Cardenal's memoir presents a man of great faith, humility

By Fr. Fernando Cardenal, S.J.
Published by Orbis Books, $29, 254 pages

Instead of cozying up to the rich and powerful, Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal, (1934-2016) who died Feb. 20, fought for the poor and oppressed. This memoir, which focuses on the 1970s to the 1990s, is a sometimes searing, always deeply-felt record of his efforts.

First published in 2009 as Junto A Mi Pueblo Con Su Revolucion, Memorias, the book has recently been released in English with the somewhat perfunctory title of Faith & Joy, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest. But the book’s Spanish title (Together With My People In Their Revolution) is more suggestive of Cardenal’s palpable love for the poor.

Early on, it occurred to Cardenal that Jesus taught the “Our Father” not just as a list of petitions, but as a reminder. We have, Cardenal insists, an obligation to make God’s kingdom come — with our own commitment and efforts. If we ask for the kingdom to come, it’s because it hasn’t come. So what does one need to do to make it come? His answer: Do as Jesus would do.

Jesus would not be the priest in the fine robes, the bishop with his mitre, or the cardinal living in opulence. Jesus who came to bring the merciful love of God for his people — especially the poor — would be the Good Samaritan, Cardenal wrote.

If this sounds like the message of Pope Francis, it pretty much is. Francis has been saying something similar since he took office in 2013. He recently shook up the status quo in Mexico when he told the priests and bishops to care for the poor and fight injustice. It’s arguable whether Francis was influenced by Cardenal, but their visions are certainly similar.

Cardenal lived for nine months in an impoverished neighborhood in Medellín, Columbia. The people’s suffering changed his perception of God as harsh, ruthless, and far away. He began to see God instead as imminent in the person of Jesus Christ and as a bringer of mercy. Cardenal felt an intense, irresistible desire to have close contact with this God via the poor.

He decided to dedicate his work to liberating people from conditions of extreme poverty. He became a proponent of Liberation Theology, a social movement that tries to better the circumstances of the poor and teaches that Christians have an obligation toward the oppressed. The poor of Nicaragua had barely enough food, no jobs, no schools, no access to healthcare. Cardenal saw people scrounging for food scraps in the Jesuits’ garbage can, young women leaving town to work as prostitutes in the city, children begging for bread that he carried home from a nearby bakery. How could he say that this bread was meant for the holy priests who are studying? So, he gave the bread away. As he describes it, “Their [poor’s] suffering became enormously difficult for me to bear.”

In 1970, soon after he was ordained, he sided with students at the Jesuit University of Central America who were protesting the university president’s repressive policies. At about the same time, Cardenal joined protests against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s imprisonment and torture of those who came out against the dictatorship.

As part of the protest, he and a group of students and priests took over the Leon Cathedral, which called down the wrath of Somoza’s government — to say nothing of the bishop and of Rome. One of the memoir’s most evocative scenes occurs during this time as Cardenal lies prostrate and prays before the altar asking for forgiveness of his sins and for divine direction. He’s expecting that he will be removed from the cathedral under a hail of bullets.

Cardenal, who began his priesthood as someone who was afraid to be confrontational, later joined the Nicaraguan guerilla movement and took part in the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1970s. He secretly met guerrilla leaders. Every time he appeared on the street, he had to avoid the National Guard, which was trying to assassinate him. The stress made him sick with colitis, gastritis, and continual headaches.

When in 1976, he asked U.S. Congress to cut off military aid to Nicaragua and listed the atrocities committed by the Somoza regime, his headaches intensified. But he had won, convincing President Jimmy Carter to stop sending aid to the Nicaraguan government, and a year or so later, the Somoza dictatorship was ousted.

Cardenal accepted positions from the Sandinista government and became director of the literacy crusade and later minister of education from 1984-19990. For his efforts, the Vatican had him expelled from the Jesuit order. But after the Sandinista government was replaced by a new government, Cardenal left politics, and the Jesuits invited him to return. (In a sense he had never left, since he continued to reside in the Jesuit house.) He took his final vows in 2004.

Cardenal wrote that he is not the point of this book. His readers and what they do for the poor and how they work to alleviate misery are the point. Cardenal didn’t want to write a history of the Nicaraguan revolution with its significant events, like the taking over of the National Palace of Culture or the Final Insurrection. He wanted to share what he “saw, experienced, and witnessed.”

Although this book takes readers inside the front lines of Latin American history, it also presents the inner workings of a man of great faith and humility. More importantly, it shows readers what it’s like for to love Jesus Christ more than anyone else including oneself.

This book grew from lectures that Cardenal delivered at Jesuit universities worldwide where he was asked to discuss his role in the Sandinista revolution. He admitted the writing is workmanlike and has nothing of the resonance of the work by his brother, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, a well-known Latino poet-priest. Yet in his defense, one must say that Cardenal’s devotion to Christ and the poor lifts the memoir, if not to the level of poetry, then certainly to moments of prayer.

[Diane Scharper is the author of several books including Radiant, Prayer Poems. She is a frequent contributor to NCR.] 

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