Music is in the soul and blood of Father John Joseph Fenelon, a former deejay and dinner-and-dance emcee. It is a gift that he uses much in the service of the church.
MUSIC IS IN the soul and blood of Father John Joseph Fenelon as can be seen from the collection of music CDs and a guitar which take pride of place in his parish office.
Father J.J., as he is known, was “into music for a long time” having worked as a deejay in the 1970s and 1980s in clubs such as Goldmine, Seaview, Copacabana, and Caesar’s. He also emceed for dinner-and-dances and company functions for several years before leaving behind his music career to enter sales and marketing.
According to Father J.J., his 15-plus years of work, much of which involved working with people, has been God’s way of preparing him to take over from Father Edward Lim as parish priest of Our Lady Star of the Sea from Oct 1.
Formerly a parishioner of St. Michael, Father J.J., now 55, was an altar server at the church when it was “just a house”. Later, when the first church was built at that plot of land, he served as choir conductor, and it was in the newly rebuilt church where he was ordained a priest in 1998.
He has been the assistant priest at the parish of Our Lady Star of the Sea since January 2006. He has previously served as assistant priest in the parishes of St. Vincent De Paul (January 1998–February 2002), Holy Trinity (February 2002–June 2003), and Holy Cross (January 2004–January 2006).
Father J.J. is currently the spiritual director of the Liturgical Music Committee (LMC) which he represents on the Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission. He is also in charge of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Tamil-Speaking Apostolate.
He sits on the Singapore Armed Forces Board of Visitors for Detention Barracks where, together with an officer and another professional or a Christian pastor, he interviews detainees in their cells and acts as their last line of appeal for those with a case.
Father J.J. also works in the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry, and has recently been asked to help out in death row where he spiritually prepares a person for hanging. He is in charge of the Catholic Young Adults Network (CYAN) and is spiritual director for the Harvesters Community, a cross-parish Bible study group.
When asked which of these ministries brings him most joy, Father J.J. responded without hesitation, “Prison ministry, because it’s a special calling. Often I drag my feet to go because I’m tired, but once I’m there, I feel transformed and rejuvenated. I seem to identify with Christ in that particular area because Jesus also reached out to the marginalised.”
For Father J.J., ministering to those on death row is “a special experience”. “Just talking to them, your heart goes out to them,” he said. However, he is cautious not to get emotionally involved with those he ministers to as “it is not wise to do so”. Nevertheless, he still experiences a sense of oneness with them and always finds something positive in this area of ministry. “For one thing, they are always so happy to see you,” he said.
Father J.J. finds two ministries particularly challenging. The first is the Indian apostolate, because his command of the Tamil language is not strong and as a result he finds difficulty in preaching and giving talks.
The second area is liturgy, which Father J.J. is “very passionate” about. “It’s so hard to experience an authentic liturgy here, with organ for accompaniment. We’ve been trying to educate church organists to accompany the text,” he explained.
Quoting from “Tra le sollecitudini”, Pope Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio (a document issued by the pope on his own initiative) on the performance of music in the Catholic Church, Father J.J. explained that church music should be “a humble handmaid of the liturgy” providing “underlying support” to the text.
Together with the LMC, Father J.J. conducted a course for church conductors in 2008, which drew about 70 people representing 15 parishes. Education is important because “I myself as a choir conductor did not realise there’s so much in liturgical music until I studied about it in the seminary!”, Father J.J. said.
Father J.J. sees himself as a “balance” in the LMC which comprises members who are in the “extreme right”. He noted, “It is good, because it means they are orthodox.” However, there is a great gap between what should be done in church music and the reality that is happening in church here. As such, liturgy is one work that, for Father J.J., requires “a lot of patience”.
Catechetics is another area in which Father J.J. is passionate about. He had originally been sent to Rome in 2003 to study the subject, but had to return for surgery on his knee, “an old soccer injury”, and was unable to complete his studies. Father Erbin Fernandez was selected to take his place in Rome.
In his free time, Father J.J. enjoys the occasional jam session with his friends, but this takes place only “once in a blue moon”. He exercises regularly by playing badminton twice a week for an hour each. He hopes to one day have a digital music studio where he will be able to create music from his computer.
“I use music a lot in my work, such as when giving retreats and talks,” he said.
Indeed his musicality is one reason why parishioners are drawn to attend his Masses and to him. “We enjoy his singing. His voice is clear and he speaks from the heart,” said OLSS parishioner Sybil Anthony, 51.
By Daniel Tay