If there was one word that would best describe the unprecedented life of extraordinary service of the legendary Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., it would be this: vocation. And the full life of Father Bernas (1932-2021) has been about the preparation and fulfillment of that vocation. Father Bernas dedicated his entire life to the service of others—a path he had always recognized as having been chosen by God for him.
In one of his succinct homilies, Father Bernas talked about the calling of the Blessed Virgin Mary and had this to say about vocation:
“Vocation is a word which we sometimes reserve for a call to convent life or priestly life. It is not that way at all. Vocation is for all, yes, even for rascals. God singles out each one of us for a task. Most of the time we do not know how the task will end, how it will be completed. When Evelio Javier chose to be a lawyer than doctor or priest, he did not know that his commitment to Ateneo ideals would find fulfillment in martyrdom. When Bobby Gana chose to be a lawyer for farmers rather than for corporations, he did not know that his vocation would lead to tragedy. Mary did not know that her vocation would lead her to the foot of the Cross.”
Accordingly, and after committing himself to the Society of Jesus a.k.a. The Jesuits, who directed him to become both theologian-priest and lawyer, Father Bernas happily found himself in the service of his religious vocation as a Jesuit priest, in the service of his patriotic and civic duty as a constitutional lawyer and scholar, and in the service of his academic passion as a law professor and educator—ubiquitous roles which he lovingly fulfilled up to the very last beat of his beautiful heart.
In omnibus amare et servire Domino. In everything, Father Bernas loved and served the Lord through the fulfillment of his vocation.
GOD’S GOOD SERVANT AND IGNATIAN PRINCIPLES
Father Bernas was first and foremost God’s good servant. In everything he did, Father Bernas placed God at the front and center. Thus, for every administrative role and academic position that he performed, for every constitutional provision that he helped frame and influence, for every noble advocacy of national and social significance that he pursued and supported, the following essential Ignatian principles were always present (as can be gleaned from his inaugural address as Ateneo president in 1984):
(1) The Ignatian optimism of finding God in all things; (2) The Ignatian education as being personal that focuses on the person’s freedom and total growth or what is now also known as Cura Personalis; (3) The Ignatian pedagogy of courage, reflection, and action; (4) The Ignatian tradition of magis (the more) and pursuit of excellence; (5) The Ignatian belief that the person of Jesus Christ is central to the enterprise.
He ensured the protection of the Filipino people’s fundamental rights and liberties against possible government abuses
That’s why it should not come as a surprise that beyond the classroom lessons, it is the consensus that the best part about Father Bernas were his Mass and homilies. Everyone can attest to the fact that Father. Bernas’ theological teachings and scriptural discussions, through his short but very provocative homilies in three to five sentences in no more than five minutes, effectively deepened everyone’s faith and made a lasting impact that has remained even to this day, which definitely contributed to the betterment of our individual well-being. What a blessing it was to receive those spiritual nuggets from Father Bernas.
FILIPINO PEOPLE, CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
When Father Bernas helped frame the 1987 Constitution, he ensured the protection of the Filipino people’s fundamental rights and liberties against possible government abuses through the Bill of Rights and the system of checks and balances within the three great branches of government that served to reasonably limit the vast powers granted by the same Constitution. This was Father Bernas’ own way of saying “NEVER AGAIN” to the rampant corruption and human rights abuses during the destructive dictatorship of the Marcos regime.
Thus, during the constitutional deliberations on the 1987 Constitution, Father Bernas eloquently said:
“The protection of fundamental liberties is the essence of constitutional democracy. Protection against whom? Protection against the state. The Bill of Rights governs the relationship between the individual and the state. Its concern is not the relation between individuals, between a private individual and other individuals. What the Bill of Rights does is to declare some forbidden zones in the private sphere inaccessible to any power holder.”
Another equally important constitutional contribution of Father Bernas are the concepts of social justice and human rights that promise protection for the poor, oppressed, less fortunate, and underprivileged towards the enhancement of the human dignity. He has always seen human rights and social justice as part and parcel of the state’s obligation of caring for the people through no less than constitutional guarantees. Beyond these constitutional provisions, Father Bernas continued to do his part in that social responsibility through his unwavering support for countless social justice programs and human rights initiatives that included the establishment of the SALIGAN (Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal), a legal resource organization dedicated to the marginalized, disadvantaged, and exploited sectors in the country, among many others.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL GURU AND LEGAL LUMINARY
Father Bernas was also a gifted and prolific writer—an indispensable part of his being a constitutional scholar and expert. Not only did Father Bernas write authoritative commentaries in Constitutional Law (with his famous triumvirate of the green book, the case book, and the primer, the last of which he jokingly described as the “Idiot’s Guide to Constitutional Law” that really helped his feeble-minded students like this author) and Public International Law, he also did not mince words whenever he made pointed and critical comments about a sitting president and the burning national and political issues of the day.
In all his writings, Father Bernas never failed to show the elegant simplicity of his thoughts and the sophisticated clarity of his insights, which reduced complex constitutional issues into a single-minded proposition and truth that everyone could understand and agree on.
He served as towering beacon of light and wisdom whenever challenging issues of constitutional significance confronted and puzzled the Court
Being the gold standard and guru in the field of Constitutional and Political Law, Father Bernas was the Supreme Court’s perennial Amicus Curiae or “friend of the court,” who served as a towering beacon of light and wisdom whenever challenging issues of constitutional significance confronted and puzzled the Court. Father Bernas always served (and continues to serve) as the North Star and the guidepost in helping the Court navigate through difficult constitutional moments as evidenced by countless citations of his books and the references of his constitutional debates and deliberations in the Court’s decisions.
To say that Father Bernas was beloved is actually an understatement. Short of worshipping him, people adore and respect him, and are in awe of him—because of his brilliance and excellence in both theology and the law. People loved him (and they love him still), especially the students. That despite terrified students trembling in fear whenever he would start calling them for recitations that were made even more memorable with his wry wit and charming smile while asking: What is the Preamble? What is the National Territory? What is Probable Cause? What is Clear and Present Danger? Give us Tatad v. Secretary of Energy. Give us Tolentino v. Secretary of Finance. Give us Stonehill v. Diokno. Give us People v. Malmstedt.
Students were terrified not because they could not answer the questions of Father Bernas, but because they did not want Father Bernas to have any negative impression of them. Ateneo Law School Associate Dean Maita Chan-Gonzaga best described the recitations with Father Bernas in this wise: “He was also terrifying in the sense that you don’t want to disappoint THE Fr. Bernas so it made you try harder in his class.”
But beyond the classroom discussions and student recitation mishaps, one of the greatest gifts of Father Bernas was how well he personally connected with people, especially the students. The things Father Bernas did for his students were always simply because he genuinely cared about them. With that pure sincerity of heart, he never discriminated anyone and in fact treated everyone fairly and equally. It didn’t matter if you were the top student in his class or the batch or someone who was just struggling to get through law school (like this author). He would give anyone the time of day.
Cura personalis is the Iganatian principle of “care for the entire person.” Father Bernas did not have to preach Cura Personalis. He never had to. He showed it by example and practised it to perfection.
He enjoyed romantic comedies among others and once highly recommended Something’s Gotta Give
Underneath the numerous and sterling accomplishments and accolades as a priest-lawyer, Father Bernas was at the end of the day still human, who knew how to enjoy the worldly things that life had to offer. He loved his whiskey (Blue Label in particular and preferred it neat if I recall correctly as the rocks diluted the flavor for him). He enjoyed traveling abroad with his colleagues. He also loved music (he would have an MP3 collection before Spotify became a thing) and movies (he used to frequent the Riverbanks Center in Marikina for his movie fix; he enjoyed romantic comedies among others and once highly recommended Something’s Gotta Give.
He loved eating and hanging out with students over meals and/or drinks. That notwithstanding, Father Bernas and the students always maintained and respected their boundaries. It was never an excuse for the students not to prepare for his classes. It actually became more of a burden and motivation for the students to perform better. Father Bernas never played favorites and no student ever got preferential treatment in any way.
It was also amazing how Father Bernas was able to effectively and seamlessly connect and relate to diverse age groups and generations. But be it “Fr. B” to his students and colleagues or “Bernie” to his Jesuit brothers or “Quining” to his family, Father Bernas was truly once in a generation and a man for all seasons. Thus, it’s fair to say that as it stands now, Father Bernas can be described as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) in the annals of history in the Ateneo community and in the field of Constitutional Law—his accomplishments unrivaled, his legacy unequalled, and his legend unparalleled. And it will remain that way for a really long time.
That seed of hope is exactly what makes the legacy of Father Bernas transcendentally important
It has been said that the greatest legacy of Fr. Bernas is in his scholarly writings. I partially disagree. To my mind, it equally lies with the very people whose lives he touched, especially his students and colleagues. Thus, for those of us who were touched by Father Bernas and crossed paths with him, we absorbed the best of what he had to give—his light—as a Jesuit priest, as a constitutional expert and scholar, as a law professor, as a colleague, as a Filipino, as a confidante and friend, as a sibling and uncle to his family, and as an Ignatian brethren to his Jesuit brothers.
All of his students and colleagues combined, including every law student, lawyer, and lay person who has read his books and writings—bits and pieces of Father Bernas are in all of us now. And there’s so much love in that. Father Bernas loved and cared for all of us so much that he gave us one of his best gifts during his lifetime: Hope.
That seed of hope is exactly what makes the legacy of Father Bernas transcendentally important —that all of us who have been fortunate enough to be taught and mentored by him would be able to spread his legacy to countless generations beyond ourselves by teaching and sharing with others everything he stood for, everything he fought for, everything he cared about, and everyone he loved—all of which will always be carried by us now as the echoes of those infinities that Father Bernas generously and lovingly imprinted in all of us through the years.
Father Bernas is for God. Father Bernas is for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Father Bernas is for social justice and human rights. Father Bernas is for all of us. That’s the legend of Father Bernas. That’s our story of hope. Let’s always find strength in that—one tomorrow at a time. We love you and cheers, Fr. B.
Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, died March 6, 2021, age 88.