Killed Filipino Jesuit in Cambodia on road to sainthood

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Brother Richie Fernando, the 26-year-old Filipino Jesuit who died saving his Cambodian students in 1996, is on the road to sainthood.

Father Antonio Moreno, head of the Jesuits in the Philippines, told Rappler on Sunday evening, July 30, that their religious order will work on having Fernando declared a "blessed" and eventually a saint. 

Moreno made a similar announcement in a Mass on Sunday, the eve of the feast of Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

To be declared a "blessed" – or in Catholic terms, to be beatified – is the last major step before one can be canonized or proclaimed a saint. The Catholic Church considers saints as models and intercessors, as Catholics believe that worship belongs only to God.

If the Catholic Church beatifies and eventually canonizes him, Fernando will become the 3rd saint from the Philippines, and the first Filipino saint to have died in the late 1990s.

Fernando was killed on October 17, 1996, after he tried to stop his student, Sarom, from releasing a grenade in a school for the handicapped in Cambodia.

Fernando had grabbed Sarom, and shielded him and other students from the explosion. The Jesuit seminarian was the one who died.

The push for Fernando's sainthood comes after Pope Francis on July 11 said that those who made "a free and voluntary offer of life," which was "inspired and sustained by charity," can be beatified as long as they meet other criteria. This new path to sainthood, called "offer of life," is different from martyrdom due to hatred of the Catholic faith. 

Moreno explained that the worldwide head of the Jesuits, Superior General Father Antonio Sosa, has authorized his petition "to initiate and do the spadework leading to the opening of the cause of Richie."

In a memo to the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus on Monday, July 31, Moreno said Fernando is among many Jesuits who have imitated Saint Ignatius, "offering themselves in the self-sacrificing service of God and his people."

He also said that since Fernando's death, "various expressions of devotion to Richie have sprung up and continued, not just in the Philippines and Cambodia but in other places as well."

"I ask the prayers of all in the Province to beg the Lord's gracious assistance in this process that, if he so wills, it may prosper for the benefit of his people," Moreno said.

"I also thank and congratulate the parents and family of Richie, for so generously gifting the Society with him and for loyally standing by us over the years," he added.

'Still a long way to go'

Moreno said, however, that the Jesuits first "need to build a compelling case." 

He cited the need "to gather data, interview people, collect evidence from those who know him, get his letters, writings, talks, and so on." 

"Crucial is documentation and case building so when this gets to the competent authorities, he can be beatified and eventually canonized," the head of the Philippine Jesuits said. 

Moreno added that the Jesuits, formally known as the Society of Jesus, will also have to make a petition before the bishop of Phnom Penh. 

The petition will be to transfer the jurisdiction over Fernando's case to the Society of Jesus. This appeal has to be made before the bishop of Phnom Penh since Fernando was killed in his diocese. 

Moreno also said the cause for Fernando's beatification will undergo two phases.

In the diocesan phase, the Society of Jesus "will collaborate with the Diocese of Novaliches," since Fernando's family stays there.

In the Roman phase, the general postulator of the Society of Jesus "will be responsible for the cause" before the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. 

The general postulator "oversees the processes toward beatification or sanctification of Jesuits or people who have been commended to the Society of Jesus," according to the Jesuits' official website

Moreno pointed out that it is "still a long way to go" before Fernando can be beatified. 

Model for the youth

Even before this happens, however, many young Catholics in the Philippines have already considered Fernando a role model.

There is, in fact, a Facebook group in his honor, called "Friends of Bro. Richie R. Fernando SJ."  

The way Fernando lived his life from the 1970s to 1990s, aside from the way he died, has inspired Catholics in a country whose two native saints – Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod – were martyred in the 17th century. 

One of Fernando's most popular quotes comes from his letter to his friend and fellow Jesuit seminarian, Totet Banaynal, written 4 days before Fernando died. 

"I know where my heart is," Fernando told Banaynal. "It is with Jesus Christ, who gave all for the poor, the sick, the orphan."

Separately in his retreat diary, Fernando also once talked about his death. 

"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 followed Christ," said the 20th-century Jesuit who could become the 3rd Filipino saint. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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