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By Ma. Ceres Doyo
“True to form, true to form,” a young Jesuit sobbed when he learned of the death of his friend and fellow Jesuit Brother Richard “Richie” Michael Fernando, 26. As Richie lived, so did he die. He lived working among the victims of violence, he died in the midst of them.
Richie was killed by a grenade on October 17 at the Jesuit – run Centre of the Dove in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At the time of his death, Richie was doing his two-year regency, that stage when young Jesuits studying to be priests get immersed in an apostolate. Richie had spent two years each in the novitiate, juniorate and in philosophy studies. He had made his simple vows as a Jesuit, hence the ‘S.J’. after his name and had four more years of theology studies to go before he gets ordained. He would have been a priest by the year 2001.
An e-mail message sent to the Jesuits of the Philippines Province said: With deep sadness Jesuit Service Cambodia announces the death of Richie Fernando, a 26-year-old Jesuit scholastic who has worked for 18 months as a guide and friend to the disabled students of Banteay Prieb, Kandal, Cambodia.
He was killed by a grenade at the Centre of the Dove at 9:30 AM ... Two disabled students were also injured in the incident and are recovering ...
Richie’s body is now at the Jesuit Service House in Phnom Penh. A very moving sight was the arrival of many of the disabled students coming to pay their respects and honour Richie in their Buddhist way. People with one arm, one leg or no legs were crouched beside the bed, their crutches making a kind of guard of honor...
The incident happened when a troubled student attempted to throw a hand grenade into a class of students. Richie held him to restrain him and was hit in the base of his skull and in his back by the (exploding) grenade. By embracing the disturbed student Richie saved the lives of many other students but lost his own in this courageous act.
Richie had an extraordinary heart for the disabled people ... One of the recent things Richie did at the Centre of the Dove was to welcome students for literacy and numeracy training and to prepare students graduating for the festival scheduled this coming November 1, Feast of All Saints.
Letters from Cambodia
Brother Pedro Ariston, S.J. a friend and classmate since high school, college and novitiate days, kept Richie’s letter from Cambodia. The last one he received was short, terse and in a hurry. “Kamusta”! Sorry, medyo busy ako ngayon. May biglang lumapit ... nang gusto kong magsulat. Meetings o ayos ng problema kaya. Sige. Salamat sa sulat at enjoy sa buhay. Richie.”(Hello! Sorry I’m busy now. Someone came when o was about to write you. Meeting and solving problems. Thanks for the letter and enjoy life.)
Brother Pedro remembered Richie as a very regular guy, crazy about rock and new wave music. He had a great collection, this friend said. Richie went to Claret for high school and Ateneo for college. He first majored in Management Engineering but later shifted to Development Studies. That was when Richie was also shifting his priorities. His parents at first envisioned a life in business for him.
“Mommy,” he told his mother, “even if I do not become a priest I want to live a simple life.” Richie first spoke to his mother about the “calling” and after a time he described it as becoming “intense”. In order for him to discern whether or not the calling was real, Richie lived in Arvisu House, the Jesuits’ pre-novitiate, where he experienced a life of community during his last year in college. He was drawn toward the poor, his mother says, and oh, she worried about him.
In 1990, on the eve of his entrance into the novitiate Richie said, “Mommy, remember, when you turn me over tomorrow, I will no longer be your son. I will belong to the Society of Jesus.” Richie was the youngest of four children. One family day at the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches when his mom Visitation, dad Antonio and brother Raymond and sistesr Ma. Theresa and Angelica visited him, Richie said, "Don’t worry about me, the Jesuits will take care of me. When I die a Jesuit will be buried in the Jesuit graveyard.” He then took his family to the burial grounds.
During Pope John Paul II’s visit and World Youth Day in 1995, Richie spent time with the Cambodian amputees who came. He even invited them for a dinner with his family. Shortly after, Richie flew to Cambodia to work with the victims of the war. Brother Totet Banaynal, one of the first Jesuit scholastics to work with amputees in Cambodia, became a close friend of Richie. The two wrote each other often.
In Cambodia there are an estimated nine million unexploded mines still waiting for victims. That is one land mine for every Cambodian. There are now 36,000 Cambodian amputees who are trying to be useful to society. The Jesuits run a technical institute for them. Amputees are also trained to make wheelchairs and artificial limbs for themselves and future victims.
International NGO’s have been calling for a ban on mine production, for manufacturers to contribute to a fund for victims, for the United Nations to promote landmine awareness, clearance and eradication. In Afghanistan there are close to 30,000 amputees. In Angola 20,000. Richie worked with victims during the 18 months that he was in the land of mines. He was in a milieu which was less than safe. Earlier, a similar killing occurred within the compound where he worked, but Richie was happy where he was. He felt at home in the culture; he even learned to speak and sign his name in Khmer. In one of his letters to the Raymundo (on his mother’s side) and Fernando families Richie said: "I chose for follow Christ and chose to be a Jesuit. I also chose to be with the handicapped ... former soldiers, farmers, workers, young people in the neighborhood. I believe I have greater thing in life that’s why I’m enjoying life these days.” Ritchie’s mother says she never sensed her son wavering in his vacation. It was not easy giving Richie up to the Jesuits, the mother said. But when she had accepted her son’s choice she began to find it hard to imagine Richie giving up the priesthood. But she told him not to worry in case he would change his mind. Richie himself tried not to get his parent worried. Why, his mother learned he had contracted dengue fever only after he got well.
Richie’s last letter by e-mail was to Brother Totet. It was dated Oct. 13, four days before his death. "Ang puso ko ngayon ay nasa mga mahihirap. Estudyante natin. Feeling ko and lapit ko ngayon kay Jesus. Masayang masaya ako.”
Richie was laid to rest at the Jesuit burial grounds in Novaliches.