Early in the morning José Amalio González Ruiz, known to his friends as Pepe, opens the door of the San Juan Bautista church in Coín, and then goes back inside. “Where has he gone?” ask some of the worshippers. He has gone upstairs for a moment to fetch some of his best friends and put them in the square outside the church. A goshawk, American kestrel and Harris's hawk now stand at the entrance, together with a sign which says “Falconer's prayer.' “People seem to think priests don't have hobbies, but we do. I have always loved birds of prey; being in contact with nature makes us better human beings,” Pepe says.
“They say I am the only falconer priest in the area, but for me it's a natural thing, just like many priests play football. In fact, I play padel as well,” he says. “People are interested in everything a priest does when he's not holding Mass.”
Pepe's hobby has brought new life to the parish. Since he came to Coín three and a half years ago the presence of three birds of prey, two of them very large, in the doorway have attracted the attention of numerous people.
“Children and elderly people come, because someone has said to them, “Haven't you seen the birds at the church, yet?” Many of them are a bit cautious,” says Pepe. Thanks to his hobby, he is fulfilling one of his aims for society. “This brings nature closer to people,” he says.
It is also very good for the birds, because they become accustomed to contact with humans and the urban bustle. “I'm known among other falconers because my birds are very calm, and that's because they are used to seeing people going past, or coming to see them, and the noise,” he explains.
The Falconer's Prayer, which Pepe wrote himself, is perhaps the most significant meeting point for Pepe's two lifestyles. “I was out hunting with one of the birds and it just came into my head. It wasn't planned. The inspiration just came to me,” he says.
“There are people to whom I dedicate this prayer. It is a way of putting more faith in everything,” he says.
This connection between nature and spirituality is important in Pepe's life. “It comes from the Bible: creation is a way of asking yourself about the mystery of God, and when you get close to the animal world you ask yourself, “how do the birds know how to make a nest? Who taught them?” You realise that instinct is also a part of the mystery of life.”
Pepe González's childhood was marked by Spanish naturalist and broadcaster Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, whose TV programme made him “drop whatever I was doing” and sit in front of the television to watch. He spent his early years in Puerto de la Torre, taking part with relatives and friends in different activities during which he discovered the wonders of the animal world and, later, while he was in Antequera - ten years ago - the world of falconry.
As well as bringing something to the faithful, being able to combine faith and nature also makes Pepe feel good.
“Going into the countryside with my birds helps me to disconnect and is good for me as well, because in the village, because I'm the priest, I'm well-known and people recognise me; in the countryside I'm on my own, and not as the village priest, and I like that very much,” he says.
As we were talking, numerous people came along to talk to Pepe and most of them took no notice of the birds which were guarding the entrance.
Among other things he spoke about, the priest returned again to the importance of nature to strengthen the spirit. “I always say, contact with animals makes us better people; society needs more Nature,” he says.