Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Homily: "Remembering Fr. Joey" by Fr. Ben Nebres, S.J.

From the Ateneo Blueboard:


Wake Mass for Fr. Joey Fermin, S.J.
Ateneo Grade School Chapel
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rev. Fr. Bienvenido F. Nebres, S.J.
Ateneo de Manila University

Last night Fr. Rene Javellana gave a beautiful and moving homily, remembering Fr. Joey from his high school years to the years of friendship and shared passion for Japanese anime, tales of the samurai and the code of the warrior, to Joey's illness and entering the journey we all must take some day. It is a homily only a brother who knew Joey intimately could give.

I know Joey from a different perspective and, in some ways, at some more distance. We first got to talk around year 2000 when he was planning to take physics courses in Ateneo college in preparation for moving into science education. I was very happy to chat with him and discuss future plans for an area, that is very important for Ateneo and for Philippine education. As it turned out, this interest and the year he spent studying physics helped when the Ateneo Grade School began to embark on strengthening our science program with the help of Dr. Achoot Cuyegkeng and others in Ateneo College.

A year later we were in search of a new Headmaster for the Ateneo Grade School and a fellow Jesuit talked to me and said that I should consider Joey. I thus spoke to him and also asked Fr. Provincial if he could be considered. It helped the Search Committee, of course, that they remembered him as a Grade School Student. (The picture on his coffin was when he was in Grade 7). Ixie Alejo, who was in grade school at the same time (not at the Ateneo, of course), remembers tagging along with her father, Jess Palma, on the annual camping trips of the boy scouts. She recalls, "Dad and mom thought we could be useful serving the boys their meals.
Fr. Joey loved the longganisa I was assigned to serve at breakfast and would keep coming back for more..."

I spent many sessions with Fr. Joey, going through concerns of the Grade School and the challenges he faced as a young, inexperienced leader. It was an important period of growth and change for the Ateneo Grade School. In his term we saw the full implementation of the division into a 4-4 system, a 4-year Primary School and a 4-year Middle School so as to be able to attend better to the different development needs of the boys. We introduced a Crossing Over ceremony to mark the transition from Primary to Middle School, which is also a transition from childhood to young adolescence. Important initiatives like the Reading Programs, Class Teacher Scheme, Collaborative Lesson Planning and benchmarking with Singapore strengthened academic performance.

The Bigay Puso and other programs for formation of the heart were continued and strengthened. In some ways, his final contribution was the construction of what is now Fermin Hall, home to Grades 4 and 5, allowing us to give distinct spaces for the Primary and the Middle School. We are so happy that he was still well enough to attend the blessing of Fermin Hall and the inauguration of the Grade School Heritage Room last December 2.

In the process of preparing for a new Headmaster, when his term was ending and he was due to leave for tertianship, our process team held FGDs with different groups. Bopeep Franco, who is with us tonight, shared a note she wrote to Fr. Joey at that time. I do not think it would violate confidentiality at this time if I quote from it: Bopeep wrote to Fr. Joey: We did the FGD for all faculty, administrators and parents. We asked many questions, but what I found quite significant in their response was their mention of several "strengths" of the Grade school that the parents want to see continued. First, they said, you had very good rapport with the boys at all levels. They appreciate that you are approachable and accessible to the students. What they hear from their sons, is that Fr. "Joey is like a friend, and he even shares his dog with us"!. The parents said that when your dog was lost (?) many children were very sad and upset. (His love for the boys and ease of interaction with them is remembered by the whole community.) Second, they like that you have communicated and instilled a sense of "simplicity" among the students. I asked how you were able to do this, and they can't really pinpoint what you have done to achieve this, but they like the fact that the boys are conscious that they should not be too materialistic and "mabongga". They hope that the AGS education will foster this value so that their sons will grow up being "grounded" Third, they also highlighted your focus on the environment, specially waste management. The parents say that this is something that is difficult to learn at school, but during your time, they noticed that you gave this emphasis, and it was effective. Lastly, they also mentioned that along with your visibility and accessibility to the students, they also noted your constant concern about the surroundings and facilities. Some said that it was more likely that they would find you walking around checking on the facilities, and it gave them a good feeling that you were very hands-on! Bopeep ends: "So, there..just in case you have any doubts in your mind about the "impact" you made on parents while you were Headmaster - I hope this note lifts your spirit and make you smile." Thank you Bopeep for sharing this memory of parents.

I saw Joey as a younger brother. He saw me as coach and mentor. In the second half of his term, we were more systematic about coaching and Bopeep Franco and Gina Hechanova from CORD helped me to do this mentoring and coaching for our young leaders in the grade school and high school. What I valued most with Joey was his openness. He could accept feedback well, both positive and negative. I sometimes find it difficult and awkward to give feedback. But with Joey I could always be relaxed and forthright. We could talk openly and honestly about things. He was quite self-aware. He knew he enjoyed being with the boys, would stop and talk with them anywhere. He was happy about being close to many among the faculty, especially his administrative team. Helen Amante recalls: "He easily connects with our young children , faculty and parents. He is in the know of many personal details about us. where we were born, the job of our dads, how was our childhood, our family life and new things about us. And he succinctly remembers all these details." He also realized that he may not have reached out sufficiently well to some members of the community. He knew that he had a temper and would catch himself getting angry. Sometimes he would say, "I guess I am my father's son."

Like all of us, there were many sides to Fr. Joey. He had his tough side, but also his soft and caring side. He could give space to grow and discern and make decisions. But he could also be quick to admonish. One would not miss what he approves or disapproves of. When he was reflecting on what he had learned about leadership from his Grade School Headmaster experience, he said: In my younger days, my role model was General Patton, no nonsense, decisive, tough but caring. I realize now that leadership is multi-dimensional. People are diverse but you have to move them towards a common vision and mission. In our years of working together, I saw him growing and learning. I am saddened that in his last year as Headmaster, illness was already beginning to take its toll - on him physically and even on his temper and on his work. I am even more saddened that he never had the opportunity to move to new levels of leadership, which his insights were bringing him to. Around 9:30 pm last Saturday night, Karen Cardenas texted me "Just came from Fr. Joey. We had a long chat about his feelings on dying." Then a second text, "I think he has embraced going." I asked Karen last night if she would share more with me about Fr. Joey. She emailed me, I got to know Fr. Joey (who I always called Moises) when he started consulting on publication projects. Soon he was dropping by just to chat after President's Council meetings, or late in the evenings or during holidays when he would be jogging and he would see a light in my office when I'd be working overtime. He'd come in and spook me about ghosts on campus. Soon I was lending him my Sandman collection and we would talk about books we had read.Joey once asked her if she had watched "The Bucket List." I had not, so I had to check it out on the internet. I realized then that indeed Joey had made his own bucket list in the coaching sessions he had with Bopeep. Among them, he would have liked to travel, to see the world, to discover things, to walk through history in Greece and other places. Bopeep said she was sad that he never fulfilled his dream of walking through Greece.With me, we spoke of his dreams of doing further studies, a PhD or MS in Science Education or Basic Education, or to do more studies in Financial Management. To Fr. Jojo and Fr. Bobby Yap, one of the things on his bucket list was to learn more financial management for the Ateneo or the Province. He said, "I want to make money grow."In particular, we talked about the fact that in many ways he really is an engineer. He liked to build things, to organize things. You could see that when he would stand outside the Grade School gate and direct and organize traffic. In fact, Bopeep told me that she was here when his body arrived yesterday morning and people were taking so long trying to position the coffin that she thought Fr. Joey would stand up and give them directions. In one of our last conversations, Joey and I agreed that he might be best and be happiest working with Lee Miralao in the Ateneo Physical Plant. This was in his bucket list and he was looking forward to that. He would text me about it and Anellin in Mr. Miralao's office says that he would tell her that he looked forward to working with them. I feel sad that he never had the chance to live these dreams. Karen says that Joey told her, "Mumultuhin kita." I do not know if he has done that yet. But early Monday morning, Helen retells: 'Hey Helen!' , he woke me up from my sleep. It was an unwelcome visit which caused me to tremble but I saw his youthful face , happy inside a white and golden radiance. It was 2:35 am, a few hours after the demise of Fr. Joey.

In her last visit, Karen asked Joey, "Are you Sad? Happy? Afraid? Excited? Karen says: "He answered yes to all, and told me why, but he paused longest at "are you afraid" and nodded "I am happy I will see God face-to face but I am also afraid to see him face-to-face. and then said what I will always remember: "I see myself as Frodo Baggins, staff in hand, ready for the final adventure.""

Perhaps this is one way we might remember Joey. He may not have fulfilled the dream in his bucket list of visiting Greece and other places of history. Nor that of making the Province's money grow. But he stood as a good warrior before his final adventure: "I see myself as Frodo Baggins, staff in hand, ready for the final adventure."

Goodbye Joey, dear brother and friend. Thank you for your love, leadership and friendship. May the Lord and our Mother be there to welcome you to your final adventure and home.



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