Joyful Warrior for Justice, Democracy, and Love

“Thank you, Fr. Bernie, for building this nation through your teaching, writing, political engagement, and leadership.”

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. did not live an ordinary life. He was constitutional law expert, lawyer and law professor, bar topnotcher, prolific author and columnist, academic leader (Dean of Ateneo Law School twice, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and President of the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), Church leader as Jesuit Provincial, anti-dictatorship fighter as a member of the Convenor Group that chose Cory Aquino to lead the opposition against Marcos in the 1986 elections, member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution, and a frequent Amicus Curiae (friend of the Court) that the Supreme Court turned to for important cases in its docket. To the Bernas family, he was a good brother, uncle, and grand-uncle. Above, all he was a Jesuit and priest.

Many things have been written about Fr. Bernas in this past week. Requested by the Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, ADMU’s scholarly journal, to write an essay on the intellectual contributions of Fr. Bernas, I have been reading through his writings. Two passages from him, one from an anthology of his Philippine Daily Inquirer columns (A Living Constitution) and the other from his 1994 inaugural speech in ADMU, stand out for their significance today when the Constitution he helped draft is under attack by mad dogs of the state:

From June 10, 1998, 100 Years of Constitutionalism: “The litmus test for the existence of constitutionalism in a political system is whether or not the system allows for effective techniques through which power holders share the exercise of power. The history of constitutionalism has been a search for limitations on absolute power, the search for techniques of sharing power. The substance of constitutionalism is the taming of Leviathan.”

From 15 August 1984, Inaugural Address (The Moral Response of the University) of Fr. Bernas as ADMU President: “In the conduct of public affairs truth has been badly battered. People have learned to believe as true the exact opposite of what is officially announced. And when the untruth is made public it is hypocritically given the semblance of an honorable disguise. Justice has been brutalized beyond recognition. The lady has been stripped of her blindfold and the balance scales are often replaced by the truncheon or by the barrel of a gun.”

Personally, I have known Fr. Bernas since the early 1980s. He was Jesuit Provincial when I joined the Jesuit Volunteers in 1981, a group he strongly encouraged and supported. Shortly after I started teaching philosophy in Ateneo de Manila University, he became our president and he signed all my appointments for the next decade. Later, when I became a lawyer, I became an avid follower of his writings. As a UP Constitutional Law professor, I prescribed the Bernas textbook for many years even if there was an unwritten rule in Diliman not to use his book. But it was simply the best, although at some point it became outdated. An updated version would be great as future generations of law students and lawyers deserve the wisdom of his commentary on constitutional questions, particularly on the Bill of Rights.

In 2006, I was appointed Dean of the Ateneo School of Government and also joined the Ateneo Law Faculty. I had an office in the Ateneo Professional Schools campus in Rockwell, Makati and there had many encounters with Fr. Bernas in meetings, lectures, and yes, even in elevators where conversations with him were memorable with his witty comments and the political and legal profession gossip he shared.

It was the masses he celebrated in the Saint Thomas More Chapel of the Rockwell Campus that stood out the most during those years. His five-minute homilies were famous and for the ever busy law students welcome. The one I remember most was a sermon one Valentine’s Day when Fr. Bernas exhorted the young congregation to set aside their books and to go out with the ones they love, quoting a passage attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Love decided everything for Fr. Bernas. Love for his family. Love for his brother Jesuits. Love for the Church and the Society of Jesus. Love for the Ateneo de Manila University, especially for the Ateneo Law School and its students, faculty, and staff. Love for the law. Love of country. Love of God and neighbor.

Thank you, Fr. Bernie! Thank you for building this nation through your teaching, writing, political engagement, and leadership in Ateneo de Manila University, the Society of Jesus, and the Church! Thank you for showing us how to be a joyful warrior for justice, democracy, and yes, love.

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