Open Letter to Fernando Cardenal

Fernando Cardenal SJ, is Nicaragua Fe y Alegría Director since 1999 and Entreculturas has a close working and friendship relation with him.

Agustín Alonso SJ, Entreculturas Director, presented the event with this letter showing Fernando's personal and professional path

Dear Fernando, dear friends

I met Fernando Cardenal 20 years ago in 1989, during my first visit to Nicaragua. I don't think he will remember. It was only a brief encounter. He was at the time Minister of Education. I was on a trip visiting the Latin American Jesuit education institutions and I was staying at their residence in Managua .At the time, Fernando was not a Jesuit, but he lived with them as one of them. They were in full elections campaign and I still remember the speech given by Commander Dora María Téllez at the Colegio Centroamérica, to which I went with the then Director of the school and a good friend of Fernando. The speech did not specially interest the students. A few weeks later the Sandinista Front, unexpectedly, lost the elections. Fernando, like many others, had set his life on the project of the revolution .Loosing the elections did not lead him to loosing his peace, but he witnessed with great pain how the Sandinist Front, up to then a model of honesty for which many youth had given their lives, became a group with corrupt leaders at the highest levels.

I have been sharing work and friendship with Fernando for the past ten years. I have read his memoirs and one can find the human and spiritual quality of someone who has lived a life with honesty and total coherence with his principles.

His memoirs begin when Fernando is over thirty years old and is sent to Medellín, Colombia in 1970, to finish his formation as a Jesuit. He had always wanted to have an experience near the poor. According to him, it was a desire that God had placed in his heart. And during his early years with his family or at school or as a Jesuit, he had never had it. He went to live in Pablo VI, a very depressed area of the city .He had to insert his spiritual training in the line that Father Arrupe had defined, one cannot serve faith without promoting justice. He was in charge of buying the bread every morning.

But the loaves reached the house so diminished because he gave pieces of bread to all those who asked him on the way, so he had to ask someone else to go so that the community could have bread. His experience that year marked him deeply and when he left he told the people of the area:" I am leaving but before God I promise that wherever I may be in the future, I will work for justice, for the construction of a new society, for the liberation of the poor of Latin America, of all the excluded of the continent. I will do this wherever I may live, in whatever work I will be told to do by my superiors". And he has done so until today, 40 years later.

This is the key to everything else. This deep experience and promise. Since then, Fernando, working in the University with the youth is gradually more committed in the process of liberation of his beloved country Nicaragua, working for the poorest and for justice.

This commitment leads him to approach the National Sandinist Liberation Front. Prior to this, he had taken part in the occupation of the cathedral, in hunger strikes, street demonstrations, and inspired in Ghandi, in the active non violent fight. He looked for deep changes but he could see that the peaceful fight was impossible in Nicaragua. The Somoza repression led him slowly to think that there was no other way than the revolution. As in every important step in his life, he always looked for what God wanted from him for Nicaragua. The people's situation hurt him and he felt in his flesh the injustice of the Somoza regime. At several times in his memoirs he tells us his internal fight to start giving committed steps and the discernment of his decisions In the Populorum Progressio of Paul VI he found that the Pope made an exception on armed insurrection and although he refused it he pointed out one exception "

Except in the case of painful and prolonged tyranny going against the fundamental rights of the person and harming gravely the common good of a country". This is where he saw the Nicaragua that he was living. All these steps and his incorporation to the Sandinist front were given in a dialogue framework with his fellow Jesuits.

In the two titles of his books, the one edited in Nicaragua and the one we are presenting today, three key words in Fernando's life appear: people, revolution and priest. Rather than people, we should say the "poor people". If we add the word youth to these three we will have the key to understand Fernando's life.

Fernando was very much involved in the National Literacy Crusade. Whenever talking about it he becomes 30 years younger...In Managua or in Somotillo, in Ciudad Sandino or in Estelí, when we have gone for lunch with a group we have always found someone who says "Father, I was also in the Crusade..." The experience was unique. They mobilized 60.000 young people that went to the fields and the mountains and 40.000 youth and adults who went to towns and cities. All the Universities and the majority of schools sent their students to the literacy campaign. During the 5 months it lasted Nicaragua's literacy rate passed from 50.53% of the population to 12%. During the crusade, and this was very painful for Fernando, 56 people died: 7 murdered, 41 in accidents and 8 natural deaths.

Then came his years as Minister of Education, with hardly any money. Not being able to build new schools, he assumed the task with a spirit that he called "education in poverty" which did not mean a poor education but an education that started from the poor reality they were living in. The money they had was used for the Ministry of Defence to face the armed counter revolution, financed by the US.
Fernando took these steps from an analysis and discernment from his condition as priest and Jesuit. The acceptance of the Ministry of Education meant what he called the "ecclesiastic storm". Father P. Arrupe, at the time Superior General of the Jesuits, had addressed a letter to the Jesuits of Nicaragua in which he said that they should give a "critical support" to the revolution and that "what Fernando was doing is also pastoral" referring to his participation in the Literacy Crusade. But upon accepting the Ministry of Education, the situation became more complex. It is forbidden for priests to work in government posts or political parities.

Fernando thought that in normal situations this was valid, but in Nicaragua the circumstances were exceptional and this justified his implication in a political position in the government. He thought that "all the revolution had been carried out in history without the Christians, in spite of them or against them and that the Sandinist was the first one with a deep and wide participation of Christians.

The process was long until they asked Fernando to leave the Society of Jesus, following the Vatican's indications. You may read it in his memoirs. The process written by Fernando is full of details in correspondence with his superiors, especially with Father Kolvenbach, Superior General at the time. Fernando, in the tradition of the Society of Jesus, stated his objection of conscience, honestly, objective and seriously to abandon his work in the revolution at the same time that se expressed his fervent desire to remain in the Society of Jesus where he had lived for 30 years, since he had two loves: his religious vocation and his love for the poor which was focused in Nicaragua through his commitment with the Sandinist Front. He understood that they were asking one option or the other. And he said both. But as he writes, Father Kolvenbach had to obey the orders from above.

Fernando asks Father Kolvenbach to write a letter to his mother explaining his case, so the decision would not hurt her too much. And Kolvenbach did so. He wrote a beautiful letter to his mother which she kept and treasured more than all the jewels". Pedro Casaldáliga, to whom Fernando sent a copy titled it "a jewel of the Church".

Fernando asked Father General if he could go on living as a Jesuit in their community and they allowed him to do so. That is where I met him in 1989 when I first visited Nicaragua .In 1990 the elections were held and the Sandinist Front lost, followed by the fragmentation of the Front's leaders, some of which were accused by Fernando of having become rich by stealing. These were hard moments in which Fernando tells us he did not loose his peace. In 1995 he wrote a letter to his "Sandinist brothers" in which he told them that he was abandoning the political militancy of the Sandinism, in face of the illegal accumulation of richness, but not giving up his life commitment, the cause of the poor.

And Fernando returned to the Society of Jesus, whom he had never left at the bottom of his heart. This is why he had continued to live in the Jesuit community of the Bosques de Altamira. In 1990 in a private conversation, Father Kolvenbach told him in Rome that he had revised his case and that he had found a genuine objection of conscience, which added to his life testimony made him want to let him go back in the Society of Jesus, that he had to wait a time to do so, but that at the moment he was granted the so called religious votes of the Society of Jesus "in artículo mortis". His case was the first in 460 years of the Jesuits, that someone expelled from the Society came back to the order. In 1997 he takes his votes again as a Jesuit, in front of his mother, then 90 years old, whom as he said, had waited to live for that moment...

In 1999 he is appointed as National Fe y Alegria Director. Since then, I have had many occasions to visit him as Entreculturas Fe y Alegria Director in Spain. He has also come to visit us often and we have seen him at many meetings in Latin America .His activity in Fe y Alegría follows perfectly his vital dedication and his commitment with the poorest. Fe y Alegria is a popular education and social promotion Movement which gives a quality education to the less favoured.

From Entreculturas we accompany and share these concerns. Fe y Alegria Nicaragua assists more than 56.000 people in 70 schools where 510 people work, the majority of them teachers, often working a double shift to survive. I would like to underline Fernando's concern for the teaching staff, with a great human quality but treated by the Ministry of Education of Nicaragua with "hunger" salaries. I remember and I am sure he will do also, that after a brilliant performance of the teachers of the school of Ntra. Sra. de Guadalupe we went to visit the house of the teacher who had conducted the graduating ceremony of the students. I have never seen such lack of proportion between the quality education and the person and the infra human conditions in which she lived. During all these years, he has fought to level the teacher's salaries with those of the state and it seems that in the last weeks he has achieved it.

Congratulations Fernando!

This is the personality of Fernando Cardenal whom we ask to talk to us about his memoirs.

Agustín Alonso SJ
Entreculturas Director.

Together with my people, with their revolution

These pages are not only a fascinating social and political chronicle, written by a convincing and true witness of the historical moments that ended the Somoza dictatorship and the Sandinist revolution and its aftermath.

They are also a personal memory and a spiritual autobiography of Fernando Cardenal, his commitment with the poor and his fight against social oppression and injustice. As Sergio Ramírez writes in the prologue, «Fernando carried out an exemplary influence over several Nicaraguan generations, under the premise of love, lived from his Christian identity of a priest and a man of his time. He started the fight against the dictatorship occupying churches and continued with the "literacy" crusades when the youth went to teach how to read and write in the most far away places of Nicaragua.

Fernando Cardenal, S.J.

Born in 1934 in Granada (Nicaragua), he studied Classic Humanities and Philosophy at the Catholic University of Quito (Ecuador and of Theology at the Instituto Libre de Filosofía (México D.F.). In 1967 he was ordained as a Jesuit priest. Between 1973 and 1977 he taught from his chair of Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua.

Founder in 1977 of the Nicaraguan Commission of Human Rights. After the triumph of the revolution in Nicaragua, he accepted important responsibilities such as Coordinator for the National Crusade of Literacy (1979-1980), national vice coordinator of the National Movement of Sandinist Youth of Nicaragua (1980-1984) and Minister of Education (1984-1990). National Coordinator of Fe y Alegría, Nicaragua, (1999) and Coordinator for the Central America Fe y Alegría Network (2000-2001).