Fr. Bernas and Atty. Packers

By Luis Ruben M. General


Two lawyers died last week, peacefully, and both at the ripe old age of 88. So obviously they were not the lawyers in the news recently who were killed and almost killed in this long season of killings.

These two lawyers were high school classmates in that fabled Ateneo de Naga Class ’50. Atty. Francisco “Packers” Macandog, Jr. died Thursday, followed two days later by Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. Of course, the Fr. Bernas. Both got their law degrees from the Ateneo de Manila, although Atty. Macandog graduated 7 years ahead of Fr. Bernas who was already becoming a priest when he entered law school.


Ateneo de Naga High School Class ’50 is fabled because many considered it, although disputed almost violently by other classes, as the best class ever produced by the school. In their senior year, the Jesuits conducted a competitive examination among all Jesuit schools in the world. The examination was done almost simultaneously depending on the time zones and there could have been no leakages since the fastest communication was by radio, and no Jesuit anyway would have bothered to cheat.


Ateneo de Naga came out on top, beating them all (Ateneo de Manila included), with European and US Jesuit high schools also eating their dust. Other classes would have their own claims to fame, but in anybody’s book, the class of Fr. Bernas and Atty. Macandog would clearly come out as, yes, the best.


I am not a student of Fr. Bernas. My father honed me in Constitutional law, and then by the great Isagani Cruz. But his books contributed a lot to what I would know about the “most philosophical” subject in law, leading me to even, presumptuously perhaps, teach it.


I had seen him in person only a few times, the last was at my son’s graduation when I was able to finally shake his hand. The first time I have seen him up close was in a symposium here in Naga in a run-up to boycotting the Batasan elections in 1984. I was a very young lawyer then and of course struck in awe when he came up to speak. I could still remember his crisp, clear and elegant diction, and one thing that I would never forget is his argument about why the church is or should be involved in things political or worldly.


He mentioned the three “Ps” as the roles of the church: as Pastor, Prophet and Preacher. The church as Pastor should be concerned with the welfare of its flock, the Good Shepherd that must protect them from all evils, including evil committed by those in government; as Prophet, not one that predicts the future, but one that condemns and denounces evil, including most especially evil in society and politics; and as Preacher that teaches the right way for how people, including those in government, should respond to and resist evil.


After that talk, I would have a pathetic view of people accusing the church for meddling in politics.


Unlike Fr. Bernas, Atty. Packers was a close friend despite our age difference, at least for the past decade. Whenever he was in Naga, he would find time to call me and, with common friends, have rounds of drinks, mostly brandy.


In the last few years though, he grudgingly settled with red wine. Fr. Bernas, I was told by my uncle Honesto who was a close friend of his, was also considered a drinking legend. His favorite is the scotch with his initials, J & B. So I considered ourselves as kindred in spirits. There must be something in alcohol that not only bonds friendships but also extends living life in full, and hope it benefits mine.


Atty. Packers was in private practice almost throughout, based in Manila. In his last year, he was in Naga, holed up here due to the lockdown. We intended to visit him but got reminded that he was at an age most vulnerable to being gravely infected. He was still up and about before March last year even going up to my office to talk about cases. But I know that being prevented from going out could be bad for some people especially for one as amiable as Atty. Packers. In October, he began to weaken. I am sure though that he lived indeed a life in full.


Going back to Class ’50, there is another interesting thing I learned from Atty. Packers. On their graduation day, no one could yet determine who were to receive class honors, the valedictorian, salutatorian and down the line were yet to be known. They were already ready to march but the faculty was still in deliberation.


The aspirants for honors were separated only by decimal points and only their extra-curricular achievements would spell the difference. Finally, at the start of the program, the honors were announced.


Walter Ysaac was named the valedictorian. He too became a Jesuit, a top-notch theologian who came under the tutelage of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger who would later be Pope Benedict XVI.


Salutatorian was Fr. Bernas. First honorable was my uncle Rodolfo who would also become class valedictorian at ADMU Law; second honorable was Maximo Panelo, also getting to be valedictorian of Mapua Engineering and No. 1 in the Board Examinations for Civil Engineers (he was Dean of UNC Engineering for a long time); and third honorable was Paulo Elizan also becoming a lawyer graduating with honors at UP Law.


There is now only one member of that high school class still alive, Fr. Walter Ysaac, S.J., the class valedictorian. He outlived them all.