A Personal Remembrance: Joaquin Bernas, S.J. and CMFR

By Melinda Quintos De Jesus

Photo from Fr. Joaquin Bernas’ Facebook page.

FATHER JOAQUIN Bernas of the Society of Jesus was born July 8, 1932 in Baao, Camarines Sur. The many testimonials after his death last March 6 described an astonishing legacy of service to the nation. A scholar and educator, he exerted lasting influence as a public intellectual, with his books, briefs, his role as amicus curae, his teaching of countless students of law. The commissioners who drafted the 1987Charter all recognized his leadership, the brilliance of mind which guided them through the complex ssues confronting Philippine society. 

He served the Society of Jesus as provincial of the Philippine province, president of the Ateneo de Manila University and rector of the Jesuit residence. He served two terms as dean of the Ateneo Law School and was named dean emeritus upon his retirement.  He was a giant presence in the secular field where various social and political endeavors were made more effective because he invested it with his expertise in and understanding of law. Father Bernas saw the law from a broader and deeper perspective. Thus his wiser counsel, touching on more concerns than most legal opinions. 

My husband belonged to a class of Ateneans he taught in high school while Father Bernas was still a scholastic. His name was intoned with reverence and fondness among this circle of friends. I met him much later in my life as a journalist. In 1984, Felix Bautista and I agreed we should include Bernas as a regular columnist for the still to be launched weekly Veritas News Magazine. It was not until we had published our first few editions that Felix asked me to personally extend the invitation on his behalf. The  president of the university then responded to a phone call with an invitation to meet him for lunch at the Jesuit residence refectory. He accepted and we became friends. As many others discovered, I found the eminent jurist excellent social company. Witty, worldly, Father B brightened dinners and meetings with his presence, making these more enjoyable, more engaged and for the last, more solidly productive. 

He related on many levels of friendship. In those pre-cell phone years, I was working after office hours in the press room and found out that that my daughter who was supposed to have been picked up from the college campus had not yet arrived home. I decided to call him in the president’s office, hoping that he too would still be working, and expressed my worry.  He promptly said he would check the students’ waiting area, then called me back to say she had been picked up and would probably be home soon enough. 

Father Bernas was among the founding trustees of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and served on the board in its early years. It was he who made the establishment of CMFR possible, asking me to write up a concept paper so that these activities could be included for support of the Jaime V. Ongpin Institute of Business and Government, a foundation set up by Jimmy’s friends as a memorial of Ongpin’s role in the different fields of national engagement. CMFR’s program includes the recognition of outstanding journalists in the JVO Awards for Excellence in Journalism and later the JVO Journalism Seminar to recall the role of the non-journalist in the growth of a quality press. 

At the wake masses since his death and at his funeral Mass Monday March 15, his brother Jesuits and colleagues recalled what Father Danny Huang, S.J. quoting David Brooks calls Fr. Bernie’s “resumé virtues.”

From Father Huang’s note from Rome: “his Jesuit brothers and his many friends will treasure too what Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” the kind of person he was, how he enhanced the lives of others by who he was rather than by what he accomplished. Warm, deeply human, compassionate, approachable, funny, someone who loved life, Bernie was a wonderful companion in community, and a father figure to many families and former students.” 

Thank you, Father B, for your gift of life to all of us. We ask that you continue to be part of the work of creating God’s Kingdom in our beloved country.