ordination.

“This was the finale of the whole thing,” he said of the retreat. “It was a great affirmation for me.”

As part of his training, Fr Loi spent four years, from 1999 to 2003, studying theology in Chicago at the Catholic Theological Union (CTU). His pastoral experience took him to Mexico and Canada where he stayed in mission houses and gained an understanding of the charism and work of the Scalabrinian Missionaries.

After his ordination, Fr Loi was posted to Taiwan where he worked with Filipino migrant workers and was also involved in advocacy work, as is the Scalabrinian mission.

“You don’t only celebrate the sacraments, you fight for migrants’ rights,” he says.

After studying at the Scalabrinian International Migration Institute in Rome for two years, Fr Loi arrived in Melbourne in July 2008. As the chaplain to the 21,000-strong Filipino community, he travelled thousands of kilometres each week to Mass centres to celebrate the Eucharist with 20 different communities. For the last few years, he was also assistant parish priest at Lalor.

He worked closely with the Filipino consulate on issues such as human trafficking and exploitation which, he says, is “everywhere” but here in Australia there is at least some legal protection.

With only two priests at the Mater Christi parish at the moment, Fr Loi is doing his best to catch up with as many people as possible but he hopes that after another priest arrives soon, he will have more time to visit people in their homes.

He says parishioners have been very friendly and welcoming, with lots of invitations to dinner: “I’m going to have to go on a diet.”

His approach to the new role is guided by the words of Moses at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals because you are on holy ground”.

“When we arrive in a place, God is already there so we don’t have any plans, or prejudices, we just observe, watch and listen,” he says.

Once every two years, Fr Loi returns to his family in the Philippines and his parents travelled to Melbourne in December 2012 to stay with him for three months. “It was good for them to see me doing my work, to see that I am at peace and in good hands, with people taking care of me,” he says.

“After all, I’m the youngest in the family and they worry about me.”

This story was first published in the July 2014 edition of The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.