THE first thought of most Filipinos on learning of the passing of Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ was to wonder whether he died of the coronavirus.

Their next thought was to remember the Constitution, which he helped write as one of the 50 select members of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

Between these two Cs, the nation thought more of the Constitution than about the coronavirus. This, in our estimate, is the measure of this priest, lawyer and professor, and his significance and impact for our country and people.

It was striking that in announcing his death, the Ateneo de Manila University made no mention of the cause of death. It said only that he died on Saturday, March 6. He was 88.

The Ateneo de Manila University, speaking through its president, Fr. Roberto Yap SJ, said in a memo to the university community:

“With deep sadness, we inform the university community of the passing away of Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas SJ early this morning, March 6, 2021.” Ateneo called Fr. Bernas “a pillar of constitutional law not only in the Ateneo Law School but also in our country.”

Then followed the encomiums from many to the memory of the man and the many achievements of a long life dedicated to others and to his religion, teaching and writing, with occasional forays into public service.

Malacañang also conveyed its condolences and respects through a statement by Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr: “We express our condolences to the friends and colleagues of Fr. Joaquin Bernas…He left a legacy of legal excellence and passion for humanity and the rule of law to the nation. A great Jesuit educator, he mentored generations of Filipino students, lawyers, legal academics and researchers.”

The instinctive and near-universal recall of the Constitution at Bernas’ passing underscores his great contribution to the philosophy and practice of constitutionalism in the country. He embodied for many our bedrock principle of constitutional government.

Constitutionalism, simply stated, is the political philosophy or doctrine that a government’s authority is determined by a body of laws or constitution. Constitutionalism, sometimes regarded as a synonym for limited government, fundamentally refers to efforts to prevent arbitrary government and enforce restraint in governance, according to the text and meaning of the Constitution.

In a long career stretching more than half a century, Fr. Bernas expressed his constitutionalism through his teaching, his ministry, his writings, and in his books and a newspaper column, which he called “The Living Constitution.”

The column articles have been collected in a book series that coincided with various presidential administrations, notably the presidencies of Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada.

Through his columns and his books, Fr.Bernas became the country’s foremost authority on the Constitution and constitutional questions. For many among our people, he was an unfailing guide through the thickets of controversy and the great issues in public life and constitutional law.

Over the past decade, we did not hear his voice as much because his advanced years forced him into retirement from his executive positions in university life and the Jesuit community. He could not cast his searchlight on the Rodrigo Duterte presidency as he did on the predecessors. So, we have missed his counsel in the great contentions of our day.

Through all this, however, the great idea of constitutionalism and constitutional government abides in our nation’s life.

Fr. Bernas was indubitably right to speak of a living Constitution. The Constitution is a majestic document that speaks to us. Nothing in our public life is more substantive.