“A little great man”: that is how the Br. Emilio Barcena talked about Brother Romualdo Fernandez while smiling. “He was not big in size, but he was a great man of faith, heart and intelligence,” continued Br. Emilio.
When anybody met Br. Romualdo, the first thing that struck them was his smile, his ability to be welcoming and his desire to serve the Custody and those that it had entrusted to him.
Disease brought an end to Br. Romualdo’s suffering. Despite that, he was able to face it head on. But his real suffering, that of his later years, was to see Syria torn apart, with people suffering and a destroyed heritage.
Born in 1937, Br. Romualdo, of the Franciscan province of Granada, arrived in the Holy Land in 1960 for his theological studies in Jerusalem and then Cairo. He never left the Middle East, where the Custody entrusted him with important, diverse responsibilities. Alternately he was a parish priest, the head of the seminary, a delegate to the North African conference, responsible for “works in favor of the Copts,” and master of novices. He spent his life between between Egypt and Syria, where he returned to in 1993 and where he lived most of his life in the service of the Franciscan Custody.
Having returned to Damascus in 1992, he was made responsible for the restoration and development of the Memorial of St. Paul where he had the joy of welcoming Pope John Paul II in 2001.
The last time he came to Jerusalem in 2012, he had one concern: “The conflict threatens the whole of Syria’s heritage. Br. Ignacio Pena and I took thousands of photos; they must be scanned and I must be able to caption them.” The scanning job is in progress, but Br. Romualdo will not have the time to write the captions. He had hoped, however, do so from the infirmary of the Custody to which he wished to dedicate his last bit of strength beginning next September.
During all of his years in Syria, he traveled throughout the country with Brs. I. Pena and P. Castellana. Together they wrote several works on monasticism in Syria (Syrian recluse, 1980; The Stylites Syrians, 1987, and Syrian Cenobites, 1988) and published illustrated books of pictures taken in these ancient monasteries. With these same two friars, he published four inventories on the mountain ranges in the Syrian Limestone Massif where one can find the remains of ancient villages with their public buildings, their churches and their décor (Inventory of Jebel Baricha, 1987; Inventory of Jebel A’ala, 1990; Inventory of Jebel Wastani, 1999. Inventory of Jebel Dweili, 2000).
In recent years, while still working with a Syrian archeologist Widad Khoury of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, in a study entitled “Archaological Study on the Early Christian period, Constantine’s monuments between written tradition and archeological evidence.”
Widad Khoury admired the inventory work of the three Franciscans that she summarized in the following way: “Each book consists of three parts; the first is dedicated to an overall presentation of Jebel, its history, its economy and its development. The major religious and public monuments are presented in the second part with their descriptions and plans explained by the authors or reproduced from earlier publications. The third part is dedicated to the various décors and inscriptions found in the region.”
This shows how much the three religious left their mark on the history of Christianity in Syria. And like the Custos of the Holy Land, Br. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, recalled: “This work is what remains today of these missing sites that were looted or destroyed since the war began in Syria.”
Fr. Barcena also explained that the good priests, two Spaniards and an Italian, published in French because it is the language in which the works had the best chance of finding a publisher in Syria and of being released in the Middle East and the world.
“Romualdo did not speak Arabic very well,” recalled Br. Emilio Barcena. But he always allowed himself to be understood; he always reached his goals and he was above all always loved. He was always the most popular. He was fantastic!”
Jerusalem, 15 December 2015
We inform you that our brother, Fr. Romualdo Fernandez, OFM
has returned to the House of his Father this morning at the French Hospital in Damascus.
The Secretariat of the Holy Land