[The following text, including what is in brackets, can be found in Ministers of God, Ministers of the People: Testimonies of Faith from Nicaragua by Teófilo Cabestrero (1983, Orbis Books).]
Fernando Cardenal was born on January 26, 1934, in Granada, Nicaragua, just after his brother Ernesto’s ninth birthday. He went to primary and secondary school with the Jesuits of Granada and himself entered the Society of Jesus on May 19, 1952, at the Santa Tecla novitiate in El Salvador.
Upon completion of his two-year noviceship, Fernando was sent to Ecuador, where he spent the next seven years studying the humanities and philosophy at the Catholic University of Quito. The teaching years of his scholasticate were spent in Nicaragua and Guatemala, from 1961 to 1964. He then studied theology in Mexico, where he was ordained in 1967.
Two years later Father Fernando was in “tertianship,” the Jesuit third year of probation or last year of the regular course of studies, in a poor quarter of Medellin, Colombia. This was a most important experience for him and resulted in an irrevocable commitment on his part to the liberation of the poor.
Returning to Nicaragua in July 1970, he was appointed vice-rector of the Central American University, in Managua. But then, in December of that same year, he was expelled from the university for supporting a student strike, whose demands Father Fernando had deemed just. Now he devoted himself to conducting retreats and cursillos, especially for youth.
In April 1973, he founded the Revolutionary Christian Movement, which would supply so many leaders of the Sandinista Front, the FSLN, later on. Around this same time he was appointed to the chair of philosophy of the Autonomous University of Nicaragua.
In June 1976, Fernando traveled to the United States, where he had been asked to testify before a congressional committee concerning Somoza’s government in Nicaragua. There he roundly denounced not only the crimes of General Somoza, but those of the United States foreign policy as well. Upon his return to Nicaragua the Somoza regime forbade him to make any more trips abroad.
In 1976 he founded the Nicaraguan Commission for Human Rights. In October 1977, now a member of the Sandinista Front, he secretly left the country for San Jose, Costa Rica, where he joined the patriots who were to found the Group of Twelve. From now on Fernando Cardenal was totally involved in the struggle against Somoza and his regime
After the victory of the Sandinista people’s revolution, in August 1979, he was named national coordinator of the Crusade for Literacy, which reduced the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua from 51 to 12 percent.
Since September 1980, Father Cardenal has been a member of the Sandinista Assembly and vice-coordinator of the National Executive Committee of the July Nineteenth Sandinista Youth movement.
I first met Jesuit Father Fernando Cardenal in San Jose, Costa Rica, on July 2, 1977. I had come to interview him for the Spanish weekly, Vida Nueva. Father Cardenal had been in Costa Rica for ten months now, in “militant exile” from his native Nicaragua, and we held our meeting in the cathedral. Two days later he was to return to his own country, with the other members of the Group of Twelve, to beard General Somoza in his den—to lead a popular insurrection against the dictator and his National Guard.
“We may die,” Fernando told me that day. I asked him whether there was not, after all, some conflict between his vocation as a Jesuit priest and his political involvement in the people’s liberation movement. His work seemed to me surely to involve a high degree of emergency and risk. Today I easily grasp the intimate connection between the answer he gave me in San Jose, two years before the victory, and the following lengthy account I recorded in Managua three and one half years after that victory.
This time, I spent an afternoon with Fernando in his Jesuit community. We sat in a kind of parlor, in two big rocking chairs, looking out on the relaxing green of the little garden, with its plants and flowers and a tall acacia they ringed. At the door of Fernando’s own room there was a jasmine bush, just beginning to bloom. We talked the afternoon away. The sun disappeared, and night came upon us, as it comes in the tropics—swiftly, hastily.
Fernando is taller and more athletic than his brother Ernesto. His voice is deep too, but of a finer timbre. He speaks with ease, volubility, and passion.
“I’ve always had the vocation to work with youth.”
I asked Fernando, “What has your work been in the revolution since the victory?”
“Two weeks after the triumph of our revolution I was named national coordinator of the Crusade for Literacy. I worked on this project, full-time, for a year. It involved practically half the Nicaraguan population.
“When the Crusade for Literacy was over, I asked to be given something to do with the July Nineteenth Sandinista Youth Movement—the official name of the youth organization of the Sandinista Front. The governing junta had wanted to appoint me vice-minister of education for adult education, which would have been a logical continuation of my work in the literacy campaign. But I insisted that instead of being vice-minister of as grand and glorious a project as our adult education program, I just wanted to keep on working in what 1 had always done, even before I was ordained: youth work. I wanted to work with revolutionary youth, the Nineteenth of July Sandinista Youth.
“So I joined this project instead, as a member of the National Executive Committee—the nine of us who headed the Sandinista Youth program. Each of us is in charge of a national secretariat. I’m the national secretary for political training and propaganda of the Sandinista Youth.
“These are the two public posts I’ve held since the triumph of the revolution”
“You’re a religious and a priest, Fernando. You’re a Jesuit. Do these assignments you have in the revolution really fit in with your personal state of life? Do you live your vocation in them, without any contradiction? Or do they rather create conflicts of conscience for you? What’s your personal experience in this whole respect?”
“The work I’m doing poses no contradiction whatever with the religious training I’ve received, from the Jesuit novitiate up to the present time. I’m carrying out a task that’s in complete accord with my theology, my spirituality, my priesthood, and all that’s deepest in my Christian and human sentiments. It’s certainly in complete accord with my conscience. To my understanding, this is how our Lord is asking us to be his witnesses and ministers in the conditions our Christian poor live in in Latin America—in our case, in Nicaragua. I’ll try to explain, because you’ve asked me to elaborate on my personal experience.
“As a Jesuit, during my training that lasted seventeen years, I was always orientated toward education. But ever since the first experiences of my teaching years in the scholasticate—in ‘regency,’ when we leave our studies and go off to work in a school—my orientation has been toward pastoral work with youth rather than toward teaching. And so youth ministry became the goal of my studies and my training for the priesthood quite early. And when I was ordained, I saw the priesthood as a tool for a more effective pastoral ministry with youth, which I’d been devoting myself to since long before ordination.
“I feel very deeply that this whole long stage of preparation, and this orientation of my priestly apostolate toward youth ministry, have been perfectly consistent with what I’m doing right now. I feel that that whole training and direction—that is, my vocation—is emptying out onto what I’m now doing here, because I’m devoting myself to training these young people, I’m working in an organization that welds together a good 17 percent of the high-school population of the country in an organized fashion. Some 30 percent—fifty thousand youths—participate in our activities.”
“In my work with these young people, I live with the same apostolic attitude as a missionary priest in a mission country where he’s been sent and where he has to devote some years of his life to the work of pre-evangelization. During this stage he doesn’t explicitly talk about Christ or the faith. He ‘speaks’ by the witness of his life, by his presence, by his dedication to applying Christ’s love present in his faith—by enhancing the humanity of this missionary world he’s been sent to. He speaks via his commitment to teaching, educating, and human betterment. Sometimes he’s a teacher, sometimes he’s an infirmarian, sometimes he’s a doctor. Or maybe he helps build homes. It’s a stage that’s clearly defined in missiology as the stage of ‘pre-evangelization,’ or human betterment—and it’s an integral part of evangelization, as Pope Paul VI points out in his magnificent Evangelii Nuntiandi.
“I’m working in a political organization for youth. But my presence there as a priest has a pastoral and ecclesial importance over and above the performance or nonperformance of activities that are directly and explicitly priestly. My presence here, as a priest, is that of a pastoral sign. It’s true I don’t usually go around talking about the faith. I don’t say Mass in my office, or in the halls of the youth organization. And God’s name doesn’t come up much in the course of my working day. But in the Society of Jesus we’re trained to orientate our presence, in the purely secular or scientific work to which we devote ourselves (and numerous Jesuit priests are dedicated to such work), toward the upbuilding of the kingdom of God.
“There are Jesuit priests who spend their lives teaching algebra, and nobody goes running up to them to tell them that that’s not priestly. I myself, before I joined the revolution full-time, was a professor of philosophy in the national university. I fulfilled my vocation by teaching the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, without its having any explicit relationship with my priesthood. And I never thought that this was somehow in contradiction with my priestly state. I never felt frustrated in my courses, I never had a guilt complex just because I devoted myself to something not explicitly ‘priestly.’ I saw that these courses, too, were part of the church’s whole effort to further the coming of the kingdom of God.
“I see my work with the Sandinista Youth Movement as even more germane to that effort, much more consistent with it in fact. I see it, and experience it, live it, as being much more clearly oriented toward the coming of the kingdom. In working with these young persons, in their training for love and service to the people, and to the poorest of the poor, even though it’s a political organization, I feel myself more fulfilled as a priest than when I was expatiating on the thought of Leibnitz.
“I have not found, in this work I now do with youth, the least contradiction, inconsistency, or conflict of conscience with the orientation I had all the way through my Jesuit training. The work I’m doing now does not deviate in the slightest from the direction my life has been following for thirty years, from the first day I entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus.”
“I entered the Jesuit novitiate because I wanted to serve the people. I was fired with the ideal of devoting my whole life to the service of human beings, and I had discovered what was the most important thing in the world: the salvation of souls, eternal salvation. In the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, I had seen, in those meditations of his on the four last things, there was not just the danger that I would be condemned myself, but above all the danger that there were so many others on their way to this condemnation. And the apostolate I envisioned in their service, so that they would not finish their lives in such a disastrous way, was for me the most beautiful purpose anyone could devote a life to.
“I entered the novitiate thirty years ago, and all through these thirty years my life has been directed toward the service of my fellow human beings. And the final goal has always been the same: to be of service to the salvation of human beings in the way that God wills. But in the last years of my training I gained a deeper understanding of the danger that so many could end their lives in hell: I came to see that many of them had already begun their hell on earth, as with so many millions of Latin Americans and the misery they’re suffering. And so, without altering the basic orientation of my life in the slightest, I began to be concerned with the most urgent kind of service that can be rendered here in Latin America: the service of the integral salvation of human beings and the coming of God’s kingdom—the service of the liberation of the poor, here among my people, their humane, economic, social, and political liberation, which is an anticipation and commencement of their integral liberation and the coming of the kingdom. In other words, with liberation from poverty and oppression, the kingdom of God has already begun to emerge, and one day it can reach its fulness.”
“I also have to say that none of my work or activities, including my political involvement and my part in my people’s struggle, has ever drawn me away from my religious community. Always, in all the decisions I’ve made over the course of these years—from when I first started working with the Sandinista Front for National Liberation—I’ve always been able to count on my community and my superiors. Basically these decisions were always made in consultation with my fellow Jesuits and my superiors; we made our analyses and evaluations together.
“This evaluation process, or ‘community discernment’ with respect to the work each of the members of a Jesuit community is doing, has been a constant practice with us. I remember when I was teaching in the national university, in one of the most important evaluations we ever made, all the members of our community presented what they were doing in their work, all their activities, and the rest of the community evaluated it from the apostolic and Jesuit point of view. So I presented my work, as a teacher in the university. And then I listened to what my confreres had to say to me, to see if I should keep doing what I was doing, or devote myself to something else.
“Every one of them agreed that the very fact that I was the only priest in Nicaragua working in the national university was an apostolic labor in itself. They all said that the fact that I would be walking down the corridor and others would say, ‘There goes Father Cardenal, he’s a priest, and he’s involved in the people’s liberation struggle’—this was already known, all over Nicaragua—just the fact that my presence was reminding others at the university that a priest, or a Christian, can and should be committed to the struggle of his or her people, was a sermon in itself, a testimonial. My confreres said it was important that I should continue in this work. Of course, in class I didn’t talk about the gospel; I had to talk about Plato.
“My confreres gave me their complete support in this work, just as they support me completely now in my work with the members of the Sandinista Youth Movement. It’s the same sort of thing. In their view, giving a course on a secular subject in the university was actually an apostolic activity, in accordance with my vocation as a priest and a Jesuit, because of the witness of a life of involvement with and commitment to the poor. Likewise, now, they view my presence in the Sandinista Youth Movement as apostolic work as well. The fact that students, in the midst of everything they may hear or see about the revolution, or Marxism, or atheism—the fact that they also know and see that there’s a priest among them, and that he’s the director of this youth organization but that he’s still a priest, loyal to his faith and his priesthood, is a sermon in itself, a witness, an ecclesial and pastoral sign.
“And so, in the work I do here, I feel not only the personal satisfaction of performing an activity that’s consonant with my priestly and religious state, but the great satisfaction of knowing that my community supports me in this work as well. I know my community understands my work, and is in favor of it, and values it. In their view, this work of mine is a work of great apostolic importance: the church, through a priest, is present to the Sandinista youth. And knowing they think this is a great support to me.
“This is what I mean when I say that maintaining communion with my religious community and my superiors, in this work I do, strengthens and crowns the deep satisfaction I have in carrying out my religious vocation of service to my people with this work of the revolution. It means I’m doing God’s will. In the religious life, the approval and encouragement of one’s community and superiors has always been the sign and means of knowing that one is fulfilling the will of God.”
“What I’ve just been saying I’ve seen come true, ever so clearly, in the work I did in the revolution even before I started my job with the Sandinista Youth Movement. I was national coordinator of the Crusade for Literacy. De facto this was a political project, planned and executed because the leaders of the revolution had the ‘political’ intent—in the sense of the intent to serve the common good—to keep their promise to the people and start a process of democratization. This process of democratization called for the participation of all the popular classes, the masses of the people, in directing the history of Nicaragua. But this participation, in turn, demanded as a first step that the illiterate half of the Nicaraguan population learn to read and write and begin a process of education. Then all those Nicaraguans would be able to participate in the political process. The leaders of the revolution wanted to fulfill this political commitment to their people, and they put me in charge of making it a reality.
“I began to direct the literacy crusade, not by dividing myself in half—not by saying, ‘Now I’m going to do the job the revolution’s given me and leave my priesthood back there in my community’—no, I began to do this work precisely as a priest integrated into the revolution. I was not divided between revolution and priesthood. And I felt the great satisfaction of the revolutionary who sees that, after victory, the situation of the people changes—that the people begins to take its destiny into its own hands and goes on to build a new country, for the new humanity to live in. And at the same time, as a priest I felt the deep satisfaction that this work was in direct line with what our Lord asks of us in the gospel—that it is in the direct line of what we call the works of mercy, the things we’re called on to do to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God.
“I began to direct the literacy crusade, not by dividing myself in half—not by saying, ‘Now I’m going to do the job the revolution’s given me and leave my priesthood back there in my community’—no, I began to do this work precisely as a priest integrated into the revolution. I was not divided between revolution and priesthood. And I felt the great satisfaction of the revolutionary who sees that, after victory, the situation of the people changes—that the people begins to take its destiny into its own hands and goes on to build a new country, for the new humanity to live in. And at the same time, as a priest I felt the deep satisfaction that this work was in direct line with what our Lord asks of us in the gospel—that it is in the direct line of what we call the works of mercy, the things we’re called on to do to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God.
“In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 25, beginning with verse 31, we read what the last judgment will be like. And there’s a commandment there, an order given—a very clear directive. It’s that we’re to be concerned with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and the barefoot, and teaching the ignorant. Fifty-one percent of all Nicaraguans were illiterate. So they had to be taught to read and write. Well, I was right in the thick of it as priest-coordinator of the national Crusade for Literacy. And when we started visiting the whole country, and seeing the enthusiasm of the peasants as they started to feel the revolution’s concern and love coming all the way to them, and when the whole country started ‘going to school’—this enormous school of almost a million persons—well, nobody could tell me I wasn’t doing priestly work. Quite the contrary.
“Besides, I was doing something incorporated in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Saint Ignatius wrote that when anyone is appointed rector or provincial, he’s supposed to set aside some time to instruct the rudi, the ignorant. And he labeled this work with the ignorant a very important task, to which we Jesuits were always to devote some time. And all of a sudden the revolution gave me the chance to coordinate the work of teaching nearly a million illiterate Nicaraguans to read! How could I not feel priestly and religious satisfaction in doing this? That whole year, which was devoted to teaching our people to read, I was right where the gospel wants us to be, right where a priest should be.
“One fellow Jesuit of mine, a priest who’d taught me when I was in school—he’s about seventy years old now—was a ham radio operator. He joined the literacy crusade with me, all fired up like a sixteen-year-old. He had incredible energy. Day and night, he was in charge of the radio communications network— for all types of services and emergencies, sometimes serious, like rescuing persons in accidents, or transporting the sick or dying and then getting in touch with their families. After the crusade was over, when this priest had gone back to the school where he’d spent his whole life as a math teacher, he told me, ‘Never, as long as I live, will I ever again do anything as important as that. Nothing in my life has ever given me the satisfaction that that work in the national Crusade for Literacy did.’ He’d studied theology in the first quarter of this century. And yet his deep human sensitivity and spiritual intuition enabled him to grasp perfectly well what was so evangelical about being tied down to a microphone twenty-four hours a day—at the service of thousands of teachers, all over the country, who’d thrown themselves into teaching our people to read and write.
“And I want to tell you something else. It isn’t just my work with literacy, or my work with youth, that gives me a life so in keeping with my priestly and religious state. It’s my whole political participation in this revolution. Sometimes you can study so many things. You can read book after book. And all of a sudden one day you find, couched in a simple phrase, something that illuminates everything you’ve been reading and studying. I remember a phrase like that in the Medellin documents. It says that political activity is the ‘noblest and most efficacious form of practicing charity.’
“Then besides, there are emergency situations—‘exceptional’ historical considerations—in this country to compel and oblige a person to political work as a matter of necessity, as an evangelical duty. The work, the assignments we priests are given in this revolution in Nicaragua ought not to be measured by the same standards as political work and assignments in other parts of the world—in countries such as Italy, for instance, or Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, or the United States, or Canada, or so many other countries. To me this seems important and basic.
“With all the threatening circumstances here, with the threat of invasion, economic crisis, economic and news blockade— after all we’ve gone through and suffered here in Nicaragua—after all it’s cost us to break free of our slaveries and dependencies and be a free people, which God has certainly wanted, and still wants us to free ourselves from—I feel that my work is a perfectly honorable and effective service, a way of demonstrating and acting out my Christian love for my people, with so many and such serious needs.”
“You say that what you’re now doing is consistent with your whole Jesuit formation, with your conscience, and with your priestly dedication in the thirty years you’ve been in the Society of Jesus. Would you expand on this a bit? What are the convictions and experiences that have given you this certainty—that oblige you to get politically involved in this revolution as a duty of the gospel and the priesthood?”
“I entered the novitiate in 1952.1 don’t think anything particularly important happened for the answer to your question until 1969, when my theological studies were over and I was already a priest. That was when I moved to Medellin, Colombia, for the last year in my Jesuit training.
“I already had a concern for what we called the ‘social problem,’ but it was in an abstract and romantic way that wasn’t translated into anything concrete. I think the first concrete translation was precisely my asking to go to Medellin instead of to Spain, which was a big attraction for me because I’d never been to Europe.
“I knew that the tertian master in Medellin was Father Miguel Elizondo, a Spanish Jesuit of our province who was always starting something new. And now he’d just moved the tertianship from a very beautiful building surrounded by gardens—a very comfortable, large, five-story building in a city called La Ceja, outside Medellin—to a very poor neighborhood in Medellin. That way those of us who went there to do tertianship would be living for nine months in the midst of the poverty of a typical Latin American popular neighborhood, among the poor.
“This decision changed my whole life. Living with the poor, in that slum, taught me, in a practical, daily, very difficult way, the crass reality of how millions of Latin Americans actually live. And the ties of friendship, affection, and love that I was able to form with the people who lived in that slum, the discovery I made of their magnificent human values, right in the midst of the violation and deprivation of their rights, made their situation something I finally couldn’t stand any more.
“The intense spiritual training of those nine months set me to study and deepen what I’d seen in theology in the form of tractates and manuals that prepared you for an exam, but now was my daily bread, and a response to my restlessness. And so I began to discover that in the Christian priesthood there was not just the cultic, or liturgical, aspect—which was the only thing the Old Testament priesthood had actually been—but that Christ had inserted into the priesthood a prophetic aspect. It was an aspect whereby the Christian priesthood was supposed to make its other aspects prophetic as well—the cultic or liturgical, and the pastoral. I saw that the Christian liturgy should be prophetic—that it should boldly proclaim salvation in Christ and denounce everything opposed to that salvation: all sin, all injustice, all human selfishness that offended God in his living image—when the masses of a nation are made to suffer the misery that results from sin, selfishness, and social injustice, for example.
“And so in the course of almost three hundred days—days of prayer, study, contact with misery, contact with the poor, contact with those who live with exploitation, eviction, and hunger, in filth, in a slum without any electricity or any other municipal services or utilities—I came to understand the message of the prophets and the message of Jesus: that the God who’s revealed himself to us in the Bible isn’t a neutral God, but a God who takes sides with the poor. And therefore we, as priest-prophets of the church of the New Testament, can’t be neutral either.
“This was decisive for my life. Those slum-dwellers wanted me to stay with them after the nine months of my tertianship were over, stay in Medellin. But I felt I couldn’t do anything for them. Their basic problem was eviction from their lands, and I didn’t know anything about Medellin or anybody there; I couldn’t find them work or change their situation. But I did know that if I went back to Nicaragua I would certainly be able to do something—something that would not only help the poor of Nicaragua but all the exploited peoples of Latin America. Before I left their shantytown in Medellin, I swore to them I’d devote my life, all the life left to me, to fighting for the liberation of the poor. This was in 1970, in July.
“When I went back to Nicaragua, then, I carried with me a very clear and concrete idea of what our last general congregation had already told us Jesuits in no uncertain terms: that we were to devote our lives to the propagation of the faith and the defense ofjustice—both of them perfectly integrated into a single flow of activity.
“Three days after I took office as vice-rector, in charge of the students in the Central American University—a university conducted by the Jesuits here in Managua—the students went on strike and took over the university. And when I heard the speech by one of the student leaders, explaining their demands, I could see that the requests they were making of the rector and the university administration were just. What I did not have an inkling of was that, when this student leader had finished speaking, he was going to announce that they would now have a few words from the new vice-rector! And they passed me the megaphone.
“Standing there with the megaphone in my hand, I knew I had to make an instantaneous decision. I was going to have to choose between loyalty to the rector, who had been my friend ever since I was a child and was the spiritual director to whom I owed my vocation, and loyalty to my conscience—to truth and justice, which were on the students’ side. I told the students that what they sought seemed just to me—so I would support them, as long as they sought it in a just way, did not give up, and fought until they had it, because it was right.
“This cost me expulsion from the university. It cost me the loss of the friendship of my fellow priest, the rector. But I had to do it, because of the oath I’d sworn to the slum-dwellers in Medellin. What the university students were demanding were not the demands of the masses of the poor. But they were united in one cause, the cause of justice, the cause of the weak. The students were not poor, but they were weak, and they cried out for justice.”
“Then I began doing a number of things in support of activities for justice, activities on behalf of the exploited, which were taking place in the country at that time: demonstrations in favor of the teachers persecuted by the dictator Somoza, hunger strikes, the seizure of the cathedral to demand the release of political prisoners belonging to the Sandinista Front who were being tortured and slaughtered by Somoza in the prisons. Speeches, magazine articles, and all sorts of public demonstrations were already demanding justice at that early, peaceful stage. Nicaraguans had begun to make public demands for justice and change in their country. They wanted change not only with respect to the person of the dictator, but a change in the socio-economic structures that held the majority of the population in repression.
“As a result of this public activity, in 1970,1 was called on by Comandante Oscar Turcios (later murdered by Somoza’s National Guard, in 1973) to be a member of the national administration of the FSLN. We talked about it. Although I did not join the Sandinista Front at that time, that conversation influenced me a great deal, and all my work took on a greater sense of commitment. I came to see more deeply and realistically, with each passing day, that the country no longer had any option but armed struggle. I was and still am a great admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and I had hoped to help get their sort of nonviolent struggle under way in Nicaragua. I took part in hunger strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and all sorts of nonviolent campaigns. But I came to realize that it was too late.
“In 1973, Comandante Eduardo Contreras—introduced to me at that time simply as ‘Marcos’—asked me to work with the Sandinista National Liberation Front. At once I recalled the gospel parable of the good Samaritan and meditated on it in depth. For me now, there was no doubt but that there were, in Nicaragua, a group of persons called the Sandinista National Liberation Front, who had stayed with our wounded people, this nation wounded by exploitation and misery. This people lay by the side of the road, and the FSLN was the good Samaritan, caring for that wounded victim. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the way things were. And Marcos was saying to me, in effect: ‘Fernando, we’re asking you to help us care for this slaughtered, tortured, exploited people, living in misery, malnutrition, and illiteracy.’
“In a matter of seconds, I understood, profoundly and altogether clearly, that I couldn’t refuse without offending God. I saw, with perfect transparency, that I couldn’t do as the priest and the Levite and simply pass by. I understood that all my preparation and training, from high-school graduation on, as I tried to serve others and tried to see how in the Society of Jesus and the priesthood I could serve my fellow human beings—all this had to be made concrete now, right now, in one, single yes, once and for all. God was asking me to cooperate in the care and salvation of this wounded people. The hour had come to fulfil the vow I’d made to the poor of that Medellin slum. And I said yes, they could count on me . . . irrevocably yes.
“I reported that decision to my community, and all of them—including fellow Jesuits who’d come from Spain—agreed that, as a Nicaraguan religious and priest, I’d made the right option.
“From then on my work became more committed, and more dangerous. Now I was involved in both public and clandestine activities in preparation for the final insurrection. I worked with Comandante Tomas Borge and Comandante Daniel Ortega, and I was in contact with Comandante Bayardo Arce—all members of the national administration of the FSLN—and especially with Comandante Eduardo Contreras, who was murdered in 1976. The work they had me do involved physical risk, in fact it involved laying my life on the line, because torture and murder were always just around the corner in those days. All arrests began with torture. Interrogation came afterward.
“In 1977, Comandante Daniel Ortega asked me to join the Group of Twelve, the political group to be formed in Costa Rica in October. I hadn’t been allowed out of the country for a year now, since my return from the United States, where I’d testified before a congressional committee and made a public denunciation of the crimes of the Somoza dictatorship. I’d accused the president of the republic, General Anastasio Somoza, of murder, torture, and theft. From then on I wasn’t allowed out of the country, so I had to sneak out through the mountains and join the others in San José, Costa Rica. Now I was devoting all my time to the work of preparing for the insurrection, which came in September 1978, the final offensive of 1979, and victory on July 19, 1979, the day when our revolution succeeded in overthrowing and expelling Somoza and his army.”
“Did you have any problems, or were there any criticisms or warnings from your community and your superiors, or from the bishops, with regard to your political activities with the FSLN from 1973 until victory in July 1979?”
“As far as the Jesuits were concerned, I had no problem. None. My work, my commitment, my struggle were always considered an exceptional service, a necessary, urgent service to a people being slaughtered. I recall a father provincial saying that the situation in Nicaragua had come to such a pass that anything anybody might do to save this nation and its people would be completely justified. I kept in communication with the provincials I had during this period, and major decisions were always made in consultation with them.
“As far as the bishops were concerned, they never had the slightest reservation either, in spite of the fact that my position and my activity opposing the regime were quite public. My activities were well known. The government described them as part of the guerrilla struggle, or ‘terrorism and communism,’ as they called it. Everyone in Nicaragua knew that everything we did was in the service of the Sandinista Front, although we didn’t say so publicly for fear of our lives.
“When I accused Somoza and his regime of murder to the U.S. Congress, the lists of the missing, the tortured, and the murdered I presented were all of peasant collaborators of the FSLN. The only names I gave were those of poor, lowly mountaineers, up where the guerrillas were. I did this to make things still clearer, and to be able to give an answer when I would be asked, ‘Fernando, for whom were you speaking when you spoke to the U.S. Congress?’ The members of the committee did ask me this question. And I told them the truth: ‘I am here in the name of the barefoot, lowly peasants of Nicaragua.’
“But in Nicaragua the question became more specific: ‘. . . Defending the barefoot and the lowly, to be sure—but in the name of what organization?’ And here the only possible answer was ‘the FSFN.’ From 1976 on there could be no doubt that my work was connected with the Sandinista Front. And never, in all this time, was anything at all said to me, or any objections raised.
“I even went to speak personally with Archbishop Obando before going to the United States. My denunciations in the U.S.A. were going to have repercussions in the church, so my bishop, the archbishop of Managua, was one of the few persons I told what I was going to do. And when I came back I went to him again, to tell him how it all had gone. It seemed to me that it was my duty as a priest to go and tell him. And at no time did he raise any objection to what I was doing.
“In 1977, then, I was part of the Group of Twelve, which publicly defended the FSLN. And we turned up in Nicaragua in July 1978, as a group, and paid a visit to Archbishop Obando. Two of us in the group were priests—Father Miguel d’Escoto and I. And neither in the course of that visit nor during the months to come before the final insurrection did the archbishop at any moment, either directly or indirectly, say anything that might be construed as imposing a limitation on us or as reflecting any reservations on his part as to what we were doing, so as to suggest that it would be inappropriate for us to continue doing it for pastoral reasons, canonical reasons, or any other reasons.
“I stayed in contact with my superiors, both with the superior of my local community and with my provincial. Sometimes I even asked the provincial to come and see me secretly, so that I could speak with him. He never had the slightest objection, reservation, or animadversion to make about my activity. I always had the approval of all my superiors.”
“Why didn’t you priests drop yourpolitical activity once the revolution was victorious?’”
“Because we saw that the struggle wasn’t over. The struggle was entering a new, decisive stage, which was going to be very hard. The tyrant and his National Guard had been overthrown—but reconstruction and the transformation in depth of the whole system and its structures had yet to be begun. Now we could start improving the conditions of our poor population, and it seemed to us that we’d all be needed. There were few enough of us. We considered we’d all, priests included, be needed to start, and then move ahead with, the enormous tasks that lay before us. The tasks we were going to have to do seemed to us in no way inconsistent with our religious and priestly state.
“Our commitment to the people didn’t stop with the triumph over Somoza. It was strengthened, it was consolidated. It was deepened. Our new project with the people was going to have to have a lot of support; it was very shaky at first and had to suffer enormous harassment from powerful forces. And yet it was necessary, it was the cause of justice. Supporting this cause, this ‘forward march of the people,’ didn’t mean having power yourself, power as a sign of privilege. It meant bolstering the possibilities for the poor to have power.
“We had to keep on in the struggle for the ‘new society’ and the ‘new march forward of the people.’ It was up to us priests to keep Christian values and ecclesial values present in the revolution. There we were, face to face with the possibility that, for the first time in history, a revolution might establish a socialism that wouldn’t be anti-Christian or anticlerical, and that Christianity and the church wouldn’t turn away from it and be its adversary. But this historic possibility was so threatened, so tenuous. It could so easily abort. How we hoped it would not! And so we offered to help prepare the next step in the work too.”
“Many of those who may have approved of what you priests were doing in the early stages of the struggle against Somoza now disapprove of it. They think the Sandinista Front has changed, betrayed, the original program of the people’s revolution.”
“In fact, it’s very easy to see that the Sandinista undertaking, the Sandinista program, with all the support it had from so many countries of Latin America and Europe when it was fighting to overthrow the Somoza government, is still substantially the same today. The basic goals and values that united so many persons in this country, of all social classes, in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship stand unshaken.
“All the basic, novel elements of this process are still there. What’s changed is not the program of the Sandinista Front, but the fact that, in the years of the struggle against Somoza in Nicaragua, all elements of the people were united in that struggle. Even the rich were with us.
“In 1973, immediately after the earthquake, General Somoza began to enter into hot business competition with the rich. And a greedy competitor he was. Insatiable. He monopolized every possible means to get his own business enterprises in the most favorable position, as they competed with the initiatives of all private enterprise. So the FSLN had everybody with them in the fight against Somoza.
“But once Somoza, along with his whole army, fell, and the Sandinista Front began to run the government with great moderation and started putting in practice the reforms that were needed to really transform this country so that it favored the masses of the poor, then these changes, these reforms, started to hit the rich in their pocketbooks—hit them very gently, in fact, very prudently, but started to hit them. And this was when the rich started opposing the Sandinista revolution, claiming that it had ‘betrayed the program.’ The only thing the rich had wanted, of course, was a change in figureheads—not a change in the system.
“Unfortunately, religious elements have also sounded an echo, not of the Easter gladness of a people reaching the end of its exodus and beginning to reconstruct its land of promise, but an echo of sorrow and protest of those who are pining for their privileges—privileges that they had held for centuries and that they are now gradually having to yield to the interests of a society where everybody is to be privileged.
“To me the case is clear. It’s not that the Sandinista Front has betrayed any of its principles. It’s the wealthy, and those who have catered to them out of self-interest, who are calling the revolution into question. And they’re not calling it on the carpet for abandoning the revolution the Sandinista Front planned, but precisely for carrying out what it planned: the transformation of the country—land reform and structural reforms to make Nicaragua a country where justice reigns, a community of brothers and sisters.”
“However that may be, there is, de facto, a conflict in the church over public offices held by priests in the revolution—a conflict that’s reached the highest hierarchical echelons of the church. In June 1981, the bishops of Nicaragua published their ultimatum: priests would either abandon their government posts or be punished. Then the Vatican applied the brakes, and the bishops permitted you to continue in your posts, provided you renounced the exercise of your priestly functions.
“Now the matter is in the forefront again. Word is out that the Vatican is pressuring you to leave your government positions. It’s said that Father Dezza, the vicar of the Society of Jesus, the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, is exerting his authority on the Jesuits in this matter. How do you, Fernando, feel about this conflict?”
“I have to admit that all sorts of indications like this have been in the wind since 1980, back when I was in the literacy crusade. Even then there were rumors of our having to abandon our tasks and services to the people in the revolution. I always perceived them as motivated by a political view of things. Never at any moment did I sense a truly pastoral and evangelical concern for us personally as priests, or for the mission of the church to the people, or for the kingdom of God. I’m not saying that the concern wasn’t there. I don’t want to judge anybody, or second-guess anybody’s intentions. I’m only saying that I personally could never see anything more than a political intent in this sort of talk.
“And then, yes, we were told to quit our posts. We were told to quit them because there were ‘too few priests.’ When I was teaching philosophy at the national university there were even fewer, at least I think there were fewer, but nobody ever complained that I didn’t have an assignment in a parish or some other fixed pastoral work. And I never knew of anyone, not one bishop, concerned over the fact that there were priests in our school who taught mathematics or English or history or Spanish all day. I really had to wonder why all this concern all of a sudden! It seemed to me that teaching our people to read, teaching the poor, the illiterate, was more important to the church’s mission than being in the university, teaching the privileged, teaching them subjects such as the ones I’d taught there.
“I knew that other countries had priests in government positions—important positions—and no problem was ever made. of it. To come down to cases, I was in Colombia a few days ago, and a fellow Jesuit was telling me he’d been working in the ministry of education and had never had a problem. So, then, is it all right to have a job in a government ministry in Colombia but not all right in Nicaragua?”
“I have to say that it really hurt to accept the conditions the bishops laid down for granting us permission to keep our government positions in July 1981. An agreement like that looked really absurd to me, because we were being given permission to keep the posts we held, as an ‘exception,’ in view of the emergency situation in the country, but we were being asked voluntarily to give up all exercise of our priesthood. Now we could no longer celebrate any sacrament, not even the Eucharist, in public or private, in Nicaragua or anywhere else. But it was ‘voluntary,’ so that it couldn’t be interpreted as a punishment.
“This doesn’t seem to me to be either canonical or pastoral or evangelical or Christian or human. If the concern is pastoral, if what’s wanted is for us to go back to the pastoral ministry, the kind of deprivation that’s asked of us takes us still further out of the pastoral ministry. For over a year now we’ve been deprived of every kind of directly pastoral and priestly ministry. We’ve kept the commitment we made, but there’s no way we wouldn’t feel the deprivation as a penalty, and suffer from it as such—feel we’re being punished by being deprived of something. And if we’ve committed no crime (after all, we’re being permitted to keep our jobs), then why are we asked voluntarily to accept—that is, voluntarily to impose upon ourselves—a penalty? The agreement says it’s not a penalty, it’s a voluntary renunciation. But it’s felt as a penalty; there’s no way for it not to be felt as one.
“I believe that if there’s an exception to be made by the Church here—if the church is willing to make this exception, out of consideration for an emergency in the life of the people—then this exception ought to be made generously. The priests ought to have the church’s blessing and support, so that they wouldn’t lose the spirit of the priesthood, and so that they wouldn’t turn away, not lose the taste for the sacramental ministry and become unaccustomed to this ministry, while they’re devoting themselves to this exceptional work. If the church has their spiritual good at heart and grants this exception, it should find a way to help them pastorally and spiritually while doing so.
“For instance, there was a bishop who got us together and told us, ‘I want to make a monthly retreat with you, so you can continue to reflect on your faith and keep the call of your priesthood alive.’ This, it seems to me, is the way to make a pastoral response to our pastoral problem. Hasn’t the church always insisted that all priests, even those who for various reasons don’t preside at a community Mass, ought to be able to celebrate Mass themselves, even if with a minimal congregation?
“It hurt to be deprived of this, and it still hurts. But I accepted, voluntarily. I thought of Charles de Foucauld. I’d read that, because canon law in those days forbade the Eucharist to be celebrated without an acolyte, and he was with the Tuaregs in the Sahara and didn’t have anybody to serve his Mass, he went three years without saying Mass so he could serve the Tuaregs by the witness of his evangelical presence. So I decided I could give up saying Mass in that same spirit. I said to myself, I’m going to give up celebrating all sacraments or performing any priestly function in order to be of service to my people by my presence in their revolution.
“Of course, Charles de Foucauld was completely alone and had to give up Mass altogether. I, thank God, don’t have to give it up: I assist at the Eucharist celebrated by my confreres in my religious community.
“Along with these considerations, I ought also to mention a deep, unexpected satisfaction I have in certain things. We get a lot of letters from a great number of countries in America and Europe—from Christians, priests, theologians, basic communities, Christian congresses and assemblies, and so on. One very special one came from the whole editorial board of Concilium, which was meeting in London at the same time we were winding up our negotiations with the bishops. More than twenty world-famous theologians wrote to our bishops about how valuable they thought our presence and work were in the revolution. That made us realize how much our presence in the Sandinista revolution meant as a sign, in many lands—a clear sign of a church in solidarity with the cause of the poor.
“Nicaraguans were begging for this sign to be kept alive; they were saying that our presence in the revolution meant hope for them, as church. It was such a consolation for us to receive all this support. And in Nicaragua too there were so many documents, statements, assemblies, and meetings expressing a desire that we continue as priests and continue working for the people in the revolution.”
“One hears it said that now you practice ‘Jesuit obedience’ to the Sandinista Front—that you obey the party blindly, whereas you disobey the authority of the church.”
“In the first place, let’s be clear about one thing. The other priests—the cabinet ministers—and I have remained in our offices with the permission of our bishops. This was arranged by none other than the Vatican secretary of state, Archbishop Casaroli. He played an important part in the agreement that had already been reached in Rome when the bishops called us together in July 1981 to give us this exceptional permission, under the conditions we’ve already talked about. We’re not being disobedient. Let’s be clear about that.
“To say we obey the party blindly seems rather coarse to me. But we had better talk about it. I don’t believe there’s anybody in the party, priest or not, with any self-respect or enjoying the respect of others, who could be said to be practicing blind obedience. Nobody. And least of all we.
“One of the fundamental principles of the party is ‘democratic centralism’; we can certainly always have a hearing I can state publicly that, on numerous occasions, I have communicated directly with the leaders of the revolution, to ask them questions or to transmit my reservations or my suggestions, and that I continue to do so. Any sort of ‘blind obedience,’ in the pejorative sense, is foreign to everything I stand for. I have never practiced it, not even in the religious life—and nobody normal practices it, because it’s beneath human dignity. Still less would it be an act of religion or a Christian practice. Those who know us know that we’ve always been very independent persons; we say what we think.
“But there is something more complex and deeper here. I feel very deeply the religious call to obedience to God. Never in my life have I made greater sacrifices out of obedience to God than in the revolution. And never, in my thirty years of religious life, have I understood more profoundly the importance of ‘obedience in faith,’ which is obedience to the will of God. I hear this call of obedience to God in the voices and cries of our people suffering in poverty. I seek to obey God more than anything else on the face of this earth, and I feel that no one, nothing, can separate me from the path of obedience. And I can say without exaggeration (and without vanity—we’ve had enough training in risking our lives) that I’m not afraid even of death. I’m not afraid. I’m ready to do anything to be obedient to my conscience. And my conscience tells me to obey God by being unconditionally faithful, always, every moment, to my people—to a people still suffering in a country where three years is too short a time for the miracle of a passage from misery to development, where there are so many needs, where there is such a heritage of pillage and destruction, where there’s been a blockade, where we’re under attack. . . .
“I’d like to make it very clear that, by my faith in our Lord and my obedience in faith to our Lord to whom I’ve consecrated myself in the religious life and the priesthood, my conscience obliges me, after considering everything involved, to make this irreducible, irrevocable, irreversible commitment to the people. And for me it’s clear that this is what God asks of me, that this is what God wishes. And I’m ready to obey his will even if it leads to my death. And there’s nothing, there’s no one, that can make me abandon it. For me, anything else, anything against a commitment to the people, goes clearly against the will of God and would be a sin.
“I’ve had very striking personal experiences in which I’ve seen that I’d be betraying God, and failing in the accomplishment of his will, if, in the name of some ‘law’ or other, I were to abandon my people—the poor in Medellin, or the students who went on a hunger strike for their comrades who were being abused by Somoza’s National Guard. And I feel the same thing now. Only, I feel it much more profoundly, because that was just the beginning.”
“There are those who accuse you priests of holding these official positions in the revolution out of vanity, out of ambition for glory and power, or out of self-interest and personal advantage.”
“Faced with this type of accusation there’s no point in grandiloquent declarations of humility and unselfishness. Let’s look at the facts.
“The pay in this revolution is low. With the training we’ve had, we could earn lots more, anywhere, doing anything. This country, and the Sandinista Front, have tremendous economic difficulties. When I was working in the national Crusade for Literacy I made the highest salary in government—10,000 cordobas a month, $200 to $300 at the official exchange rate. Now that I’m working with the youth movement I make 3,000 cordobas—$100—a month. If I’d accepted the position of vice-minister, I’d still be making 10,000 cordobas. There’s no social security for us. Money is the least important thing.
“When they talk about glory and power, I don’t know if they realize that this is a revolution that’s being hounded relentlessly, fenced in, by imperialist administration hawks in North America, who make no secret of their ‘covert’ operations geared to the destruction of the revolution—which means destroying us, too. We could be murdered. This imperialism maintains, protects, feeds, and arms six thousand Somozist gunmen, just across the border in Honduras. And they make border raids, they attack and kill peasants and militia personnel. At any moment they could cross the border in a body, as the spearhead of an invasion by the Honduran army, and with the North Americans right behind them.
“At best, the future holds twenty to twenty-five years of very hard work. Privation is going to be our daily bread. You’re seeing it right now. In addition to all the other deprivations and difficulties our people have had to suffer, there are the floods we’ve had this year, with forty bridges washed out, the good soil swept away, and the general destruction that’s set the economic recovery of the country back ten years. And after the floods there was the drought. Power, glory, and personal advantage? Anybody in contact with our objective reality knows that we’re a revolution practicing a severe, obligatory austerity. No, the only thing the revolution has to offer us is sacrifice, and the only privilege it accords us is service to the people. There’s no margin for ‘power’ or ‘glory’ or ‘personal advantage.’ This is factual, this is objective.
“Being a cabinet minister in an underdeveloped country is not the same thing as holding a post in the ruling party of a country where the per capita income is high and the gross national product is in the billions of dollars. We’re a tiny little country, very poor, and very abused and battered. Our statistics are a laugh. And we have to reckon with the danger of death constantly. That’s the danger you live in when you’re directing a revolution that’s threatened as lethally as ours is, a revolution that the CIA is working to destabilize—this has been admitted by officials high up in the Reagan administration. Everyone knows who we are, we live in ordinary homes, we have no secret service to protect us, we go home at night, and anybody could ride up on a bicycle and shoot us and ride quietly off. And the U.S. government has put $19 million into getting rid of this revolution.
“Power? I’d like to state very clearly that we don’t have any power, we don’t wield power. The power here is in the hands of the Sandinista Front, with nine persons in its national administration, and it’s a power of the people, for the people. It’s not the party’s and it’s not for the party. We only share the work and the efforts being made to restore and rebuild the country. We give no orders, and we make no policy decisions. We serve, and that’s all. We’re respected and listened to, yes. But that’s something else. This ought to inspire trust, not jealousy or envy or objectively baseless accusations. Because we just don’t have any power. Anyone who talks about power, as if we priests in the government and the party had any, simply doesn’t know this revolution.
“I’m a member of the Sandinista Assembly, which is the advisory committee of the national administration of the revolution, and there’s not one privilege attached to this job. But I wanted to explain this thing about power more clearly to you, since, to be sure, we’re in a revolution that has ‘come to power’ and, in spite of all the limitations of our country, has access to power. For me, what’s basic, what’s evangelical, here lies in two attitudes, which I strive at all times firmly to maintain: my fear of the dangers of power, and my strong resolve to place power, to the last particle, exclusively at the service of the poor.”
“Another accusation I’ve heard against you: You’re priests, yet you’re partisan. You sacralize, you legitimate a revolution and a regime that, according to its accusers, brings communism and atheism to Nicaragua.”
“Once again I have to say that this is an objection that doesn’t correspond to reality here. It looks like a prefabricated accusation, invented by one ideology against another ideology. It’s politically self-serving.
“I don’t know if this accusation would be valid in some other country where priests occupy public positions, but it certainly doesn’t hit home in Nicaragua. It doesn’t correspond to the truth of our real situation.
“If they’re thinking of Nicaragua as a stabilized, developed, tranquil country, where a number of political parties are struggling for power and a priest joins one of these parties and takes political sides so as to ‘come to power,’ and not to serve the people—then they’re thinking of something quite different from what’s happening here.
“To go back for a moment to the beginning of this interview: I came here to a country that’d been governed for nearly half a century by an unjust, murderous, bloody dictatorship, one that eradicated whole families. I read to the U.S. Congress whole lists of families—father, mother, grandparents, teenagers, and younger children—murdered in the mountains. In the final fifty-two days of the offensive alone, fifty thousand persons died in Nicaragua. Here, then, taking sides with the people by joining with those who are struggling and offering their lives to defend the people—supporting them and becoming one of them, in the people’s defense—this is totally different from the case of political parties that are all trying to come to power in a normalized, organized country.
“We’re taking sides, yes—with the good Samaritan. Here you have to take sides, you have to be ‘partisan.’ Either you’re with the slaughtered or you’re with the slaughterers. From a gospel point of view I don’t think there was any other legitimate option we could have made. What is transpiring here in Nicaragua is rife with ‘exceptionality,’ and this exceptionality surely justifies our offices and our labors.
“As to the support, legitimation, or ‘sacralization’ we’re accused of lending this revolution and its ideology by our priesthood—well, the truth is we’ve always been cautious in the extreme. We’ve always been most careful not to utilize our faith and our priesthood as a tool to this end. For us, and for anybody who’s honest and objective, this revolution is legitimate in its own right. It doesn’t need a priest to come and ‘give his blessing.’ Its legitimacy, stemming from the search for justice and liberation of the exploited, is such that a Christianity and a church that are faithful to the gospel and not manipulated can have nothing against this revolution and nothing to fear from it. Quite the contrary, such a Christianity and such a church must see that this revolution is humanely and socially legitimated in virtue of its consistency with the gospel, because it liberates our poor, outraged, exploited, Christian people.
“But the extreme right utilizes and manipulates Christianity and the church, in order to attack the revolution and deprive it of its legitimacy—in order to make it look suspect, communistic, and atheistic, a persecutor of the faith and the church. This confuses our simple, religious-minded people. And this is how the ultraright gets the church outside Nicaragua, especially in Rome, through the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, to take sides against the revolution. And they rely on the efforts of the Reagan administration to destabilize us. It’s this manipulation that’s at the origin of the accusation you’re reporting.”
“This accusation of communism and atheism is an interesting one. I think that most persons who talk that way about Marxism are resorting to a caricature—an insulting caricature. They’re coming from an ideological, political, self-serving, anticommunist stereotype that distorts Marxism because they haven’t the courage to look at it for what it really is. It’s one thing when someone undertakes seriously and scientifically to see what Marxism really is, and what is really Marxist here in our revolution—what the Marxist approach to the social sciences has contributed to the building of this revolution. But it’s a different thing altogether when accusers not only don’t know what Marxism is, but distort it and use a caricature of it to denigrate, to cheapen, and to malign, effortlessly and underhandedly, anything that’s done for the poor.
“Let them be serious, respectful., and objective for once. Let them take the trouble to analyze each ideology in its own turn, and then analyze what there is, and what there isn’t, of each ideology here in our revolution. Let them not simply resort to empty epithets. Let them look at our history, our reality, and what this revolution really is and is doing.
“We’re surrounded by a great chorus of anticommunists, incited by the anticommunist political hawks in the present U.S. imperialist administration. They think they can profit from name-calling, if they manage to convince others that their caricatures really do point to a false, evil force. But this shows only that those who use this dirty ideological weapon in Nicaragua are making illegitimate and dishonorable accusations.
“Atheism? I grew up in a Jesuit boarding school in Nicaragua. Then I spent thirty years in religious houses. And now, over the last ten years, I’ve been working in intimate contact with fellow members of the Sandinista Front. And I really have to wonder—where are Nicaragua’s atheists?
“I’m convinced that the biblical concept of the atheist is the correct one. In the Bible, the atheist is the one who doesn’t love. That’s who really denies God. I have comrades who say that they ‘don’t believe,’ that they ‘don’t have the faith.’ But they’ve been living a life of love, a life of commitment—they’ve given the gift of self and of sacrifice—for twenty years now in the cause of the poor. Certainly this will be acknowledged on the Last Day as genuine faith. And I know others who, in the name of God, are slitting peasants’ throats out on our borders, to create panic.
“There are ladies and gentlemen in our country who, with the name of God on their lips, have stopped making investments here so that there will be an economic crisis in Nicaragua. They are sending their money out of the country because they say this revolution is Marxist and atheistic. They are attacking their own people in the name of God. There are those who, in the name of God, think themselves summoned to be a dominant class. They convince themselves that God has chosen them to be superior to others, so that of course others should serve them. This is their faith. And this is their God, whittled down to the level of their privileges and interests.
“Who in Nicaragua really believes in God? And who really are the atheists in Nicaragua? If these questions are asked in all sincerity, the answers are obvious.
“Admittedly, I’ve been talking about extreme cases. Between the extremes come the sincere, explicit believers who constitute the vast majority of our people, and of course they are true believers in God. But if I had to choose between the extremes—and of course I have to!—I prefer to be with those who, without putting God’s name on their lips, and perhaps without even formally knowing God, are doing all God asks to be done for a suffering people. They carry God’s love, yes, and God’s tenderness, in their hands and in their lives.”
“Have you traded in the gospel for Marx? Have you turned your back on Christ to practice the ‘following of Marx’?”
“I can state categorically that I have not exchanged, am not exchanging, and shall never exchange Christ and the gospel for anything or anyone else. For me, Christ and his gospel have been for over thirty years the basic motivation of my life, and of everything I’ve done and am doing. And it’s my life goal to live and die according to the model that Jesus has taught us in the gospel.
“This question—this accusation—wouldn’t deserve an answer at all if it weren’t for the fact that we can’t afford to leave any doubt about our personal attitudes. We have to ‘give an account of our hope,’ state the reasons why we hope for the things we hope for. But taken in itself the objection is absurd, because it tries to compare apples and oranges. Christ and Marx aren’t on the same level; they don’t fall in the same category of things at all.
“The basic motivation of my life and work is evangelical. This is the motive power, the moving force of my life, the fundamental motivation that leads me to work for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God here on earth. But the gospel contains no manuals of architecture, engineering, or social science to help us in the practical building up of this new society, which the kingdom of God obliges us to build. As Vatican II clearly states, the kingdom of God begins to be built in concrete history. So we have to have recourse to all the sciences that can help us: philosophy, physics, chemistry, engineering, the social sciences—and among the social sciences, Marxism.
“The only thing we look for in these sciences is what’s appropriate for our own situation. We use them only to help us solve the concrete problems we have to face in building a new Nicaraguan society. And I’m trying to help form this society, one that’s in line with my basic motivation, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus with his gospel and Marx with his socio-economic critique are two different sorts of things. I don’t think it would make any sense for someone to say he or she is exchanging Christ for Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein, or some famous chemist, would it? Well, Marx is on the same level as they, and it doesn’t make sense to say he can be exchanged for Christ. We don’t exchange Christ for anything or anybody else.”
“Here’s another accusation for you—a challenge really: some are saying that you ought to define, once and for all, whether you’re priests or whether you’re politicians.”
“We’ve already defined ourselves. We’ve been defining ourselves for years. We’ve always spoken and acted as Christians, priests, and persons of faith, committed to our people’s struggle, by the power of the gospel and for the sake of the gospel.
“Our service of God in the priesthood has led us to the ministry of charity and love, which in Nicaragua has been translated into a ministry in support of the forward march of the people, the ministry of accompanying our people from within, by participating in a transformation of structures, so that the poor may have justice. Our first definition, then, our essential definition, must include, because of the concrete historical exigencies of the ministry of charity, the element of support for the Sandinista popular revolution.
“I don’t think we need any more ‘definitions’ in order to be well defined. But I’m ready to give one if it’s insisted on, at any time, and I’ll give it right now: I’m a Christian, I’m a priest—I seek to live in such a way as always to be faithful to God, faithful to the church, faithful to the priesthood, and faithful to God’s grace. And in order to live out these fidelities concretely, historically, among my people, I have no thought or desire ever to betray my people, their history, or their revolution.
“If we study the defense of the cause of the poor with the eyes of faith, we find God deep within it. In defending the cause of the poor we’re defending God’s cause. God’s cause is transcendent, this is true. But it includes all the positive causes of history, and preferentially the cause of the poor, for God has caught them up in history in a preferential option. We believe we can reach God in Nicaragua only through the mediation of the struggle for and with the poor.
“I think that those who are asking us to ‘define ourselves’ are asking us to put asunder something that we feel God has joined together here in Nicaragua. What they want is for us to either abandon the priesthood or abandon the popular revolution— two things that I feel to be profoundly united in my life, in my faith, and in my spirituality. I feel, profoundly, that I am a priest, and at the same time I feel, profoundly, that I am committed to the cause of our revolution. For me, the suggestion that we keep these two things apart is as absurd as asking a French Christian to make up his or her mind to be either Christian or French, or asking a Spanish Christian to define whether he or she is a Christian or a Spaniard. It’s ridiculous to ask someone to choose between two things that can go together perfectly well.”
“Your political activity, your fight for the people, your labors in the revolution, with the Sandinista Front—what effect has all this had on your faith and your spiritual life?”
“From the very beginning, I found that my part in the Sandinista struggle gave me the opportunity to live the gospel more realistically. I was now living that gospel in a basic, radical way—a way that was not just theoretical, not simply a matter of doctrinal formulas, and not expressed only sporadically in writings or in isolated actions of daring. I was now living the gospel in my whole practical life. The Sandinista Front provided me with the opportunity of daily risking my life for the cause of the poor—flesh-and-blood persons I see and esteem, the ones I’ve opted for on criteria that are sacred, religious, and Christian—the criteria of the gospel—out of a desire to follow Christ and be Christ’s priest as he was the priest of his Father and risked his life for these same persons, and actually died for them.
“The Sandinista Front gave me the chance to have what we used to pray for in the novitiate—flooded with the fervor of the moment and perhaps not completely realizing what we were asking for—‘the grace of martyrdom, if it were to be God’s will.’ Now that request is concretized for us in our lives, day and night, as we stand ready to lay down our lives for the people. Under Somoza the risk of going to prison, of being tortured and murdered, was a reality that, alas, thousands of Nicaraguans had to face. And the nightmare has not ended with the triumph of the revolution. Counter-revolutionaries have already begun to murder technicians and Sandinistas. In 1982 they killed more than five hundred Nicaraguans, and the attacks grow more vicious by the day.
“I must add that I’ve found countless examples of heroism among my fellow revolutionaries—examples of highmindedness, of selflessness—in their dedication of love to our people, to the lowliest of our people. Theirs is a practical love, which has renewed in me all those evangelical and religious attitudes that I had been trying to live for years and years, but they had become routine, locked up in the patterns and limits of our routine religious life. Some religious end up identifying the experience of the evangelical virtues with these patterns, these surroundings, these limits; they think that the evangelical life can’t be lived outside these molds.
“In our Latin American countries this can actually snuff out the evangelical life, a life according to the gospel, for our men and women religious. Here we are, living in community, all leading a correct, ‘observant’ life—but it’s the life normally lived by religious in normal times in a normal country. Not that my community isn’t a fine community from the religious point of view. I’ve never had problems with my community, and I’ve never left it, except for the months when I had to go into hiding. And I live, I share, I pray, and I nourish my faith in this community. Nevertheless, I gained a new dimension, new religious vitality, when I started sharing my life with my fellow Sandinists—the heroic dimension, I’d call it.
“I had lived in community with other religious who had made a commitment that, from the ascetic viewpoint, was a holocaust. That’s the kind of renunciation it demands. And yet, after so many years, that way of life actually became simply normal for us. Then, with my fellow Sandinistas, as I shared my life with them—as I shared their experiences-—I discovered a boundless field where love and dedication could have free rein, where the possibilities for toil and sacrifice for others were endless. This was so motivating for me! It renewed me within.
“It was much more fruitful than any kind of spiritual exercises or retreats to see the example of my fellow Sandinistas, men and women, girls and boys, going to their death with such courage, and with no wish but to fight to the death rather than place their fellow Sandinistas in danger. And fight to the death they did, and sometimes it was death by torture. For this cause, for love of their people, these young persons steadfastly endured the most atrocious tortures. And life in hiding was fraught with danger and enormous sacrifices. All this was a great inspiration for me, and has been truly precious for me, for my faith and my religious life.”
“I must tell you too that this commitment of mine has given me a new reason for and added a new meaning to my vow of celibacy. Some of the reasons we were given in the novitiate for looking on celibacy as supremely pleasing to God, a very special charism that God gave to the church, are no longer very good reasons. Not that they were false reasons then, but after thirty years of religious life and the great number of changes that renewal has wrought in the church, they’re reasons that are no longer compelling. But this commitment to my people, as they make their difficult way along the path to total liberation and development, has given me a new and powerful reason for celibacy. That new reason lies in the importance of being faithful to the people, to the poor, and to the cause of the poor, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
“My celibacy radically expresses my profound, religious, transcendent involvement with the poor among my people. This reason—loyalty to my people in its struggle—has been a mighty reason for fidelity to celibacy. And it still is. Many a time it has been the most powerful reason of all for my being faithful to celibacy—in order to be faithful to my priesthood and thus to be able to place everything I have and am at the service of the cause of the poor. My priesthood, of course, is precisely one of the elements of my own personal contribution to the revolution.
“Without a doubt, we live on the borderline between faith and atheism, in some ways. We have close personal contact with persons who’ve never had the faith, or who’ve lost it—often enough owing to scandal occasioned by the church itself or positions taken by the church. We live on the frontier between the traditional atmosphere of a believer’s religious life, the atmosphere in which many of us imbibed the faith in our earliest years, and close personal association with persons who either never had this faith or who don’t talk about it because the atmosphere is not there, the right moment never comes. And living on this frontier makes you purify your own faith.
“I have to confess that my life of faith was always a very peaceful, tranquil experience. I was reared in a deeply Christian family. As a young boy I went off to a Jesuit boarding school, for six years, and then straight into the novitiate. I never had any real problems with my faith. My faith journey was a very calm one. And so when I joined the Sandinista Front, I leapt for the first time into an atmosphere where I was not surrounded by visual, audible, or ritual expressions of the faith. I crashed into unexpected questions concerning my faith. But this is not a bad thing. It hasn’t done me the least harm. On the contrary, my faith has solidified; it’s no longer a faith with a good percentage on loan from others, so to speak.
“In the midst of all this new self-questioning, then, and these new difficulties—but also amid countless examples of heroic love and sacrifice, even of the sacrifice of the gift of life itself—I’ve gradually made my faith more my own. It’s more a part of me now, stronger, deeper.
“There are a lot more things I could tell you. But I’d like to just capsulize them, in a simple statement of what my experience has been.
“I’m about to complete ten years as a member of the Sandinista Front. And I can tell you two things. First, I have never, in all the years of my involvement with the FSLN, encountered the least obstacle to my faith or my morals. I have never had to make a decision, or do anything else, that placed my faith or my morals in danger or caused any problem for them. Second, what I found instead was a powerful stimulus to be a better Christian—to be more faithful to my Christian sensibilities, to live the real values of the gospel that my religious consecration calls for in a better and deeper way, and with more enthusiasm, both at the level of a deeper doctrinal grasp of these values and at the practical level of actually living them.
“Fernando, what does the provisional nature of your political duties mean to you, if anything? Do you still think of these duties as ‘exceptional’?”
“I certainly do. In this country, in this revolution, which is so dynamic and so dialectical, nobody can feel permanently ensconced in a position, wedded to a job.
“But I’d like to go into this further. The assignment is provisional, yes. But my commitment to the people is not. My involvement in this revolutionary process has nothing provisional about it whatsoever. It’s definitive. It’s a lifelong, total commitment for me, just as are those other commitments I’ve made and expressed in faith in the gospel, in Christ, and in God. It’s for the gospel, Christ, and God that I’ve made this commitment and it’s for them that I live. It will never be legitimate for me to doubt that this commitment is to be honored out of loyalty to the faith itself, out of the following of Jesus Christ. There’s nothing provisional here. This is a decision to the death.
“I do not, however, suppose that I am the only one who could fill this position. I think I make a contribution to it. My fellow Sandinists consider my presence in this post beneficial. I’m accepted by the rank and file, the grassroots. But I can be replaced. I don’t have the top position in the Sandinista Youth Movement. I’m a national vice-coordinator. There’s a national coordinator, and he’s the real dynamo of the Sandinista Youth Movement, its driving force.”
“If you resigned, which do you think would stand to lose more, the revolution or the church?”
“This revolution is poor. Its resources are scant. Every leader and every follower is important, necessary. In this sense, the relinquishing of any position in the revolution would represent a loss for the revolution, especially if it entailed leaving the revolution itself. Ten thousand technically-trained persons have left Nicaragua. Anyone who’s studied in the university or has had an academic training like mine is important in this country, and so of course my resignation would be a loss to the revolution.
“But it would also be a loss to the church. In Nicaragua there has been a positive integration of Christians in the popular revolution. This is precious for the church. It’s the first revolution in the history of the human race that Christians have been this deeply and this positively involved in. If any of us left the revolution, I would consider it a loss for the church, because the church would lose its presence in the revolution. If the church doesn’t want the revolution to be atheistic, and atheizing, then the first thing it should do is to be present in it as God’s witness. If the church pulls Christians out of the revolution, it will be cooperating in the ‘atheization’ of the revolution: the revolution will become atheistic and it will make atheists of others.
“I doubt if there has ever been another revolutionary party or revolution anywhere in the world that’s entrusted the responsibility for the political formation of its youth—its future as a revolution—to a Catholic priest. But Nicaragua did it. The church has always been most zealous for the education of youth, has it not? So, then, ought it not to see my presence in the Sandinista Youth Movement as a guarantee of, and an advantage for, its educational mission?
“I don’t understand how the same ones who complain that Christians aren’t allowed to join the Communist Party of Cuba then turn around and complain that the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua not only allows Christians to join it but appoints them members of the Sandinista Assembly and entrusts the political directioning of its youth movement to a priest! This ought to be seen as something positive. It ought to be recognized that if this were to be lost, the church would suffer a loss. I could be replaced, of course, but my replacement might be someone who, by training and experience, would have no appreciation of the Christian faith or the church.”
“Are there any Christians in the Sandinista Youth Movement?”
“Of course! If this revolution has any special characteristics of its own, the very first is the integration of Christians—many, many Christians, at every structural level. The Sandinista youth are no exception. A great many Christian students are active members, and there are Christians among the leaders.
“When the second national assembly of the Sandinista Youth Movement was in preparation, in December 1981,1 invited some of the members of a group of Christian university students we have here in Nicaragua—the Revolutionary Christian Students —to come and talk. My intention was to invite them to the assembly as observers. But in the course of our conversation I realized that there wouldn’t be any point in inviting them: they were already scheduled to attend, as active members of the Sandinista Youth Movement, and already elected as delegates to the assembly!
“The statutes of the Sandinista Youth Movement stipulate that candidacy for membership is open to all youth without exception, and we keep to this.
“I’m going to ask you a blunt, personal question, Fernando. Are you at peace? Or are you anxious, or bitter, or sad?”
“I’m deeply at peace. I was at peace before the victory, in the midst of the struggle, and I’m at peace now. My sense of peace is very great, because I feel linked, with my whole being, to a great cause, a holy cause. I feel peace in the unification of my faith in God with this cause of the poor—which is the cause of Christ, because they’re his own, the ones he loves most. This cause is the cause of the kingdom of God, and I have the peace of God within me.
“I feel so much at peace that nothing, no one, will be able to take it from me. I’m not afraid of anything that may happen in the future, whatever may come.”
“Aren’t you afraid of death?”
“I think everybody’s afraid to die—when the moment actually comes. Every time I’ve been in danger of death I’ve felt fear: concrete, physical fear. Whenever I was in danger of death in the past, I always felt the physical effects of fear, right here in my stomach. But little by little, as I worked with the Sandinista Front, I learned to look at death as a real possibility, every day, and I learned never to retreat from any commitment I’d made, even though I knew death might be waiting for me right around the corner
“I can tell you this: I’m not afraid to face death, even though I know that when the moment comes I’m going to feel a natural, impulsive fear. But I won’t retreat, any more than I ever retreated during the struggle against Somoza’s military dictatorship.
“In the past, I was always afraid of torture. It was never a fear that prevented me from doing my duty, though. We lived a great part of the time in situations where the risk of torture and death was a daily possibility. The best of us—the greatest, the ones who’ve been the examples, the most admired and the most courageous—have given their lives for this cause. And that’s where I learned that, for this cause, it’s well worth laying down your life.”
“When do you pray, Fernando? And how do you pray?”
“Well, I see you want to strip me naked.
“I was never much for long prayers. I remember that when I was in the novitiate the first day we prayed I was so distracted that I asked a friend, someone I’d known in school, whether he’d had any distractions himself. Only one, he said—from the beginning of the hour right to the end. So it had been the same for him, too!
“After all those years when we used to have silent prayer for an hour, or an hour and a half, I came to the conclusion that I don’t have the contemplative charism, as my brother Ernesto has, for instance. What I do have is a great facility for finding God very quickly in prayer. I pray very frequently during the day.
“I pray every day of my life, and I’d have to say that all the most important decisions of my life have been made in prayer. I’ve always lived my life with a sense of dependence on the Lord—the clear consciousness that I’m a sinner, and need God’s grace and help. But I’m no longer afraid of God—which I was, very much, in my first years in the religious life.
“I’ll let you in on a little detail. Classical music always helps me pray. I blend the music together with the prayer and express myself to the Lord from right inside the music—trying to offer God, in my being and in my life, something as beautiful as the music. I always take a little tape recorder along in the car and take advantage of the time these trips use up to spend some extra moments in prayer this way. This is one of the ways I pray.
“In my community, where ten of us Jesuits live, we have our eucharistic celebration, and I usually participate. We have our monthly retreats, and I take part in them, too—we go on retreat Saturday and Sunday, out of town. Except when I was in hiding, and when I was living in political asylum in the Mexican embassy, I’ve always lived in a Jesuit community, wherever the provincial has assigned me. Community prayer is the most structured form of prayer I practice. My personal prayer is not so structured.”
“I’ve meditated on this for some time, especially recently. I intend to keep my commitment to the church, and especially to the priesthood. Come what may—so many things can happen, things we can’t foresee!—come what may, above all I want to stay in the priesthood. I feel a very deep ecclesial calling to work as a spiritual director. And whatever the circumstances, I intend to remain faithful to my priesthood—including celibacy, which is one of the clearest signs for our people that we’re being faithful to our priestly vocation.
“If you’ll permit me, I’d like to close this interview with a public declaration of my position regarding the priesthood. I’d like to recall the phrase I selected to appear beneath my name on the little ‘holy card’ I gave my friends on the occasion of my priestly ordination. It read Fernando Cardenal, S.J., Sacerdote para siempre—a priest forever. And today I want to reaffirm that ‘priest forever.’ I used to tell my brother Ernesto that nothing, no one, could take from us what we most love—our ideals, our priesthood. And so I say once more right now: I am a priest forever.
“At the same time, I have to restate all I’ve said concerning my commitment—to the death, if need be—to this revolution. I hope that no one will put asunder what God has joined together here in Nicaragua. In my case God has united my priesthood to the Sandinista popular revolution, which I love so much, and to which I feel committed with all the strength of my heart, with all my enthusiasm—and for this revolution I’m ready to shed the last drop of my blood.”
As Fernando finished, I was seated at the table in his office on the second floor of the July Nineteenth Sandinista Youth Building. It is a spacious office, with little furniture. There were some pictorial records of the national crusade for literacy on the walls. I saw portraits there, too—Eduardo Contreras, Carlos Fonseca, and Sandino. On his table, a multi-colored pennant proclaimed the Second Congress of Sandinista Youth, in Managua, December 19, 1982. There was a glass vase holding a green, leafy branch—sandalwood, perhaps.
The porch outside, and the walls of the meeting room, were one big mural—paintings, sketches, slogans, and faces of Sandinista youth fallen in combat. “Our Heroes and Martyrs” was the title. On my way out one of their slogans struck me. It stood in great letters on one of the walls: “Let’s not stop halfway—Carlos Fonseca.”
I walked out into the street, turned, and continued on my way, in the shade of the laurels. But that one sentence kept coming back to me. It fused in my mind with Fernando’s own last declaration of fidelity: “to the last drop of my blood.”
Students on the porch were getting their posters ready for a march. There was to be a funeral and protest march that afternoon, for the tragic death of seventy-five Miskito children in the Jinotega zone. The helicopter shuttling them out of reach of the Somozist bands across the Honduran border had crashed and burned. The mothers’ weeping tore me to pieces. They were all less than five years old.