From drug addiction to priesthood

Aika Rey
For Fr Flavie Villanueva, a former drug user, faith is one of the reasons why he was able to get out of the vicious cycle of addiction

MANILA, Philippines – For a former drug user, refuge now means embracing God.

Drugs and worldly possessions used to dominate the life of Fr Flavie Villanueva, back when he was a young professional in the corporate sector. It was a vicious cycle of addiction.

“Is this how I wish my life to be?” he asked himself then. “Of course, the answer is no.”

He thought that there was a better life instead of being involved in drugs.

“Faith has got something to do with my freedom from this – or healing, or cure even – in this vicious cycle of addiction…. I really sought to change and to ask for the grace and assistance to do so,” Villanueva told Rappler.

Villanueva never wanted to be a priest but he decided to join a seminary in 1998. He was ordained in 2006 with the missionary congregation Society of the Divine Word.

“I came in as a late vocation and coming from the corporate [sector], I never wanted to be a priest. But God has His ways of calling.”


Kalinga Center

Villanueva spends his waking hours in programs that help the marginalized renew their dignity, owing this to how he was able to renew his.

In 2015, Villanueva, through the Society of the Divine Word, founded the Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Tayuman, Manila. It’s a center that provides “dignified care and service” to the homeless and the marginalized.

The beneficiaries of the center undergo 7 stations. The moment they come in, they are profiled by the staff. Then, they take turns in the shower and the grooming station. As they wait for their turn, they listen to talks by laypeople.

After the grooming, they are asked to recite these lines while looking at themselves in a big mirror: “Malinis na ako. Pagpapahalagahan ko ito dahil maaaring magbago ang buhay ko.” (I am now clean. I will cherish this because my life might change.)

 PROCESSING. A beneficiary talks to a nun during a small group discussion. 


A small processing session with laypeople or nuns then follows, to discuss what was talked about while they were waiting in the previous station. Then everyone shares a meal which comes with unlimited rice – a luxury for the poor and the homeless.

As they go out of the center, the last station asks them to recite a declaration that they are missionaries as well: “Kinalinga ako sa Kalinga, kaya mangangalinga ako sa iba.” (I received care in Kalinga, so I will care for others.)

The center caters to all – men, women, children, elderly, and persons with disability. Some were involved in drugs or petty crimes. Everyone is accepted regardless of their past.

“We believe that they had been robbed of that dignity, so the mission of Arnold Janssen [center] is to help recreate and empower their lives by helping them regain their dignity,” said Villanueva.

The Kalinga Center also offers informal education through the Alternative Learning System in partnership with the Department of Education (DepEd). When beneficiaries are ready, they can undergo the final phase which focuses on employment.

Drug war

As the Duterte administration wages an all-out campaign against illegal drugs, Villanueva said at least 5 beneficiaries of the center have been targeted by Oplan Tokhang.

“According to our beloved beneficiaries, they had been witnesses that these people were really indigent and homeless but have fallen prey to these murders,” he said.

Citing his own experience, the priest maintained that killing is never the answer to the drug problem. (READ: PH can’t win war on drugs with guns alone)

“As a former drug user, I believe that drug addiction is a mental or a health issue. Having gone through [it] myself, I detest the cause of it especially when drug use leads to [crimes] and abuse of rights,” he said.

 SOLUTION. Fr Flavie Villanueva, standing outside the Kalinga Center, believes that killing is not the solution to the drug problem. 

“However, it should be addressed in a proper way instead of looking at it as [a] criminal offense and a means or a license even to kill, which is rampantly happening now,” he added.

The drug war has left thousands of people dead from police operations and vigilante-style killings. For Villanueva, killing drug users only creates “a culture of impunity.”

“This is not what the next generation needs. They need hope and this should be seen mainly from us,” he said.

Alternative solution

The priest asserted that there are other ways to address the drug problem.

He said that through the Kalinga Center, they have started reforming lives even before the drug war started.

Experts have long criticized the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, saying that psychological interventions are needed. Some groups even crafted modules for local governments to use, aimed at equipping surrenderers with skills to recover from drug use.

Several local governments have also created rehabilitation programs through their local anti-drug councils. (IN PHOTOS: On his own: ‘New hope’ under one man’s drug rehab program)

“Again, I would like to reiterate… killing is not the solution. Together, let us work to stop the killings and start the healings,” said Villanueva. –

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Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at