Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ: Torontonian remembers an intellectual and spiritual giant

Updated:March 6, 2021, 4:10 PM

Toronto, Ontario

Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen

 One week in silence with an intellectual

“An earthly life filled with meaning and purpose…”

It was not until the papers announced in mid 1986 the list of the fifty members of the Commission that would draft what eventually came to be known as the 1987 Philippine Constitution that I would once again hear the name of Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ.

This was just after the heady days of EDSA I when I was into my tenth year of teaching Political Science at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.

Word of the passing of this rare combination of priest-lawyer (great at either vocation) today, March 6,  transported me  back to December 1975 when I met the future president of the Ateneo de Manila and Dean Emeritus of its College of Law.

He was 43 years old and  I was 18.

He was a Tertian Jesuit (one who is in his last stage of formation) and  I was completing my year as a La Salle Brother novice.

Fr.  Bernas and fellow Tertians were at the Sacred Heart  Novitiate in Novaliches, Quezon City for the mandated Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Known also as the Long Retreat, the Tertian prays in silence for 30 days. We La Salle novices went for the shortened silent retreat for only 10 days with a Cenacle nun as our retreat mistress.

Even then, Fr. Bernas stood out from the rest of his group that included Fr. William “Bill” Kreutz who would later become President of Ateneo de Zamboanga. He sported a thick but well-trimmed beard and moustache at the time. The Jesuits and the La Salle Novices would be together for mass and meals.

It was during the shared homily of the daily mass that one gets to have a sense of the depth of Fr. Joaquin’s intellect and spirituality. One particular instance was when he spoke of the courage of Edmund Campion. I may have forgotten details of his sharing at the time but not the name Edmund, which he seemed to have enunciated with a certain accent that the name stuck in my mind.

Without benefit of Wikipedia or Google at the time, it was only later when I looked up the name in the library that I found out that Edmund Campion was a Catholic convert (and became a Jesuit) from the Anglican persuasion who  was martyred (beheaded) with two other Jesuits. With other Jesuit martyrs during the Elizabethan era, Edmund Campion was canonized in 1970, or just five years before our retreat in the Jesuit Novitiate.

It would have been really difficult to engage fellow retreatants like Fr. Joaquin even in short conversations because that would be a violation of the silent retreat. 

As one enters the different halls of the Novitiate he would invariably read the famous Jesuit motto atop the entrance: AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM –  For the greater glory of God.

Fr. Bernas certainly lived as the exemplar of that motto.

In announcing his passing, Ateneo said:

“We take solace in the knowledge that his was an earthly life filled with meaning and purpose. An earthly life dedicated to service, to standards of excellence, in the greater glory of God.”

Footnote:

Fr. Bernas was among the so-called “nationalist bloc” in the 1986 Constitutional Commission credited with crafting the more progressive provisions touching on the exploitation of patrimony and economic rights, Human Rights, accountability of government officials, among others.  In early 1987, my own mentor in Political Science at De la Salle University, Professor Wilfrido Villacorta, sought me out in Iligan to help in the campaign for the ratification of the draft constitution. Dr. Villacorta was in the same nationalist bloc as Fr. Bernas.

 Aside from the religious, albeit, brief experience of Ignatian Spirituality, I brought home with me to our Novitiate, memories of two Jesuits whose name plates were displayed outside their rooms: Arthur Shea and Isaias Edralin. 

I will not forget  Fr. Shea because I saw him daily and was quite struck by his appearance: shoulder length hair, denims, T-shirt, and sandals. I thought he looked like a hippie more  than anything else. Fr. Edralin-well, because of his last name. He was the brother of Dona Josefa Edralin Marcos.

From hindsight as a student of Mindanao history, I would have interviewed both Jesuits.  I found out that Fr. Shea was one of the three so-called guerilla priests (together with the Guerilla Padre, Fr. Edward Haggerty, SJ) who roamed the mountains of Iligan to minister to the religious needs of parishioners but at the same time, aiding the resistance movement  during WW II.

For his part, Fr. Edralin walked a very tight rope as parish priest of Cagayan de Oro from 1942-1945. I had briefly mentioned Fr. Edralin about my Sacred Heart Novitiate experience but under a different topic (Memories of Martial Law).

About the author:

Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. A native of Iligan City, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from De La Salle University in Manila. He taught at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology where he was Chair of the Department of Political Science. He took up a Masters in History at University of Toronto in 1987 as a scholar of the Rotary Foundation. He moved to Canada in 1992. He recently retired from public service with the City of Toronto. A former editor of Toronto-based The Filipino Bulletin, he contributes to Philippine dailies and online magazines as a freelance writer.

 


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