Be Not Afraid: Fr. Nilo on his vocation from the Philippines to Canada

04 April 2024

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Father Nilo Macapinlac currently serves as the pastor for the parishes of St. Stephen, St. Anthony, St. Anne of the Prairies, and Our Lady of Fatima, in the area of Olds, Alberta.

Father Nilo grew up in the Philippines and he entered the seminary in his home diocese at the age of 22. He moved to Canada in 2003 and was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Edmonton two years later. Watch the video version of his story here

When did you first think of the priesthood?

I was born in my grandmother’s house, close to a chapel. During fiestas (feast days), such as our patronal feast of the Holy Child Jesus, we would have a Mass and big celebration.

During these feasts, priests would be coming to my grandmother’s house to eat. So that was the beginning, when I started to think: ‘These people are great. These men are happy!’ I wanted to become like them.

In the Philippines, the priests would always wear their cassocks, and so I would take a blanket and tie it around me, to pretend that I was a priest.

In my grandmother’s backyard, there was a banana plantation. I would take bananas and chop them up and pretend that they were hosts of Communion. Children were lining up as if they were receiving Communion!

A young Nilo Macapinlac during his seminary years.

I remember in high school there were lots of challenges because my parents went abroad to earn a living for us. In high school there was a Carmelite nun who was my English teacher, Sister Basa. She opened the door to the priesthood for me, when she suggested that I get connected with some of her priest friends at the seminary. I took the examination to enter the seminary and I entered in 1992, after university. 

So it was in high school that you decided that you wanted to pursue the priesthood?

Yes, I was able to go to seminary because of the support of high school teachers like Sister Basa.

God has a beautiful plan, because He kept putting people in my life that reminded me of the call of God from my childhood days. I was shaped and influenced by those priests that dined at my grandmother’s house as a child.

In university, I was also impressed by the Augustinian priests who were there. Their example captured me in a way that I could not run away. Because of those moments, I could hear the voice of God calling me.

A future Fr. Nilo with fellow seminarians.

What drew you to the priesthood?

I believe, first and foremost, I admire how priests pray to God, and how people are drawn to the altar of God when the priest is leading the prayer – and, of course, the vestments that they are wearing, the different colors of vestments.

I loved when the priest would expose the Blessed Sacrament with the humeral veil, and how mysterious it is that the priest cannot touch the monstrance with his bare hands while the Eucharist is exposed. I thought: ‘There is something very special there that we cannot fully explain.’

On both a spiritual and a material level, there is such a mystery to the liturgy. I saw all the different roles in the Mass, and I was drawn to this mysterious sense of communion and unity.

Fr. Nilo with his mother, during his time at seminary.

Were you ever fearful or sad that as a priest you would never be married or have your own children?

Of course. My dad was the only man in our family, and I remember my grandma being concerned about that, especially since my dad was working in Saudi Arabia. So I was the only man around. There was a sense of fear that many of us shared about an unknown future, if I became a priest. Who would take care of my parents, my grandmother, at the end of their life? What about having my own children?

But these are very normal, human insecurities, that can become lighter as we become more mature.

I remember encountering this passage from the Bible, from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says: ‘Some. . . have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.’

This verse made me remember that Jesus is also reminding us that this life on earth is temporary. Even if I did get married, it is only temporary, because there will be no more marriage in heaven. Seeking heaven is most important, no matter what vocation you are called to.

Fr. Nilo at the investiture of cassock and surplice during his time at St. Vincent Ferrer Seminary, Jaro Iloilo City, Philippines.

I remember thinking that with the life of the priest, or a sister or a religious, you are totally dedicated to the ministry of the Church, which is a foreshadowing, a foretaste of eternal life.

I was confident about being a priest because of what I saw in the Word of God. So there was fear and fear of the unknown future, but Jesus would say: ‘You are in the world, but you don’t belong to the world.’ I chose to be a priest and Jesus said in Scripture: ‘You did not choose me, I have chosen you to bear fruit, fruit that will last into eternal life.’ (John 15:16)

Did you ever date or seriously discern marriage?

During high school I went to a military school, so there were a couple times where I went on dates, and experienced the admiration of women. But because my parents were working abroad, I spent a lot of time taking responsibility for my brothers and three sisters. Charity begins at home. So my priority wasn’t dating.

That’s what my grandmother always told us. I had moments of doubting the priesthood, where I thought about dating, but I think it is providential that I never took it too seriously.

Fr. Nilo with family, while at the seminary.

Before you entered seminary, and in seminary, did you ever feel fearful of the priesthood? 

The first day when I was at the seminary, I was scared already. I was asking myself: ‘Why am I here?’ I was asking this because in university, there is much more liberty. You can skip classes and make your own decisions.

In the seminary it is structured. You have a wake-up time, a shower time. You have your hour of prayer and meditation, You have the Mass. You have your breakfast. You have your studies. Everything is structured. At my seminary in the Philippines you only left the seminary once per month. Sometimes I felt like I was in a jail! I had to look at life seriously.

We had a rector at the seminary who would remind us that there are proper times for different things. That’s why we were governed by the ringing of the bells at different times. It seemed that the ringing of the bells was like the voice of God telling us what to do at a certain time in a certain place.

With this very new, and sometimes hard life, I would ask: ‘Why me? Why me, Lord, why I am I here?’ But with time, it sinks in and I was no longer confused about why God was calling me, why he had me here at the seminary.

A future Fr. Nilo during his high school years at minor seminary.

Was there a clear or dramatic moment where you heard God call you to the priesthood? Or was it an experience of many small things lining up?

Yes, so many small things happened.

I remember when I was first called to be a lector (a step in the process of becoming a priest where a seminarian is commissioned to proclaim the Word of God in the liturgical assembly and to instruct children and adults in the faith to prepare them to receive the sacraments.) When I was installed as a lector this was God calling me through my Archbishop. So step by step, with steps like becoming a lector, it was getting clear for me.

In the Philippines there are four years of minor seminary and then four years of major seminary, before you can become a priest. Sometimes you don’t get recommended to go from minor seminary to major seminary. But I was accelerated through the seminary process, because our rector recommended that I skip the third year and start my fourth year. When I was recommended to start major seminary, it was another step in knowing that I was called.

In seminary you have a spiritual director, and along with the formation in the seminary, you have a community of people that are able to observe and help you discern that your interior life is growing and that you should keep moving forward toward priesthood.

Fr. Nilo’s ordination to priesthood on November 21, 2005. He is the 2nd Filipino priest to be ordained in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Why did you choose diocesan priesthood, as opposed to a religious order?

Well first of all, I was able to pass the entrance examination for diocesan priesthood, so that’s why! But secondly, I feel the temperament that I have is suited to diocesan priesthood. I used to be an introvert, to be shy when I was younger, but I had some experiences with public speaking when I was in high school that gave me confidence. I used to be nervous in front of people, but now I know that I cannot be totally inside the monastery like the Trappist monks, with a rigid schedule like that.

So you felt that you were meant to be “among the people,” which is a big part of being a diocesan priest?

Yes I was drawn to pastoral ministry. Even when I was in my minor days of seminary I was in charge of giving retreats, I worked in prison ministry too. In seminary, I was often in charge of delegating people for various duties, I would lead Bible studies and many forms of active ministry. I was exposed to different facets of ministry and I thought “Oh, I guess this could be my calling!”

What was one of the greatest joys of being a newly ordained priest?

The number one example was when I was placed at St. Theresa’s Parish in Mill Woods. There’s always joy in serving! Through that first assignment, I was exposed to 13 Catholic schools, so was exposed to a diverse array of ministry. I was actually ordained to the transitional diaconate at St. Theresa’s, by Archbishop Smith, so that parish is special to me. I find such joy in serving others!

First trip to Banff, Alberta.

What did you initially find challenging about being a priest?

Number one, I did not learn how to drive in the Philippines, so when I was ordained in Canada as a priest, driving was difficult. In Canada, I had to learn how to drive and I also had to have my own car. So there were some technical difficulties. 

In the Philippines I served as a college professor and department head at St James College in Manila and because of that role I had a secretary who would type out all my notes, and do my paperwork. When I came to Canada, I had to type my own paperwork and some people would complain about my typing skills. So when I came to Canada and became a priest, I felt totally dependent on others. My world was upside down. I was not only homesick, but I was frustrated, because I had to do so many things that I was not accustomed to. So there were a lot of challenges. It was also so cold!

The new experience of Canadian winters.

When I came to Canada, it was very hard. At that time, I was consoled by the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew 20:20. Jesus says, ‘I will be with you always until the end of the world.’ Like Abraham in the Bible, I was asked to leave my homeland. And yet, I could still know joy, because no matter what, my work is the work of the Lord and I am working in his vineyard. 

I came to Canada through the invitation of family members who already lived here. They presented my credentials to Archbishop Thomas Collins & Fr Stephen Hero, who was vocation director at that time. Finally, Archbishop Collins extended an invitation to come to Canada & continue my priestly formation for about two years at Newman Theological College & St Joseph Seminary. I was ordained here in 2005, at St. Joseph’s Basilica.

What did your family think of you becoming a priest?

I think they were worried and skeptical because, first and foremost, to enter the seminary, it is a long time of investment. Secondly, financially, in the Philippines a family will be bankrupt if only your dad is working, unless you are an affluent family, and my family is middle class.  I am the oldest in my family, and I have several younger siblings. Their future would be curtailed if I entered the seminary. But I was holding on to what Abraham said in the Bible, that God will provide.

My choice to enter seminary was a big sacrifice for my family, because they could not depend on me financially. But I was assured by the Word of God  that when you give everything to God, He will provide you with everything. He will give you eternal life. God who is all powerful, who can do anything, He knows our future and He has taken care of everything.

Father Nilo with family, reunited in Canada (2021).

What advice would you offer to a young man who is confused or fearful of the calling to priesthood?

First and foremost, go back to the solid ground of your prayer life. Where do you hear the voice of God leading you in your life? Ask the Holy Spirit and be docile to his prompting, because you are his instrument. He will prepare you for what you need.

God has a beautiful plan, and like a pencil being sharpened, he will make you ready. So go back to your prayer life, your personal relationship with Jesus, and know how much he loves you. Cultivate that relationship. 

God doesn’t want us to live a miserable life here on earth, in fact, heaven begins here and now. Heaven begins now. With God there is a peace of mind that no one can snatch away from you.  That peace from the Lord is for all of us, wherever it is our vocation is leading us to.

Fr. Nilo on the set for his episode of Be Not Afraid.

At one point, when I was in seminary, there were four deaths in my family, including my father.  This was especially difficult because he was the breadwinner for my family. So how can my family survive? I asked the Lord, “Why did you take my father?” A part of us is dead. 

But there is that call to trust the Lord. After my father’s death, I was on a retreat in seminary. So I was carrying all the emotional baggage, and I was irritated. It was fall and all the leaves were falling from the trees. It was beautiful. I opened the book of the prophet Jeremiah and it said “I have loved you with an eternal love. Remain in my love.” 

Fr. Nilo sharing his vocation story at the Archdiocesan Vocations Rally in February 2024.

And as those leaves were falling, it was God saying, this beauty is one way that I want to call to your attention that I love you. Every leaf falling is my love coming to you. That moment was a glorious moment for me. In that moment, I was in desolation, but I kept the Word of God with me and this beautiful thing happened. So keep the Word of God with you always, especially when you are fearful.

 Visit the website for St. Joseph Seminary.

 (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)

  Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton

Be Not Afraid is a series of videos and companion articles that tell the stories of 12 religious sisters and priests who serve within the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

 New episodes are released every Thursday. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch new episodes each week.