Fiel Pareja "wiped down" his dreary reflection on the mirror and like magic, his white shirt was transformed into a red vestment. It was the start of the 30-year-old's TikTok journey, using Gen Z's favorite social media platform to preach the word of God.
To the unitiated on TikTok, the Wipe It Down Challenge was among the many trends of quarantine year 2020 where users revealed their glowed-up selves on the mirror using the app's video filters.
On the 500th year of Catholicism in the Philippines, Pareja has found a pulpit that connects the Vatican to the youth where they communicate the most -- through their phones.
“Merong calling doon to inspire them, motivate them, to uplift them, lalong lalo na at this time of pandemic,” he told reportr.
His TikTok debut in May 2020 was a dare from a family member. “Ang sabi ng pamangkin ko ‘Tito, why not you try TikTok, para ‘di ka mainip’” At that time, he was cooped up in his Pampanga hometown.
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Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic caretaker of the Archdiocese of Manila, said Saturday centuries-old institutions like the Church should embrace technology to avoid becoming mere "monuments."
"The internet is not just for techies and for the young it is also for us oldies," Pabillo said during his homily at the kick-off mass for the quincentennial.
From pulpits to phone screens
TikTok was to Pareja what indoor gardens were to plantitos and plantitas. It was a coping mechanism during the quarantine. In the priest's case, the pastime helped thousands others find strength during the most uncertain of times.
Pareja's version of the Wipe It Down Challenge went viral and soon enough, he was deluged with petitions for prayers.
Requests ranged from COVID-19 recovery to aid in finding work for retrenched employees. Soon enough, Pareja overcame his shyness and went on to preach via TikTok, where he has 779,100 followers and 14.9 million views as of writing.
“Technology itself are God’s gifts, and we can utilize and use these talents that God has given us, this gift that God has given us into something positive,” Pareja said.
“Sa panahon na ang mga tao, naka-cellphone lahat, sa panahon na meron lahat Facebook at social media accounts ang mga tao, we can reach the people through social media, we can proclaim the gospel, the good news,” he added.
“I can say this is a good evolution happening in our modern day, where we are all connected,” he summed up.
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Reaching Gen Z
On the endless TikTok feed, Pareja shares space with cooking challenges, interior design hacks, goodbye letters to exes and dance videos.
“I’m trying to reach out to the Gen Z and the millennials, kasi sila halos ‘yung nasa TikTok,” he began, “I’m trying to find ways, creative ways, wherein makaka-relate sila na hindi nila masasabing ang boring naman...si Father...boring ‘yan.”
Through short videos on TikTok, Pareja said he could “make the word of God interesting, and assure [Gen Z and Millennials] they’re not alone.”
Simbang Gabi last December ran on limited capacity, while the Traslacion last January saw fewer devotees than usual due to safety protocols. Devotees were encouraged to stay at home and partake via virtual masses—a first for many.
When asked if this lessened faith in any way, Pareja said: “It does not lessen the dignity or the celebration of the Holy Mass.”
“The Church reads the signs of the times—kung ano ang hinihingi ng panahon,” he said, explaining that different ways of reaching the faithful could be accepted.
Physical presence is still different
According to Pareja, social media evangelization is an emerging ministry of the church.
“It’s one of the emerging missions on social communications and how we can promote and evangelize the people using social media,” he said.
While the technological advances brought about by evolution and the pandemic are a good step forward, Pareja said there are some things that just can’t be done online.
“There are things that can’t be done online—that need physical presence, like confession, you cannot have your confession online. You need to go and be present, face to face.”
For the past 5 months, Pareja has been holding Sunday masses at the New Clark City Stadium where frontliners and COVID-positive individuals are quarantined.
Attendance is limited, and those prohibited from leaving their rooms can tune in to the mass via the facility’s centralized public announcement system.
Check out his vlog at the New Clark City Stadium:
Not everyone’s a fan
Priests on TikTok may sound strange, but Pareja said “it's part of my ministry as a priest to proclaim the word.” Coupled with that mission is getting facts and quotes right, all the while making it engaging.
His brother priests at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Angeles City are supportive, along with his online audience, but several people judged him for it. He just brushed the haters off.
“Hangga’t merong isang nag-like sa mga videos, hangga’t merong isang nakikinig sa salita ng Diyos—kahit isa lang o dalawa, I will continue my preaching ministry on social media,” he said.
“My vision is clear.”
His fieldwork transpires in the day, and come nighttime, Pareja prepares tomorrow’s TikTok video. His audience follows his upload schedule, and some joke with him for being 15 minutes late in posting his daily bible verse, an ongoing 2021 initiative that will last until Dec. 31, 2021.
Content creators often feel pressured to churn out as much as they can just to please the crowd, but Pareja said he’s never felt that weight on his shoulders.
He’ll stay abreast on the latest trends and try to incorporate the bible’s teachings to the newest catchy tune or video format, but he reiterated that the content is all about the word of God—and it will stay that way.
“It's clear, the vision is clear, my goal is clear,” he said.