Nicaraguan priest, Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal, still served youth, the poor

Fr. Fernando Cardenal in Managua, Nicaragua, on Nov. 5, 2014 (Tom Boswell)

Editor's note: Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal died Feb. 20. As a tribute, we are posting this profile which first appeared in the April 24-May 7, 2015 issue. 

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal, 81, carries a cane. But the cane does not appear to touch the ground.

On an early November day, he met in Managua with representatives of the Volunteer Missionary Movement. The group had traveled to Nicaragua from all over the U.S. to learn how Volunteer Missionary Movement programs and lay missioners could best serve the population. Cardenal spent several hours inspiring them with the story of his journey of faith and devotion to the poor of his homeland, Nicaragua.

Like his brother, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, Fernando completed his study for the priesthood in Medellín, Colombia. Later, Ernesto served as minister of culture in the early days of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution, and Fernando as minister of education.

"I never spoke with one poor person or indigenous person in all of my 16 years of study to be a Jesuit," Cardenal admitted. Then he moved to a poor barrio on the outskirts of Medellín to complete the last nine months of his novitiate in 1970.

On the first day, the other Jesuits sent him to purchase bread for their community. "Along the way, I came into contact with small boys and girls, and I could see the hunger in their faces, and they began to ask me for bread."

Cardenal came home empty-handed. "I can't walk around the neighborhood with bread in my hands, in the face of children, so name someone else, or maybe we just decide not to eat bread for nine months," he told his companions. "No one wanted to take that job, so we didn't eat bread."

He befriended a neighborhood family of eight children and one morning went outside to see them eating the garbage from the Jesuit house. Living amid abject poverty, Cardenal would walk around the barrio repeating one word: unbearable, unbearable, unbearable.

When it was time for Cardenal to return to Central America, his neighbors did not want him to leave. "I said to my neighbors: 'I have to go back, but I want to leave something of me with you all. I want to leave you a promise, a very solemn promise in the face of God, that I will dedicate my life to the liberation of the poor and to the struggle for justice.' "

Returning to Nicaragua in 1971, Cardenal accepted a job at the Nicaraguan Jesuit University in the capital city of Managua. The founder and rector of the university had been his high school counselor and a close friend, someone he "admired a great deal."

On his first day of work, Cardenal was surprised to find that students were posting messages on the walls of the buildings, pleading for dialogue with the administration. The second day, there were more signs, and Cardenal asked the rector why he would not dialogue with the students.

By the third day, the students took over the university and were occupying classrooms and offices. They called for a mass meeting in the gymnasium. Besides dialogue, they were asking for student participation and reform in how the university was run.

Cardenal attended the meeting, intending only to listen. But the rector had named him vice rector of the university. So the students, to his surprise, called on him to speak. Finding their demands just, he reluctantly agreed. "I support you, as long as you do it in a just way, without violence," he said.

The rector, Cardenal said, "expelled me from the university, without consulting the provincial of the Jesuits. He was furious."

Later, he learned that the rector was a cousin of Nicaragua's brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Cardenal then got a job teaching philosophy at the National Autonomous University in 1973. "It was all Thomas Aquinas, but because I had the degree, it allowed me to work with young people," he said.

By this time, three generations of the Somoza family had ruled Nicaragua for 43 years, and, according to Cardenal, about 50,000 people had already lost their lives as victims of Somoza's National Guard. Others had gone to the mountains to form a guerrilla movement.

In the mid-1970s, Cardenal organized a nonviolent group called the Christian Revolutionary Movement on campus, with the same basic objectives as the guerrilla fighters: "to struggle against the dictatorship and construct a new Nicaragua where the poor would have a privileged position."

"Fourteen of those wonderful young men and women from that group died," Cardenal said.

Soon, he was approached by a young man with the nom de guerre of Marcos, who asked him to work with the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Marcos gave Cardenal the statutes that had been drafted by Carlos Fonseca, the Sandinista founder. The statutes said they would respect the religion of the Nicaraguan people and would support priests who worked on behalf of the people.

"Nicaragua is a country with a lot of Christian roots, and Carlos Fonseca understood that he couldn't import an alien revolution," Cardenal said.

He recalled, "I told him that he could count on me. And he said, 'From now on, your name will be Justo [Just].' I liked that a lot."

Related: Return to Nicaragua finds the flame of solidarity still alight

On July 1979, Somoza's army was overthrown, and the dictator fled the country.

"When I heard the news, early in the morning, I ran out to the street and did two things, which weren't really correct," Cardenal recalled. "First, I was in my pajamas, and I also had a Soviet rifle that I kept underneath my bed. I shouted out, 'Long live the Sandinista revolution!' and I shot up into the air."

The Sandinistas tried to draft Cardenal to serve as ambassador to the United States, but he refused, saying he wanted to stay in Nicaragua. Instead, they asked him to organize a campaign to teach all campesinos to read and write.

"I looked for young people, and I asked for volunteers," Cardenal said. "I asked the young people to go for five months, out to the mountains of Nicaragua, to live in the houses of peasants, to teach people to read and write. We got 60,000 volunteers. We called it the Literacy Crusade."

He continued, "It was the most beautiful act of the revolution. It became famous throughout the world. Soon 40,000 more young people and adults joined to do this work in towns and cities. So, from being a simple university professor, I became the general of an army of 100,000 people. Every day when I pray, I give thanks to God for being in the revolution, which was just a marvelous era in my life."

Years later, when he perceived corruption among leaders of the Sandinista revolution, he left the government and denounced the leadership in 1995.

Now Cardenal spends his time helping Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy), a network of Jesuit schools across Central and Latin America. The network has set its sights on providing education for people living in extreme poverty, he said.

While Cardenal was serving as minister of education 1984-90, Pope John Paul II demanded that the Jesuits make him choose between the revolution and the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were forced to expel him, but when he was no longer minister of education, the superior general invited him back. "It was the first case in more than 500 years of Jesuit history," Cardenal recounted proudly. "Now I'm a legal Jesuit, like any other."

[Tom Boswell is a freelance journalist, photographer and poet living near Madison, Wis.]

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