He Will Never Grow Old

By Totet Banaynal, SJ

It was October 17, 1996. The Jesuits in their theological formation had just arrived form a three-day rest in a beach in Tali, Batangas. Refreshed, everyone was in high spirits as they took their lunch in the refectory of the Loyola House of Studies in the Ateneo de Manila University.

Suddenly the house went black. News came that Richie Fernando, a young Filipino Jesuit missionary in Cambodia was dead. At 9:30 that morning, Richie tried to stop a troubled student in the Technical School for the Handicapped from throwing a hand grenade at a class of other handicapped students most already injured by landmines. Her ordered the other to run away and tried to restrain the young man. However, the grenade fell behind Riche and the powerful explosion inside the school building hit Richie in the base of the skull, the upper and lower back and his legs. As he was hit, he flew into the air and dropped on his back but in the process fully shielded the man who wielded the grenade from being hit. Two other handicapped students also suffered from minor injuries but the rest of the students were safe. In a second, Richie was lying dead on a pool of blood gushing out from his back. It was his last act of love for his students and friends in this foreign land.

For two weeks after that. Newspapers in Manila acknowledge Richie’s offering of life:

“Young Jesuits Scholastic Gives Up Life For Others”
(Philippine Inquirer)“A Hero’s Death” (Business World)
“Slain Filipino Missionary Honored” (Philippines Star)
“Filipino Dies in Cambodia Saving Others From Blast” (Manila Times)“Young Man-for-Others” (Philippines Star)
“Pinoy in Cambodia: Jesuits Dies Saving Lives”
(From the Page, Philippine Inquirer)
“Richie Fernando, SJ, Martyr” (Malaya)
“President Fidel V. Ramos lauds Filipino Missionary
(Philippines Inquirer)

Richie Fernando was only 26 years old when he died. He was a graduate of Development Studies in the Ateneo de Manila University. Right after college, he joined the Society of Jesus. On the first night they met in a conference, his novice master, Fr. Jose Blanco, SJ asked him, “You are only twenty years old, why are you in a hurry for the priesthood?” Richie replied, “I am not in a hurry; I think the Lord is in a hurry with me.”

In May 1995, after finishing his philosophical studies at the Ateneo de Manila University, Richie was sent to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for his Regency. For Jesuits, Regency is that stage of formation after Philosophical studied wherein one is missioned to join a community of Jesuits and their apostolic works for one or two years.

The first thing that Richie did when he arrived in Cambodia was to study the Khmer language for three months. He learned how to read and speak very easily as he played with sentences and word and spoke the language without fear of making mistakes. But such love and zeal for the language endeared him to the Cambodians. After doing his language studies, Richie worked actively in the Technical School for the Handicapped, 25 kilometers away from Phnom Pehn.

A Troubled Past

All the students in this school here are either polio or landmine victims. The landmine victims number more than the polio victoms. This is because Cambodia is one of the heaviest mined areas in the world. Landmines are small mines buried in the ground which explode when someone or something trips on then or when a small amount of pressure is exerted on them. Most of the landmines in Cambodia do not have self-detonating mechanism and are estimated to remain active for decades where they are laid. The estimates of landmines present in Cambodia’s mined provinces amount to about 10 million. Considering the lack of funds and lack of technology to remove the mines, it may still take a hundred years or so before the mined fields can be safe again.

But this is not all there is to the experience of these students. They had been through the horrors of the time when bombs almost equal to the whole number of bombs dropped during the world War II were drooped in there country just before 1975. Then there was the horror of the Pol Pot Regime from 1975 to 78 where they witnessed members of their family being tortured and killed. Communities dispersed and city centers emptied. Recent estimated say that about 2 million Cambodian’s died or were killed during that time. From 1979, the whole country was subjected to Vietnamese rule and heavy fighting. Their was mass evacuation and many Cambodians fled out of their country landing in refugee centers in the Thai-Cambodia Border, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and others. at present, most of the Cambodians are still struggling to gather and rebuild their lives again.

Richie, A Big Brother

That is the background of Richie’s students who are mostly farmers or former soldiers. They come to school to study one year basic skill in carpentry, sculpture, welding, electronics, machine repair and agriculture so they can be self-reliant when they go back to their villages. All their needs from food, health care, housing needs, family problems study materials are taken care of by the school and they would go to Richie for these needs.

Richie was very dear to them, he was their big brother. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, he would go to visit them in their cottages to see to it their needs and to be a friendly presence who was ready to settle differences, give advice and provide a listening ear to their problems.

Richie was one of them. He delighted in having to join the students in their meals. He ate whatever is served to him. He ate snake, frog, gecko and any kind of vegetables with them. At times he would also cook for them and teach them how to cook his favorite Filipino dishes: adobo, mechado and crispy pata. He also loved playing volleyball and basketball with them. In the afternoon, he would be there in the basketball court he had made for the handicapped, playing with students who dribbled the ball while they mover a about in wheelchairs.

On the day he died, Sr. Denise Coghlan, Richie’s team leader write: “Richie had an extraordinary heart for the disabled.”.” his most recent work at the Center of the Dove (where the Technical school is located) had been welcoming new women and m en for their preparatory literacy and numeracy training, and preparing for a wonderful festival for 300 graduates from the fives years at the Center. This fiesta scheduled for November 1.”

Dying For Friends

Four days before he died, he wrote and eleven page letter to his close friend in the Philippines, pouring his heart out:

I know where my heart is... it is with Jesus Christ, Jesus who gave his all for the poor, the sick, the orphan... I am confident and inspired, though I feel tired physically, mentally and emotionally at times. I am confident that God never forgets His people: our disabled brothers and sisters. And I am glad that god had been using me to make sure t hat our brothers and sisters know this fact. I am convinced that this is my vocation/mission.

I honestly believe that to die for our friends her will be greatest gift that God can give us. And I continually pray for that grace everyday.

When Jesuits at Loyola House knew of the real story behind Richie’s death and the nobleness of his offering, the gloom which had filled the house slowly changed into a quite grace of joy giving us all the inspiration and the courage to continue the mission God has given to us.

Richie’s retreat Diary January 3, 1996.

“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 with all my works and actions, in other words I loved and I followed Christ. Amen

“Before Richie’s Death, he planned to write an article for MISYON which received regularly in Cambodia.”