The clerical collar didn’t make the man. He enhanced it. The power of his moral suasion and clarity didn’t come from what was around his neck but what flowed from his character.
It was the grace and humility, compassion and humor, the voice used as a soft hymn to privately comfort the grieving, then used as a public trumpet for social justice that made Father Eddie Bernal one of San Antonio’s most revered citizens, a man who left us no bad memories except for the moment we heard of his unexpected death.
Within hours of that news, two videos of Eddie popped up on Facebook. One was from 2012 in Temple Beth-El when, wearing his clerical collar, he spoke out against an attack on a Sikh house of worship and pleading, as he tirelessly did, for love, understanding and inclusion.
The other video was from last year and shows him — sans clerical collar — playing the drums at a high school reunion. He loved music, especially San Antonio’s soulful “West Side Sound,” including The Royal Jesters, Sonny Ozuna, The Tribute Band and anything sung by any member of the Garibay family.
He was a man of great conscience and conviviality. He was called to the priesthood while in his 30s. Funny, charismatic and effortlessly charming, Eddie looked like a movie star playing the role of a priest.
This led women to tag him with one of San Antonio’s most famous nicknames: “Father What-a-Waste.”
About 10 years ago, I was with Eddie at an event in Boerne. If Eddie was going to dinner or a function and knew he’d have even one drink, he wouldn’t drive. So I or one of his many other friends would pick him up from the rectory and drive him back afterward.
Eddie wasn’t wearing his clerical collar in Boerne, and throughout the evening, two women flirted with him and asked him what he did for a living. Eddie told them to guess. As they offered wrong answers, he asked them about their lives, their families, their interests.
As the event drew to a close, one of the women said, “Come on, Eddie, tell us what you do.” Eddie said, “OK, but you’re going to be very disappointed.”
This week, we grieve the loss of this man who was for many of us one of the most significant figures in our lives, and we think of the two most special people in his life: his big brother, Dr. Ernesto Bernal, and his sister-in-law, Carmen Tafolla, the word sorceress who was San Antonio’s first poet laureate.
Eddie once said, “We can’t be blind to the prophets such as Jeremiah and Amos. We must be against anything that hurts the poor.”
His was the prophetic voice of a parish priest whose parish extended beyond the St. Benedict community and whose flock included those of different denominations and faiths, and those of no faith.
I thought of Eddie the first time I read in “Les Misérables” Victor Hugo’s description of Monseigneur Bienvenu: “The formidable spectacle of created things prompted a tenderness in him; he was always busy finding for himself and inspiring in others the best way of sympathizing and comforting; the whole world was to this good and rare priest a permanent subject of sadness seeking to be consoled.”
Eddie Bernal would have done much good no matter his profession. But donning the clerical collar let him expand the parish of his concerns and become a part of more of our lives. Not a waste at all.
Cary Clack for the Express-News