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Rudy Fernandez: books, caterpillars, and Culion

Today, Fr Rudy passed away. I remember him a kind person full of wisdom and wit when I interviewed him for an article for The Crusader Pub. 

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Rudy Fernandez: books, caterpillars, and Culion
By Louren B. Aranas

Seventy years ago, he was a sickly and inquisitive boy whose childhood in an island ignited his love for nature and lepers. Today, he resides in the city and helps enrich the spiritual lives of people through the Holy Mass and confession.

‘Atmosphere of service’

Rodolfo V. Fernandez, SJ, or Rudy, as he is fondly called, was born in September 15, 1929 to a 19-year-old woman and an employed nurse.

Growing up in Culion, Palawan—a leper colony—Fr. Rudy said he lived in an atmosphere of service. “All these things that we are talking about now, [such as] service for the marginalized in our fancy terms were already done in those years… Everyone was a man for others in Culion.”

He describes going to the island as a big sacrifice in itself: recreation, movies, radio, and television were non-existent, newspapers were a week late upon delivery, and a trip to and from Manila took a week.

Nobody wanted to be with the lepers as their condition was thought to be contagious, hence some people, like his father, were required to work there. “Things [got] together,” Rudy says of his father ending up as a nurse when he originally wanted to become a sailor. “If my father didn’t misspend his tuition, he wouldn’t have become a nurse. He wouldn’t have been assigned to Culion [and] he wouldn’t have met my mother. I wouldn’t have been born.”

His childhood also included looking up to priests who originated from faraway countries—all of whom engaged in missionary work in the island. (As a boy, he once reflected, “What made them do this?”) While they were a huge influence in his choice to enter priesthood, they didn’t directly persuade him to do so. “I’m more of an introspective type. In a sense, nobody preaches to me. I observe.”

Meanwhile, his decision to become a Jesuit didn’t immediately receive approval, as the priests thought he should be better off helping his family after his mother was widowed at 32 and him being the eldest of six. “Maybe it’s a thing that attracted me more,” he quips, “You know, you’re a teenager [and are more attracted to things people prohibit you to do]. I don’t think it was a psychological tactic [to convince me].” 

He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1946, was ordained as a priest in 1962 in Taiwan, and took his final vows in 1964 in Japan.

The bookworm

As a boy, he suffered from asthma and pneumonia; he couldn’t play outdoors as much as other children did. With a frail body, his mother became overprotective over the young Rudy. “Konting pawis lang, pupunasan na,” he shares. The hours spent at home developed his immense love for books, all of which his father gave him as Christmas and birthday gifts. He recalls, “Until he (his father) died when he was 39, and I was 13, his last gift to me was a book. One of the greatest gifts that he gave to me was his love for books.”

From Stevenson’s Treasure Island which he first read as a five-year-old boy, he often reads about history, philosophy, and psychology. “I correlate with my experiences. I don’t just read, I reflect.” People, he observes, mistake him doing nothing as he loves spending time quietly.

His recent homily in a wedding also had a tinge of science: “We’re made up of invisible things: atoms, nucleus, protons, etc. What struck me is, the particles that attract each other need a certain space. If they’re too far from each other, they won’t attract. If they’re too close, they will repel. [In the context of relationships], we all need space…” 

A five- to seven-minute homily, usually entails a two-hour preparation with him reflecting under a tree. Without knowing it, he says, perhaps his parents prepared him for contemplation.

Working with ‘caterpillars’

Rudy was also a basketball coach to middle school boys and a chaplain in Ateneo de Manila High School and XUHS, hence, his work involved mostly the youth. For a good part of his 45 years as a Jesuit missionary, he also taught high school in Kobe and Tokyo, Japan.

In relation to his work, Fr. Rudy shares a memory of stomping on a caterpillar when he was around seven and thinking that his father would praise him for the display of bravery. 

“He told me, ‘You didn’t kill a caterpillar, you killed a butterfly. Would you kill a beautiful and frail butterfly? No.’ I think that’s why I worked with adolescents and teenagers. These little angels in grade school, they become ugly like caterpillars in high school. It’s only a stage, I tell the parents. Show them that you love them even when they’re ugly. That’s the only way they’ll become beautiful.”    

* * *

As life took him to various destinations through the years, his view on human introspection never wavered off.

“We’re always in a hurry, we live in a fast food culture. Our culture now is instant gratification—the faster the better,” Fr. Rudy emphasized on the need to reflect in contemporary times, “If you want to think and ruminate, you need a little space and time.”

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