MANILA, Nov. 5, 2013— Father Narciso Abellana of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) on Dec. 11 will become the first Filipino priest to be ordained a bishop under Pope Francis.
The pope appointed Abellana on Oct. 15 as Bishop of Romblon, central Philippines. He succeeds Bishop Jose Corazon Tala-oc, who was transferred to Aklan diocese in July 2011.
At the time of Abellana’s appointment, the priest was serving as chaplain of Central Luzon State University (CLSU) in Nueva Ecija Province, northern Philippines.
San Jose diocese’s chancery staff in Nueva Ecija confirmed that the Cathedral of Saint Joseph has been booked for Abellana’s ordination on December 11, 2013. He will be installed in Romblon on January 9, 2014.
Abellana from Talisay City, Cebu, completed AB Philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University in 1973. He continued his studies at the Loyola School of Theology in the Ateneo campus before working for his Licentiate in Church History at the Gregorian University in Rome.
He had served as parish priest on Cebu’s Camotes Island and was later placed in charge of formation of seminarians at MSC’s minor seminary in Cebu.
In 1999, his confreres elected him Philippine provincial, a post he served until 2005 while acting as consultant to the society’s Communication Foundation for Asia’s Catechetical Center, CFA president Father Filemon Pelignon said. This ended when Abellana was elected First Assistant to the MSC Superior General in Rome. He returned to the country after his term in the General Council in 2011 and took up his assignment at CLSU.
In an interview, Abellana said his appointment as bishop was “shocking.” The last MSC bishop, Pedro Magugat, died in 1990, he said from the MSC headquarters in Quezon City.
“The secretary of the nuncio called up CLSU and was told I was here, so they called up the MSC provincialate to ask me to go to the nunciature. I went, and was told that Pope Francis has appointed me bishop,” Abellana narrated.
“Why me?” he asked. He remembers telling the nuncio’s secretary that he had just attended a “seminar on aging gracefully,” and pointed out that he would be 60 come Nov. 9.
“He (nuncio’s secretary) said, ‘Father, 60 is young in the Church.’ Then I told him I’m asthmatic. He said, ‘You look healthy,’” Abellana chuckled.
People who know the priest and Romblon diocese lauded the pope’s choice.
In a text message, Tala-oc wrote, “I’m happy that my prayers are answered – to have a religious bishop for Romblon, and belonging to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion I started to propagate in Romblon.”
A young French priest, Father Jules Chevalier, established MSC in Issoudun, France in 1854 as an international group of consecrated religious men, brothers and priests called to be missionaries of God’s love revealed in the human heart of Christ, the Society’s website says.
Today, MSC missionaries serve in missions in various countries, including Argentina, where Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when he was elected pope (Francis) in March. “We run a school there for free in the slums of Buenos Aires,” Pelignon said.
The priest, who had served with Abellana in the MSC general council in Rome, said the bishop-elect has demonstrated attitudes of a priest Pope Francis has been advocating.
Pelignon explained Abellana is “a very simple and humble man, very unassuming even when he held high positions in the MSC. He never had a car, and would ride a ‘jeepney’ and other public transportation. He lived a simple life even as Provincial, and never showed off that he was in authority. He was always a pleasant person to work with.”
At the same time, he notes, Abellana was a “bright person,” a teacher of history in the seminary and Maryhill School of Theology of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In the MSC General Council, he was “involved in the justice and peace work of the Society,” Pelignon added.
Abellana said, “As a missionary, I’m open for anything, and with the grace of God I suppose I can function as bishop.”
Asked about his vision of mission, he said, “For me, it is both ad-intra and ad-extra – foreign mission and local mission.” He said while he still had to learn of the situation of Romblon diocese, “we can consider it also as, at least for my part, a local mission, with people needing evangelization.”
Romblon Diocese, erected in 1975, comprises the civil province of Romblon where nearly 30 percent of the families were reportedly living in poverty in 2012. Most rely on fishing, Pelignon said, noting its renowned marble quarrying industry.
More than 75 percent of the 286,000 people are Catholics, and most of the rest are other Christians, the latest Catholic Directory of the Philippines, reported.
Talaoc described the diocese he used to head as “a ‘vibrant Church because of many lay leaders and the many ‘Sambulig’ (groups or cells) in the Basic Ecclesial Communities. (NJ Viehland)