Thursday, August 2, 2007

Who is Brother Richie Fernando?

My last post regarding Ms. Janette Toral's visit here in Naga City paved the way for me to be able to revisit the story of Bro. Richie Fernando of the Society of Jesus. So, I thought, why not post his story here in my blog for anyone who might want to learn more about the man after and in honor of whom one of the buildings in Ateneo de Naga University was named? For me and for many others, Bro. Richie and his story never fails to touch and move. I hope that anyone who stumbles upon this post will also find some meaning, light, and inspiration in the story of this extraordinary Jesuit. He's Filipino, by the way, just like you and me.

"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. Amen."

Richie Fernando's retreat diary,
January 3, 1996

In 1996 Richie Fernando SJ was killed aged 26 years by a hand grenade released by a student in the Jesuit Refugee Service technical school for the handicapped near Phnom Penh. On January 3, 1996 Richie wrote in his diary:

"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."

Richie Fernando was a long way from home. He was a Filipino Jesuit in Buddhist Cambodia. He was educated and full of promise in a camp where refugees maimed by bullets and land mines and scarred by hunger and disease fought for hope. He loved life in a land where life was hard and death nearby.

Richie went to Cambodia in May 1995 as part of his Jesuit training. He had entered the Society in 1990 and finished the novitiate and collegiate studies. Before going on to theology studies and ordination, he was sent to work at Banteay Prieb, a Jesuit technical school for the handicapped not far from Phnom Penh. Banteay Prieb describes itself as a "place that enables the disabled to tell their own stories, to gather strength and hope from being with one another, and to learn a new skill that enhances a sense of dignity and worth." Here people disabled by landmines, polio, and accidents learn skills that allow them to earn a living. Banteay Prieb means "the Center of the Dove."

When Richie arrived, his devotion to the students quickly won their trust. He began learning their Khmer language and came to appreciate their religious traditions. And he loved to share their stories, stories of survival during Pol Pot's genocidal regime, stories of the devastation of their society through poverty, displacement, and the nine million landmines that still plague their land.

One of these survivors is Sarom. Already an orphan, at 16 Sarom became a soldier; two years later he was maimed by a landmine. Sarom finished his courses at Banteay Prieb and wanted to stay on there, but school authorities found him disruptive and asked him to leave. Richie Fernando mentioned Sarom in a letter to his friends in the Philippines, saying that although Sarom was "tricky" he still had a place in Richie's heart.

On October 17, 1996, Sarom came to the school for a meeting. Angered, he suddenly he reached into a bag he was carrying, pulled out a grenade, and began to move towards a classroom full of students; the windows of the room were barred, leaving the students no escape. Richie Fernando came up behind Sarom and grabbed him. "Let me go, teacher; I do not want to kill you," Sarom pleaded. But he dropped his grenade, and it fell behind him and Richie. In a flash Richie Fernando was dead, falling over with Sarom still grasped in his arms, protecting him from the violence he had made.

Only four days before his death Richie had written a long letter to his Jesuit friend Totet Banaynal. "I know where my heart is," he wrote; "It is with Jesus Christ, who gave his all for the poor, the sick, the orphan ...I am confident that God never forgets his people: our disabled brothers and sisters. And I am glad that God has been using me to make sure that our brothers and sisters know this fact. I am convinced that this is my vocation."

Three days after Richie's death, his shocked family and friends in the Philippines celebrated his funeral. At the same time, his shocked Cambodian friends carried an urn containing cloths soaked in his blood to a Buddhist funeral mound. In their shock they mourned; and in their mourning they gave thanks for Richie, the man they knew and loved, their son, their brother, their teacher, their friend.

Shocked by what he had caused, Sarom sat in his jail cell and mourned too.

In March 1997, Mr. and Mrs. Fernando wrote to Cambodia's King Sihanouk, asking for pardon for Sarom; somehow, someone had to stop the violence. Sarom had not wanted to kill Richie. "Richie ate rice with me," he said; "he was my friend."

Story from the Jesuit Mission website.


ryan's spool said...

yeah, we were in second year high school when he died...

we were discussing about being "men for others" and he just did that no more no second thoughts...

evision said...

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earn and learn