The feeling from within
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.
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.
Fernando Cardenal, S.J., a Nicaraguan Jesuit and liberation theologian, died on February 20, 2016.