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Sainthood cause launched for young Filipino Jesuit, who offered life for students

Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference

Brother Richie Fernando's death may be one of the first examples of Pope Francis' new criteria for canonization

One of the newest causes for canonization to be introduced under Pope Francis’ “new way” of becoming a saint is a young member of his own order.

Richard “Richie” Fernando was a 26-year-old Filipino Jesuit brother who died saving his Cambodian students in 1996. Father Antonio Moreno, head of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines, told the Filipino website Rappler days before the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of  the Jesuits, that the order will work on having Fernando beatified.

Fernando was killed on Oct. 17, 1996, after he tried to stop a student from releasing a grenade in a school for the handicapped in Cambodia. Fernando grabbed the student and shielded him and others from the explosion.

A Facebook group called Friends of Bro. Richie R. Fernando SJ said the young Jesuit “chose to be a missionary in Cambodia, so as to help war victims, mangled by landmines, to start anew through vocational training. He also made them feel that they are loved and that there is still hope even in a world deranged by secularism.”

The announcement that Fernando’s cause for beatification will be introduced came just weeks after Pope Francis approved of a new pathway that can lead to canonization, oblatio vitae, “the offering of one’s life.” Criteria for this would included a free and voluntary offering of one’s life, and heroic acceptance, motivated by charity, of certain imminent death.

Father Moreno said that the Jesuit Superior General, Father Antonio Sosa, authorized the petition “to initiate and do the spadework” leading to opening Fernando’s cause. That will include gathering data, interviewing people, collecting evidence from those who know the seminarian, gathering his letters, writings, and talks.

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

The website of the Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference gives more details about Fernando’s life. Fernando went to Cambodia for his Regency, three years in which a seminarian does apostolic work. He worked at Banteay Prieb, a a Jesuit institution set up in 1990 to provide vocational training for people disabled by landmines, polio and accidents to enable them to earn a living, about 14 miles from from Phnom Penh:

One of the students was an orphan named Sarom, who became a soldier at 16 and was maimed by a landmine two years later. Sarom had finished his courses at Banteay Prieb and wanted to stay on, but the school authorities found him disruptive and asked him to leave. Richie had mentioned Sarom in a letter to his friends in the Philippines, saying that although Sarom was “tricky” he still had a place in Richie’s heart.

On October 17, 1996, Sarom came to the school for a meeting with the school director and staff. Angered, he suddenly reached into a bag he was carrying, pulled out a grenade, and began to move towards a classroom full of students. The windows of the classroom were barred, leaving the students no escape. Richie went behind Sarom and grabbed him.

“Let me go, teacher; I do not want to kill you,” Sarom pleaded. But he dropped the grenade, and it fell behind him and Richie. In a flash Richie was dead, falling over with Sarom still in his arms, protecting him from the explosion.

Fernando’s parents wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, asking for pardon for Sarom.

Father Moreno 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.”

Rappler noted that many young Catholics in the Philippines consider Fernando a role model. It said that one of Fernando’s most popular quotes comes from a letter to a friend and fellow seminarian, written four days before Fernando died.

“I know where my heart is,” Fernando wrote. “It is with Jesus Christ, who gave all for the poor, the sick, the orphan.”

In a diary, Fernando once talked about how he hoped to be remembered.

“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,” he wrote.

That desire may yet come to be fulfilled.




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