Though he knew, even as a child, that he wanted to become a priest, after entering the seminary he criticized its formation program for not being relevant enough to the people’s needs. As a result, he and 10 other classmates were asked to transfer to another seminary. He did finish his theology studies, though, and was ordained priest in 1974.
His first assignment was to serve the Dumagat communities in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija and in Dingalan, deep in the mountains of the Sierra Madre in Luzon. As parish priest, he tried to integrate his own worldview and that of the Dumagat, who live very close to nature. Apparently he was able to touch their hearts, for it was said that some of them were willing to walk days, even weeks, to hear Bernardo – Father Pites to them – give one of his simple sermons.
Bernardo also organized adult literacy programs, urging the Dumagat to think critically and to speak out against injustice. The problems of body and soul had to be tackled together, he said. By then he had become a member of the Christians for National Liberation.
In 1977 he joined the Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines where he served as coordinator for the Sierra Madre area.
Twice, Bernardo was detained by the military. The first time was in 1980, in Isabela, when he was questioned for being in possession of a slide projector which the local police authorities said was banned in the area. He was taken to Bicutan Rehabilitation Center and from there released a few months later, on Dec. 24, 1980, in time for the visit to the Philippines of Pope John Paul II.
It didn’t take long for the police to rearrest Bernardo, this time in Baler, Quezon, in August 1981. The torture he underwent while being interrogated was unusually harsh for a priest – “water cure,” suffocation with a plastic bag, electric shocks, being made to lie on a block of ice, being burned with live cigarette butts, and solitary confinement.
His arrest was denounced by many, and petitions for his release and those of other political prisoners poured in from various groups abroad. Eventually, the military released Bernardo into the custody of Pampanga Bishop Oscar Cruz. He went on to serve as chaplain of the Pampanga parochial hospital and as seminary instructor. He also continued to minister to the needs of poor people. He left for a heart bypass in the United States, but returned to resume his pastoral work after the operation.
Bernardo died in 1985 at the age of 35. He was on board a vehicle with three companions when their vehicle was rammed by a six-wheeler truck. His companions survived their injuries but Bernardo died on the spot. No investigation was made about the incident.