Toasting Fr. Bernas

Andres D. Bautista (The Philippine Star) - March 9, 2021 - 12:00am

There has been a deluge of tributes for Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, Society of Jesus (“Fr. B”). Indeed he touched many lives. Let me add to the torrent and share with you how he touched mine.

Growing up as an Ateneo student, Fr. B was the “god standard.” He was the Jesuit Provincial Superior and then university president. We saw him only during important convocations and graduation ceremonies. The Bernas last  name was akin to royalty so much so that when classmates would ask Luigi Bernas and Tessa Bernas if they were related to him; each would unhesitatingly reply: “He is our father!”

My first real encounter with him was in 1986. Tony Abad and I were chosen to represent the Philippines during the World University Debating Championships and I was having difficulty getting a US visa. He, together with Dean Chita Rosales, helped us and made sure we got to New York on time.

When I graduated from the Ateneo Law School in 1990, he told my nana, Justina Bautista, that I was unlike her. He wondered how I managed to graduate at the top of my class.  “The standards of the law school must be going down,” he told her.

During his New York sabbatical in 1994 after his stint as Ateneo president, he invited me to dine at the Jesuit Residence along East 83rd Street between Madison and Park Avenues. We shared a hearty lunch. And then an afternoon pint of Guinness at a nearby Irish pub.

When I returned to Asia in the late 90s, we kept in touch. When I accepted the deanship of FEU Law in 1999, he congratulated me by saying that the Flying Eagles University was in good hands. His wry humor was always evident.

Thanks to John Boyd’s GLEN Foundation, we were invited in 2002 to give a lecture on the Bill of Rights at the University of Nepal in Kathmandu. I had the privilege of “sleeping with him” in the same room (in different beds of course) and hearing him snore.

In 2003, then UP Law dean Raul Pangalangan, Fr. Bernas and I were invited to a law conference in Beijing. There were no churches open in China then. In the style of underground Christian missionaries, he invited the two of us to his room to celebrate an intimate Sunday mass.

He baptized three of my four boys. Sorry dear Jacobo, he was not available for your March 2009 baptism.

One of my favorite Constitutional Law 1 cases was the 1958 classic People v. Juan Fajardo which involved a violation of a Baao, Camarines Sur ordinance for constructing a building that destroyed the view of the public plaza. A Baao native, Fr. B asked me not about eminent domain but rather: “Who is the town’s favorite son?” I jestingly responded: “Joker Arroyo of course!” Fr. B fondly referred to the latter as his childhood neighbor who picked fruits from their tree without permission.

I asked him about a philosophical dilemma I was facing. Antoine de Saint Exupery in the Little Prince counseled: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Does this mean we should always use emotion in our decisions? “No,” he said. “Because the heart is there” – while pointing to his head.

When I started writing a weekly column for The Philippine STAR, Fr. B chided me saying that I was copying him (as he wrote for the Daily Inquirer) and trying to follow his footsteps. “I wish,” I immediately said in response. I hastened to add:  “Although I am not even worthy to tie your shoelaces.”

He never wore his spirituality on his sleeve. Never judgmental, always compassionate. His sermons were direct to the point.  I distinctly remember one where he said that the message of the gospel readings for the day could be summed up in two words: “Be good.” And then he moved on to the prayers of the faithful part of the mass.

Fr. B was simple and straightforward. Just like the Johnny Walker black label that he liked to drink. Fr. B, can you please let us know if, like the song says, there is really no beer in heaven? Or is the prophet Isaiah correct in saying that only choice wines are served there?

Condolences to the close-knit Bernas family, particularly to his “illegitimate” children Luigi and Tessa and nephews Bong, James and Ronnie. Thank you for sharing Tito Pare with us.

Fr. B passed away in the early morning of the first Saturday of the month of March. For God’s reason. Saturday has been traditionally dedicated by the church to Mama Mary to reward her “for her steadfast faith in His Son’s divinity, which did not waver under the Cross.” Ateneo’s colors are blue and white in honor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion, the school’s patroness.

Fr. B tirelessly fought for his faith. He also championed the cause of constitutionalism and the rule of law. At a time when the glow of our democracy has dimmed, we owe it to him to carry the torch of his causes for God and country.

Thank you Fr. B! “We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

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Andres D. Bautista taught Constitutional Law at the Ateneo Law School from 1991-2017.

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