A Visit with Fernando Cardenal by Bryan Melcher
by Mark Chmiel
Bryan Melcher received a Mev Puleo Scholarship to study and work in Nicaragua this past summer. We met up this week at Café Ventana and he shared some of his stories. He mentioned he and his SLU companions got to visit with Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal. Bryan typed up the following from his notes and said I could share it wherever I want.
The following is a less than perfect transcript of our time with Fernando Cardenal S.J. It was written later that day from my memory. — B.M.
I know that this time in Nicaragua will be very important. You must make time to be close to the poor. In my own formation as a Jesuit I never had an opportunity to speak with an indigenous or poor person. I knew from the news that there was serious poverty in Latin America, but it was always head knowledge-not personal.
Then as the final stage of my formation (my tertianship) approached, I realized that of course I would not be doing it in Latin America. We had no location for such a thing. I would have to go to Spain. And that was just fine with me. I had dreamt of Spain-fondly.
I dreamt of seeing the places of St. Ignatius, going to Rome, seeing Paul VI. I studied classics, so it was exciting to think of going to the places of ancient Roman history, politics, culture. And, I dreamt of returning home through Paris. It sounded wonderful.
Then, I heard that the Jesuits in Colombia at Medellin had opened up a tertianship program. Not in the beautiful mountains, but in a very poor neighborhood. I knew that this was my chance. My chance to know the poor.
I went. Leaving behind dreams of Europe, I joined a community of ten Colombians, three Mexicans, one Nicaraguan (me) and a Spaniard- the superior.
We divided up the tasks of community life, and mine was to fetch the bread. There was no bakery in the neighborhood; I had to walk a long way to find one. When I did, I bought the bread. Walking home, a child with a very malnourished face approached me. He asked for bread. I did what any of you would do. And again. And again. And when I returned home with no bread I said, “I did what I had to do. We either need to find someone else to get the bread or go without bread, because I will not refuse hungry children.” We went without bread. That was my first real contact with the poor. There were many more.
I became very close to a family, our neighbors (he provided a name, I have forgotten it). They had 14 children. Two of them followed me around everywhere. I called them my bodyguards. They would carry my book or my bag. I was very affectionate for them. They were my friends-like many of our neighbors. Then one day I opened the door and saw those same children eating the trash from our house. These children whom I love are eating my garbage.
There was a young woman of 18 who cooked for our community. We grew to be friends. One day we were alone in the house together. She said she wanted to take the opportunity we had together to talk to me. She said that she was considering suicide.
“Don’t you have dreams of a family? Getting married?”
“And bringing them into this? This neighborhood? It is better that I die.”
This place had total utter unemployment. So bad. So poor.
There was another young woman who I was close with. She told me about her dreams to leave the neighborhood to live in a different life, a different place. We were good friends. I saw her one day walking down the street very serious. It was strange because, generally she would smile at me as I walked by. We would greet each other with Joy.
This time, she walked up all serious and said, “I’m leaving this place for the Capital today. I am going to commit my life to prostitution.”
“What about your dreams!?!”
“I’m getting out of here.”
I spoke to her about the hope of life, hope in life. At the end I gave her a long hug, full of affection. I never saw her again.
I could go on telling stories like this all day, but I will leave it there.
When it was time for me to leave, my neighbors crowded around and begged me not to go. I told them that I was really a Central American Jesuit and that I had to go home to my people. They wouldn’t hear it. Then, I said something that surprised myself.
“I must leave. But, I promise to commit my life, until I die, to the liberation of the poor and the struggle for justice.”
They accepted that and I returned for Managua.
I was going to be at the UCA. A friend of mine was the rector. He was a mentor of mine in high school and a director in my formation. All my life as a Jesuit I had wanted to be just like him. And I was so excited to be entering a life of formation of young people. A peaceful life, a tranquil life.
I began to hear that the rector was dictatorial in his handling of the UCA. What he said went, and if you had something else in mind- out you went.
My first day I saw some posters around the UCA calling the rector to dialogue with the student movement.
It was his position not to engage.
On the second day there were more posters and I was notified that I had been named vice-rector.
What was this? That I should have such a position! It is a position for those who have worked for a long time, earned it. I had earned nothing.
Then on the third day the students took over the university. They called everyone to the gym- faculty, students, everyone- to explain what they were all about.
I had to go to listen. Alfonso Garcia, the president of the movement presented three demands:
1 to enter into dialogue with the rector
2 for students to have participation in the workings of the University
3 to rework the laws of the university.
As I stood in the back row, I thought “these are all just and good demands. I agree with all of them.”
Then he said, “And now we will hear from the Vice-Rector of the University.”
What could I say? If I told them what I thought of their demands my friend would feel utterly betrayed. What would the provincial say? But then I thought could I forgo my promise in Medellín already? This was not an issue of poverty, but it was surely an issue of justice.
I took the megaphone.
“I think that all of your demands are just.”
What else was there to say? I looked out and saw their faces. These are the people that I will be living with, working with. The people who I was so excited to work with. I had to say more.
“Your demands are just and I will support you. I will support you so long as you behave justly. No violence and no destruction.”
The next day I was told not to return to the UCA. My superior told me that I must return. It would be a problem because the Rector was a cousin of Somoza. Somoza supported him and said the Rector would stay at UCA and if the Jesuits tried to move him somewhere else he would not be allowed to leave the country. The Rector stayed at the UCA and I took up a position at the UNAN teaching Philosophy.
But, I didn’t give a damn about 16th century Philosophy. I was there to be close to the students. Very soon I began to work with the Christian Revolutionary Student Movement. It grew out of a faith group that I had founded. The movement had a few goals:
1 to struggle against the dictator
2 to bring about a change for the poor
3 to bring a bout a new Nicaragua for the people
Struggle in the university, struggle in the streets.
At the same time a group with a Marxist bent was working in the mountains, the FSLN. In a way our work was more dangerous. We were being public, in the streets. Fourteen of our group died valiantly, very young.
And of course being a Public group of opposition, we drew scrutiny from Somoza. One day I saw a man spying on one of my classes. I asked him to come in and have a seat- he broke off running.
One day, one of my students came and said that a leader from the FSLN (codename Marco) wanted to talk to me. This sounded dangerous. If Somoza suspected anything, he would capture, torture, and/or kill me. But, I thought that I should go to the meeting.
I told him that every revolution in history has been against, fought by and resisted by the Church- France, Russia…and this one? He provided me with the manifesto of the Sandinistas, written by Carlos Fonseca.
“We respect the religion of the people of Nicaragua. We support any priest who stands with the people…etc.” It said many other things like that.
I listened and said that although I was a Christian and he was a Marxist we had the same goal. These were things that I supported. The Liberation of the poor and the struggle for justice. Then he said: “I have been authorized to ask you to join us in the fight for national liberation.”
It was another crossroads, like the moment in the gym. I was the first priest they had asked something like this of.
I wasn’t sure what to say. The parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke came to mind. (He gets out a Bible and reads)
In the end Jesus says, “go and do the same.” That phrase resounded in my mind.
I said yes.
My codename would be Justo (just one). I was glad that he had seen my reason for entering the struggle.
What was my role to be? I was told that I wouldn’t make a good combatant. My role would be clandestine, in Managua. I began to travel speaking in private to heads of state throughout Central America. They supported us. They helped us. I secured funds to supply arms for the fight, but I never had to shoot a gun.
I eventually joined the group of 12. We went from place to place engaged in this kind of work.
One day I was talking with Marco. He said: “We will never be able to defeat Somoza so long as he has the support of the U.S. government.”
“We need to send someone to denounce him to Congress, in public.”
“Yeah, I think you are right.”
“We are sending you.”
How dangerous, frightening? But, like I did everything else, I did it for the vow I made to my friends from Medellín. I went.
I told those Congressmen that Somoza was a liar, criminal, thief, torturer, abuser, assassin. When I finished, one said that I’d be staying in the U.S. after the denouncement, that he would grant asylum.
I told him that I would be going home. “Somoza is cruel and evil, but not stupid. If he kills me after all this, I will just be proved right. No. I’ll be welcomed home like never before.”
And I was. I was on the front page of the newspaper being called a “liar who returns in peace.” No one touched me.
Soon Jimmy Carter pulled military aid from Somoza. A final offensive was planned to move from Costa Rica all the way north.
The group of 12 were asked to begin writing the laws of the new state, but to stay in Panama while we wrote them. To be safe. But, I insisted that we stay with the people during their suffering.
Soon we won. Somoza fled to Miami with all of the money from the treasury. We had triumphed. Buses of militants drove into the National Plaza. I saw my students, friends who had fled the city for the safety of the front line.
I had no fireworks. So I grabbed a rifle and shot some blanks into the air to welcome them. I had no idea that they were alive!
In those early days I listened to the radio. One day I heard an announcement: “We are happy to inform the people that we have named an ambassador to the United States–Fernando Cardenal.”
I groaned. I had never been consulted. How was I going to continue my struggle in the U.S.? I would not go. I wrote them saying that I had been a longtime, obedient member of the FSLN, but I would not go to do this work. They could kill me if they wanted to, but I would stay.
Several days later they called. I expected to have to fight. To say something like, “The only way I will go to the U.S. is as a cadaver!”
Instead they respected my choice. They began talking about how in the campos they had promised the campesinos that they would bring literacy to the people. It was time to fulfill that promise. We were only eight days after the Triumph.
“You will be in charge of this task.”
Like all of the previous crossroads, there could only ever be one answer.
But how? I was a university professor who had never organized anything. They gave me no money and the orders to overturn Nicaragua’s immense illiteracy rate. Something in the ball park of 80+%.
I spoke to the young people.
“We need you. Spend five months in the mountains living with families.”
Do you know how many people volunteered? 70,000!
The Counter-Revolution began threatening these young people saying if they go to the mountains they will all be killed. When the day came do you know how many stayed behind?
In the literacy crusade, a young woman was raped way north of Matagalpa. Ninety young women went to one school and said that they needed to talk to me. They said that they would only return if I could promise a rape would never happen again.
I could not make that promise. There was no way to protect them as they were spread out all over the mountains. How many went home?
In time, the Contras came to some young people in the north near Honduras.
“Didn’t you hear our threats? We were serious! We will kill you.”
So they killed one of the teachers. Soon another. Another. And another. Seven in all.
No one budged. They stood with the people. In their own words: “We cannot abandon our campesinos.”
The killers stopped at seven. They got tired of killing with no result. These teachers were the real heroes of the Revolution— the fighters for love.
My superior and provincial were nothing but supportive. But Peter Hans Kolvenbach was forced by the pope to have a meeting with me. First he admired all the work I had done and expressed gratitude. Then, he said that I had to chose: the revolution or the Society of Jesus.
I argued that I had two great loves. My love for the poor- their liberation, this revolution- and my love for my Jesuit vocation. I choose both.
He responded, it sounds like you choose the revolution. No, I choose both. JPII will have to terminate me. But, if he does terminate me. Please permit me to continue living in the community as if I were a Jesuit. So I did, for 12 years. Then, I was permitted to re-enter the Jesuits. One year back in a novitiate. A Jesuit again.
Everything I’ve done has been to keep that promise to the people of Medellín. I still live that promise. I work everyday through migraines and will continue until I die.
You have a great gift, freedom. But Freedom has an ugly face. I’m sure you know people who have freely chosen to ruin their lives with drugs, alcohol, consumerism. Please do not do this. Do not settle for the mediocre life of consumerism. Buy. Buy. Buy.
I want you to be happy. Aristotle wrote that being ethical will bring happiness. Jesus says that this happiness comes in service. Love is service. This is how I have committed my life and I have always been happy.
So I implore you, be happy.
As I say goodbye, I want to embrace and kiss each of you and remind you that you do not represent U.S. policy. You represent the United States people whom I love. Who have been in solidarity with us every step of the way.