How nine months living with the poor shaped Fernando Cardenal, SJ's life

Fernando Cardenal, S.J., served in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, first as coordinator of a national literacy campaign and then as minister of education. Because canon law forbids a priest to hold governmental office and, conscientiously objecting, he refused to resign, he was dismissed from the Society of Jesus in 1984. He continued to live according to his vows and, after resigning from his government post in 1990, was readmitted to the Society of Jesus in 1997.

My formation was similar to that of many other Jesuits in Latin America. We led a fairly quiet monastic life devoting all of our energy to spiritual reflection and studies.... We all knew of the continent’s poverty and had studied the reports and the statistics, but we didn’t have many opportunities to interact with the poor. The information stayed in our heads without touching our hearts or our lives. We lived in large, secluded monasteries far away from the cities with very little contact with the outside world. Although we lived in largely indigenous countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, we had few opportunities to engage with the people. The philosophy school in Quito was at the foot of the Pichincha mountain, and on our weekly excursions we would step out of the kitchen to begin our hikes up the mountain, where indigenous people appeared etched in the scenery. We would greet them and continue on our way. I never once had a conversation with one of them.

Advertisement

When I finished my academic formation as a Jesuit, I still needed to take one more course. The course is known as the tertianship, nine months of intense spiritual formation to delve into the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola. Our founder feared that the long years of study might have cooled the personal relationship with God that is the foundation of our religious life, and thus he appended this formation period at the end.

[At this time] I felt a restlessness, a gnawing feeling that did not leave me in peace; undoubtedly it came from God. I wanted to experience some close contact with the poor, something I had missed during my long Jesuit formation. I decided to ask the father superior of the Jesuits in Central America for permission to go to Colombia for the formation course. Previously, the course had been conducted near the city of La Ceja in a three-story building, surrounded by beautiful green pastures framed on all sides by spectacular mountains. Three years earlier Miguel Elizondo, S.J., had been appointed tertianship instructor in Colombia. He was an ascetic, a selfless person who, even as a young man, had the reputation of being a saint. At the same time, he was the most open person I had ever known, with a Gospel freedom that made him wide open to change. Father Elizondo was a leader to many Jesuits in Latin America during their formation in religious life. He had been my novice master in El Salvador; and now, as he coordinated the tertianship in the city of Medellín, he decided to move the course to a very poor neighborhood. This was exactly what I was looking for.... It was a life-altering decision.

In 1968 His Holiness Pope Paul VI was to visit Medellín after his visit to Bogotá. The government decided to move the people living in squatter settlements surrounding the city to the Bermejal area—named for its red soil. That is how the neighborhood Paul VI was founded. When I arrived, the streets were pure mud, but that was not a problem if you had a good pair of boots. The real problem came during the dry season when the mud became dust and got into everything, including the food. The homes were made of brick. Though they were very small, they were new and much better than the previous cardboard shacks. The problem was that most of the people of the neighborhood were unemployed, and this had a profound impact on their lives.

Seeing the anguish of family members or friends without work, feverishly seeking any job to support their families—this was my introduction to the neighborhood. I began to understand the depth of their anguish. The majority of people would spend months and even years without a job. I came to understand the desperate feelings of profound and continual sadness in their battle for survival. They had no hope for solutions.

Social services were nearly nonexistent, but the most striking lack was the absence of any health center or access to medical attention. There was no school and no electricity. We got by with oil lamps in the bedroom and kerosene lanterns for the dining room and kitchen. The climate in Medellín was cool, and even cooler for those of us who lived on the top of the mountains. Very often, the food of the people in the neighborhood consisted of arepas, roasted cornmeal bread and a cup of hot water sweetened with panela, a brick of brown sugar that they scraped with a knife over the cup of hot water. The people’s diet and their suffering made a huge impact on me. I lived in the neighborhood for nine full months witnessing the suffering of neighbors whom I grew to love deeply. Their suffering became enormously difficult for me to bear. It is true that “what the eye does not see, the heart does not feel.” I was seeing the suffering of people whom I loved, and my heart ached.

Although we always looked for ways to participate in the lives of the people, we could not come close to sharing their experience of insecurity. I knew that if I faced a serious health problem, the priests of the Saint Ignatius School would take me to a reputable clinic in the city. The poor had no one. They were alone and abandoned. No one watched over them. No one would come and save them in an emergency. The people in the neighborhood were permanent victims.

Across the street from our house lived the Jaramillo family, who had eight children. I grew to love these children dearly. If I went to say Mass, one of the children would carry the candles, another would carry the stole, another the missal, another the chalice and another the wine. They accompanied me everywhere I went. These little bodyguards, as I called them, had worked their way into my heart. One day, after dinner, I opened the door of our community and found my little friends, the Jaramillo children, eating out of the garbage of our community house. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. The impact was overwhelming.

Each of us had chores in the community, and among other things I was chosen to buy the bread. Because there was no bakery in our neighborhood, I had to go down the hill to another neighborhood. When I walked back up the street with the big bag of bread in my hands, children with hungry faces began to ask me for a piece of bread. I could not tell them, “Look, this bread is for the Jesuit fathers who are pursuing very important studies.” I did the obvious. I gave out pieces of bread to each one of the children. When I got back to our community I had no more bread. I told my fellow Jesuits, “You have to make a decision, either you appoint someone else to buy bread or we decide not to eat bread, but I cannot walk with bread in the midst of hungry children.” We decided not to eat bread.

One of the young women in the community, with whom I had become a good friends, came to bid me farewell one afternoon. I asked her where she was going, and she said she was leaving to work downtown. She said, “I am going to become a prostitute.” This was another blow. I told her that she was going to fall into a deep hole, and she said that it didn’t matter as long as she got out of the hole she was living in. I talked to her about trampling on her dignity as a woman, but it was clear I was making no inroads. For someone born in the mire of misery, the concept of dignity was almost unfathomable. We said goodbye, and I embraced her with love and sadness. I had been a witness to her dreams and ideals, and now she was abandoning these to live as a prostitute. It was a huge blow. I never saw her again.

The suffering became so great that there were times when I did not want to leave the house. The neighborhood was a sea of pain, and I felt as if I were drowning in its waves. The people were submerged in sadness, suffering, sickness and hopelessness. My heart kept breaking.

I had entered the novitiate in 1952, at the beginning of my last year of high school, after a powerful experience that God was calling me to collaborate in the mission of saving humankind. I entered the novitiate with dreams of dedicating my life to serving God by freeing souls from eternal damnation and in this process saving my own soul. At the time this is how I saw it. Sin and the fear of eternal damnation had been central themes in my spiritual life from the time of my First Communion. I believed in a harsh and ruthless God who was a faraway being.

Through my experiences in Medellín, I began to have a new understanding. The danger of people losing their lives in hell had already begun for millions of Latin Americans; they were already living the hell of destitution and extreme poverty on earth. Without changing the fundamental orientation of my life, I began to think about salvation more holistically; salvation meant freedom from sin but also freedom from destitution. Five years later, the synthesis of “the service of faith and the promotion of justice” was officially embraced by the Society of Jesus as the mandatory standard for all our apostolates. No Jesuit should be working only on the propagation of the faith without also working for the defense of justice, and similarly, no one should be working only for the promotion of justice without also working for the propagation of the faith. Faith and justice: always together.

My reflections during those months led me to rediscover the God revealed in Jesus—the God who heard the cry of the oppressed and who freed the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt. That is how God appears in the Book of Exodus. I began to understand more clearly that this same God continued listening to the cry of the oppressed and that Jesus had come to reveal that same God to us: a God who is not neutral in the face of destitution and injustice, but who has taken the side of the poor, of the least, the weakest, the most marginalized and all those excluded from society. In reflecting on the reality of my neighborhood, I was greatly inspired by the recently published document from the Latin American bishops, whose Second General Conference had occurred the previous year in the same city of Medellín. The bishops said: “There are many studies about the situation of the Latin American people. The misery and abject poverty that besets large masses of human beings in all of our countries is described in studies and expresses itself as injustice, which cries to the heavens.” I found that these words captured my feelings and my experience. The bishops’ theological analysis was also very illuminating and new to me. They wrote, “When speaking of injustice, we refer to those realities that constitute a situation of sin.” Previously, my concept of sin was something exclusively personal. I had never seen the concept of sin applied to a social and economic situation as in this text.

The words of Pope Paul VI in Bogotá, spoken at the same time as the meeting of the Latin American bishops, also enlightened me. Speaking to the peasants of Latin America, the pope commented on the misery that overwhelmed them: “Today, the problem has worsened because you have become more aware of your needs and suffering, and you cannot tolerate the persistence of these conditions without applying a careful remedy.” He was very clear: “you cannot tolerate.” It was at this same time that I came to understand more acutely that the situation of the poor in Latin America was intolerable, it had to be changed, that it required “a careful remedy.”

My friends in the neighborhood wanted me to continue living with them, and they begged me to stay. We had shared nine months of friendship and had grown to love one another, but I had to return to Central America by order of the regional provincial. My tertianship was over and so I said to my friends: “I am leaving, but I leave you an oath. Before God, I promise you that, wherever I am sent in the future, I am going to work for justice, for the building of a new society, for the liberation of the poor in Latin America, for all of those marginalized and excluded of the continent. I will do this in any country where I am asked to live, in any task that my religious superiors ask of me.”

These words—my promise—explain the fundamental decisions that I made in the years that followed.

[Father Cardenal concludes this opening chapter of his memoirs with an account of how he was assigned to work at the Jesuit university in Managua, Nicaragua.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A reflection for the third Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 16, 2017
Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017