Bob Greene once said about celebrities: they are people of talent who work to create something— something written, something painted, something sculpted, something acted out— and that something is passed on to audiences. These people of talent become popular and famous because of their bodies of work. From legendary musicians, artists, cooks, civic leaders to philanthropists, celebrities contribute to the world’s culture. But today, there are people who become famous, not because they have worked on something, but because they just be, like celebrities of reality shows such as Survivor or Big Brother. They become famous not for doing something of value to civilization but for being.
I believe Richie Fernando SJ became famous by being someone of value. When he protected his students from a bomb in 1996, this defining moment was not something that Richie imagined to ever happen in his entire life. Protecting his students had become his nature; it was who he had become when he joined the Jesuits.
I first met Richie in 1990 when he entered the novitiate. If you watched the video, “Conversations: Jesuits on Jesuits” which we labored to produce when everything was still analog, or the video on Richie himself after his death titled, “Far Greater Love”, you would see me with Richie. I was his angel and he was my soul. In the novitiate, the second year novices adopted a neophyte. They became their personal guide for at least a few weeks at the beginning of Jesuit formation. The secundus was designated the angel; the primus was the soul. I was Richie’s angel, not because of my immaculate being (I was never immaculate), but because it was a task given to me.
It was easy to be Richie’s angel. Because all you had to do was answer some of his questions about this and that; but generally, he liked discovering things for himself. He didn’t want people to take care of him; he liked taking care of people instead. He was a good friend to a select few. The criteria was simple: his friends were those whom he could share his dreams and desires with. His closest friends were those who were able to be with him in his struggles. To him, the solution to an issue was easy to know, but personally challenging to do. And thus, all he needed was a companion in the journey.
It was in 1990 that he shared the initial missionary seed to his closest friend, Fr. Totet Banaynal SJ, who now lives both his and Richie’s desire to serve in Cambodia. For Fr. Totet, to share one’s deepest desire to serve a people outside of one’s country was something we share not to just anyone, but to one’s closest.
In Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches, Quezon City, Richie began his community life. To him, community was about establishing friendships beginning with a few, until one’s circle explands to include everyone else. As his life in the Society moved to different stages in formation, his inner circle grew bigger until it included the students in Cambodia when he was a regent. And because the students were into that core circle of his being, to protect them from harm was not something he planned to do or acted upon like a role in a stage play in Juniorate. It was primarily an instinct from a heart who loved them. In Fr. Ferriol’s Filipino philosophy, his act was simply his “pagmemeron” — out of what he was.
After his vows in 1992, Richie transferred to Loyola House for his Juniorate and Philosophy. There I knew that I was in his inner circle. During the long academic haul, I would study longer than him. He was extremely intelligent; taking on the most difficult subject like eating fishballs and barbecue and downing them with a liter of Coke. Literally, that was what we did. We took study breaks. Richie and I would go down to Barangka to buy a liter of Coke from the corner store, spend whatever allowance we had on hawker’s fare: barbecued innards, chicken blood and pork large intestines. Isaw was something Richie enjoyed eating. Sometimes we would bring isaw to Dagani House, our small community, and gorged on them with leftover rice.
This was what we shared: eating was something we found pleasurable. Eating was not something we had to do; it was what we liked to do. It was, simply put, just us.
Thus, when Richie was alive, it was something we did, not because we were tired, but because we liked eating. Because even if we were not tired, we would still enjoy cheap food from street corners.
My room in Loyola House was three rooms away from his. Then Pierre Uytioco, Ike Tarabi, and I would gather in my room, and Richie would bring food there. We would convert my room into a drinking venue; alcoholic beverages were sneaked out of the Father’s recreation room. At that time, it was forbidden. It was a cheap thrill we all enjoyed—and kept it a secret— for the sake of friendship. Anyways, we did not disturb anyone: all of us occupied the rooms of the 3rd floor!
When Richie died in 1996 at the young age of 26, I was teaching at Xavier University High School. We were both regents then. I remembered hearing the news about how he died: by a hand grenade released by a student in the Jesuit Refugee Service technical school for the handicapped near Phnom Penh. I was in shock. Tears were not enough to express my deep sadness.
But I tell you this now: after recovering from the experience of loss and tragedy, I remembered what I was and what I was meant to be. I was a Jesuit regent. I was meant to become a priest. And a Jesuit priest should die for the sake of another. What Richie died of, died from and died for was not in vain. The spirit of that dying epitomized what I should be. The Lord said that we had to die to ourselves so that others may live.
Years later in 2003, I became Assistant Secretary of the Provincial. There I personally saw papers from people all over the world requesting to start a movement for his sainthood. One life given for the many, now multiplied. People from all over the world gained inspiration from what he had lived for and died for.
Here is what Richie wrote years before his death:
I wish, when I die, people remember not how great, powerful, or talented I was, but that I served and spoke for the truth, I gave witness to what is right, I was sincere in all my works and actions, in other words, I loved and I followed Christ.”
Living the Lord’s tenet is not something that happens once and for all. It is not what Andy Warhol called “15 minutes of fame” like B1 celebrities of the 21st century who became famous simply by being in the right place at the right time. To Richie, it was something he prepared to do from the very beginning. It was a long process of transformation. So that when that one moment came that defined his life, he took it without second thoughts. A bomb will not give you time to think! But because it was what he had become, his instinct is to be himself. To protect the students is to take on Christ. St. Paul puts it like this: when we die, it is Christ who lives!
This is the same with one’s vocation. What you do now will tell you who you will be in the future. A medical student who does not study, will definitely not become an excellent doctor. A musician who does not practice will eventually lose his talent.
We can glean from one’s current behavior what kind of person one will be in the future, unless a change occurs. There are things we can predict. To the Jesuit scholastics here:
Try not to have friends in the community; try not to study; try not to live out one’s vows; try not to pray; I bet when the right time, the right place, and the right hour comes, when a bomb is thrown at your class, the first you’ll do is to get out of there!
And newspaper headlines will shamefully print in bold letters: “32 students killed by a bomb blast; Jesuit teacher survived unharmed!”