“I have to leave, but I want to leave you with something from me: an oath before God. From today until the day I die, I dedicate my life to the liberation of the poor in the struggle for justice, and you are my inspiration.” Jesuit Father Fernando Cardenal declared these to his friends and neighbors in Medellin, Colombia, over 40 years ago after completing his final course for becoming a member of the Society of Jesus.
With the assistance of a translator, Fr. Cardenal explained to a packed audience at Boston College that his time spent living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Colombian city informed his entire life’s work as a Jesuit and political leader in his native Nicaragua.
Among his neighbors was a family with seven children, whom Cardenal referred to as his “little bodyguards” because they were always following him around. One time, when he returned to his Jesuit residence, Cardenal walked in to find the children eating the Jesuits’ garbage. He described the emotional impact this moment had on him. Cardenal said, “That was a big hit for me. I loved them. You can’t imagine what that did for me.”
He continued, “Many times, the only thing these children had to eat was a roll made from corn and hot water with brown sugar added to it. My neighborhood was like a big lake, and we were all under the water of suffering. Often, I didn’t want to leave the house. The people were always suffering and without hope. When I walked down the street, I kept repeating to myself, ‘Unbearable. Unbearable. Unbearable.’”
Cardenal realized, “I cannot accept that people live this way. As a human being and as a Christian, I cannot accept it. It has to change.”
Upon returning to Nicaragua, the Jesuit continued to work for justice. His first assignment was as the vice-provost for students at the Nicaraguan Jesuit University, where his friend was the university’s president. “I had great admiration for him. He was charismatic and extraordinary,” Cardenal said.
However, on his third day at the job, a student movement erupted on campus because the president, Cardenal’sfriend, refused multiple requests from student leaders for a meeting. “The students requested three things,” he said. “First, they demanded a dialogue with the president. Second, they wanted a reform of the university’s regulations, which were put in place when the school was still very small. And third, they wanted to participate in the arenas and direction of the university.”
Much to his surprise, the students asked Cardenal to speak at their big rally in the school’s gymnasium. “At first, I didn’t want to speak, but I couldn’t say no,” he said. “I wondered, ‘What do I say?’ I worried about being a traitor to my friendship with the president. Eventually, I realized, no matter what, no matter what my superiors say, if I don’t say now what I was thinking, I would be a traitor to the oath I made in Medellin. I told them I heard their request, and I believed it to be just. I felt really emotional. I opened my heart to the students, and I said, ‘I support your position as long as you act without violence and act democratically.”
Later, while working at the national university in Nicaragua, Cardenal was approached by the student rebels fighting against the Somoza dictator. They wanted him to help their cause.
“I explained to Marcos, ‘The French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, and the Cuban Revolutions—all were done without, in spite of, and against Christians. I am a believer. I am a priest.’”
What brought Cardenal over to their side was that they were working to destroy the Somoza army and build up the country for the poor. The National Liberation Front’s leader, who went by Marcos, assured the Jesuit that the student army also had respect for different religious beliefs.
Later, the National Liberation Front asked the Jesuit to speak to the United States Congress to denounce theSomoza president of Nicaragua, whose regime had been supported by the American government for 45 years. “I told them, ‘To denounce the president was an important mission. It was a dangerous mission, and I accept the mission,’” he said.
After Cardenal’s hearing before Congress, President Jimmy Carter stopped providing aid to the dictatorial government in Nicaragua. Eighteen months later, the Somoza army was defeated.
Nicaragua began rebuilding, and Cardenal launched his literacy campaign. “Fifty percent of the country was illiterate,” he said. “Those who cannot read are poor twice. They are the poorest of the poor.”
Cardenal enlisted the help of 60,000 volunteers, which he notes is an impressive number for a country with a population of only three million, to live in the mountains and teach the peasant families to read and write. Although it was challenging, Cardenal credits the volunteers with the success of the campaign.
“What we did in the headquarters office is small compared with what we did with the young people in the mountains,” he said. “Despite threats from counter-revolutionaries, not one young person dropped out.”
Cardenal’s campaign raised the literacy rate in Nicaragua to 87 percent, and in 1980, the country was awarded UNESCO’s literacy award. Currently, the Jesuit runs a program to aid school systems in Nicaragua.