//Fr. Bento Fernandes, SJ (GUJ) (1941-2018)

Fr. Bento Fernandes, SJ (GUJ) (1941-2018)

It was in 1965 that I met Bento for the first time when he joined the novitiate at Sadhana Bhavan in Mount Abu. I was doing my second year of juniorate there and studying Gujarati. He was already a mature young man of twenty-four having worked before he joined the novitiate. The decision to join the Jesuits must have been very tough for him as he was the only son of his widowed mother and the bread winner of the family. Later in his formation when someone asked him if his was a late vocation he said “no, mine is a delayed vocation!” He was a man bubbling with life and with quick and sharp answers when asked any question.  Fr. Anton D’Souza, of happy memory, was his guardian angel. Both of them having joined the novitiate after working for some time and being relatively older than their companions enjoyed certain privileges in the formation houses but they always accommodated themselves with their younger companions and took part in all the activities of the formation. Anton was more of the “pious” type and being the senior in the Society tried to mould Bento according to his mentality.  But Bento was quite a different personality and was always questioning and challenging many things in formation. As he himself mentioned several times his inspiration for his vocation came from the Legion of Mary where he was an active member.

Bento and I became good friends when we were in the theologate. He was a second year theologian when I was in the first year.  It was the time soon after the II Vatican Council and changes had started taking place in the Church and in a very special way in the Society.  The 32nd GC and its Decree 4 ‘option for the poor’, did affect and challenge many of us. Simplicity of life and the prophetic aspect of our vocation attracted us. It was a call for many of us to live the talk.  Bento and two other theologians decided to live in the slums of Ramwadi among the poor. There they lived their convictions by following a very simple life while attending classes in De Nobili College. Theirs was a very challenging and exemplary life. Living there they tried to actualize their theology and their Jesuit commitment. They were wedded to a simple and hard life that when the time came for the ordinations they decided they would not spend any money on the celebration. In spite of Bento being the only son of his widowed mother, who after having sacrificed her son for the Society and was eagerly awaiting this great occasion, he decided that he would  not have any celebration for his ordination. The only thing he gave after the ordination was just one glass of ‘Rasna’ for those who came for the ordination service. It must have been painful for his mother and hard for him and his companions. But Bento took that decision because he wanted to be a follower of Jesus the poor and wanted to serve the poor of our country by his own example. We were all impressed by this austerity and some of us were motivated to do the same for their own ordinations.

Together with Fr. Varghese Mannarkulath I had begun youth camps, when I was doing my philosophy studies; we had started a youth organization called ‘Tarunodaya Mandal’. Bento appreciated it much and wanted to join us in that work. As I knew Bento was a critical and challenging person I was a bit afraid to work with him since I thought he would criticize our work and we would have some problems working together. However, we took it as a challenge and invited Bento to work with us. Contrary to my fears, Bento’s joining our team was a turning point in our youth work. Bento helped us to do it more effectively and attractively. For me personally, Bento was a great help and support. He challenged our methods and approach and would question us regarding the effectiveness and usefulness of all our activities and sessions. In one of his interviews with Gurjarvani he says his main intention to join ‘Tarunodaya Mandal’ was to get chance to come to the province often. However, once he was with us he plunged fully in the camps and he did a very good job. It helped us to use our creativity and to make the camps very popular among the youth. The outcome was much more than we expected. Bento was a good counsellor, a very good friend of the youth and a very challenging and helpful companion in our work. As we experienced in the youth camps and during the theologate, Bento was a good listener and a very effective counsellor. His challenging the people to face reality helped many to experience internal freedom. The Superiors thought of preparing him for formation. However, as he went through the training of Sadhana and Tony De Mello, he was told that his hard ways will not be helpful in formation. This was a great disappointment for Bento. However, he used his knowledge and talents to guide many people, lay and religious, in retreats and in personal counselling. He continued with this apostolate, helping many, till his death.

I believe God has his ways to fulfil his plans, and hence whatever happens in our life is under the care of the Lord. I personally think that if Bento was assigned to formation he would have helped to form a tougher group of Jesuits to carry on the prophetic mission entrusted to us. The fear was his tough and frank talk might offend many people. But we realize now we need today such people who can face the tough and disturbing reality of the times. Bento’s challenges and support have in a big way helped me personally and many others who went through our training.  

One of the characteristics of Bento was, that he was a man who could think ‘out of the box’ and ready to face, if need be, the consequences. He used to tell me that he can think differently and can get new ideas. But he needs someone to put those ideas into practice. He was a very intelligent and understanding person. His diabetes led him to impatience and to have a great desire for sweets and rich food. This was perhaps one of the reasons that shortened his life. His influence on the youth was very high. Even after many years they used come to him for counselling and advice. Many of those present at his funeral service testify to that.

Bento, my friend,  as I write this obituary, I want to express my gratitude and love for your friendship and contribution in my personal life and also  in my apostolate of training different groups. You were indeed a good companion, a valuable friend and a very effective counsellor.

  • Fr. Xavier Manjooran