OUR FATHER ERBIN FERNANDEZ
Father Erbin Fernandez, age 44, is a priest and a man who serves till exhausted and does not fear to acknowledge his frailties and his struggles with the priesthood
AT THE PARISH of the Imaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) where he grew up, he loved hanging out at church, playing soccer, polishing candle stands and washing the church floor.
“At that time, we all worked together and had a great sense of ownership in the parish… it was our second home,” he explained.
He also remembers fondly the inspiration he found in Fathers Louis Loiseau and Pierre Barthoulot, MEP priests then serving in the parish.
Father Loiseau treated altar servers to ice-cream at A&W after funerals.
Father Barthoulot took him to the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association to help in the preparation for Mass. There, witnessing the elderly residents line up patiently to have their confession heard, including “those who might have had some slight altercations with Father Bartholout a few moments ago”, made a big impression on the young boy.
He realised then that these people saw a different dimension to a priest. “It struck me because I realised no matter how much I worked to serve, to touch people … it was not enough. I then knew I wanted to serve them the way Father Bartholout did – as a priest.”
After getting into the flow of activities in response to the priests’ invitation to participate and help, the young Erbin began to think, ‘this isn’t so bad’, and decided to become a priest too. He wanted to be just like the two Fathers he admired. “Back then, you know you can always count on those priests... whether they were having a good day or a bad one, they were there.”
Being a priest, Father Erbin thought “I was going to save the world and give it to Jesus” and he poured himself out in his first parish assignment in Church of St. Michael after his ordination on Jan 2, 1995.
The frenetic pace at which he pushed himself proved too much and within a year and a half, he realised that he needed to slow down. He obtained permission from Archbishop Gregory Yong for a one-year sabbatical.
The year at Madonna House in Canada – a place that takes literally “the restoration of all things in Christ” ... “from a broken cup to a broken person” – recharged him spiritually.
Father Erbin was posted to Church of the Holy Family from March 1998 to January 2004 and there he practised his ideal of the priesthood – to be all things to all people. He was “saying ‘yes’ to every need”, parish priest Father Patrick Goh remembers. “Often, by Monday morning, he is sighing loudly from tensed muscles and body aches, to being sick.”
The two priests spent many hours discussing the parish’s pastoral issues. “He would drop in my office, sit himself down comfortably and start talking, talking... while I listen and give my comments,” Father Patrick says. “We did not always conclude with a solution but it was a good exchange and we understood each other better. Whenever he advocated something he believed in, he was respectful of other views and prepared to listen.”
After the busy years at Holy Family, Father Erbin spent the years 2004 to 2008 at the Rosehill Campus of Fordham University, New York, studying for his Doctorate in Religious Education. On his return to Singapore, Archbishop Nicholas Chia appointed him Director of Catechetics at the Singapore Pastoral Institute in August 2008.
Placed in that position of responsibility, he asks himself, “How does one engage in religious education in this kind of climate?” and replies to himself, “I feel a great need to re-propose the Tradition of the Church as truly a reasonable way of living, especially for our young people.”
“We want a happiness for them that lasts forever. Young people want to believe in such a happiness but, sadly, because of a lack of witnesses, that is seen as being rather idealistic. Of course I am speaking of a happiness that allows us to face incredible suffering and loss with certainty
? Beside Fathers Louis Loiseau and Pierre Barthoulot, his greatest role model is Pope John Paul II who taught him about “being”. “The measure of the performance is not in what he produces but in his being. There the man was, quivering, frail, standing at his window, and the world began to realise that what moved John Paul II was no sheer will power but a divine presence. He inspired my generation of priests to believe again in the power of prayer and the divine.”
? Father Erbin shuttles between SPI and Church of St. Vincent de Paul where he is currently serving as priest-in-residence because he wants to be “on the ground and in touch with the concrete pastoral reality” while working on preparing courses for catechetics. One of his favourite places is the adoration room, the other is jogging around the Seletar Estate.
? Father Erbin is in the process of drafting a new course of catechist formation that will help catechists to approach the act of catechesis as a craft. “Besides learning what to teach, catechists need to be able to integrate their catechesis within the liturgical life of the Church, the way faith was communicated in the early Church,” he says. The proposed course of formation will be launched in 2010.
By Joyce Gan