March 16, 2016

“I am going to leave you with a gift, a hug of solidarity and friendship.”

cardenal

Those were Fr. Fernando Cardenal, S.J.’s final words to our Boston College Arrupe Immersion Program in Nicaragua on January 12, just before he embraced each one of us individually. With tears in our eyes, we held the legacy of friendship that Fr. Fernando embodied for us. His talk was the culmination of 8 days of learning, immersing and building community in solidarity with the Center for Global Education.

I had gotten to know Fr. Cardenal prior to this trip while serving as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) in Managua, Nicaragua. Our community of JVs enjoyed his Sunday evening Mass at the Universidad de Centroamerica, the Jesuit University in Managua, as we were able to share in the revolutionary message of the Gospel with inspirational community. Fr. Cardenal helped us to open a second house for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Managua, where JVs would have the opportunity to work at three different Fe y Alegria schools in Managua, teaching English and paving the way for other JVC placements at Fe y Alegria schools in Peru (Tacna and Andahuaylillas) and Chile.

Equally as moving, I knew Nicaraguans who spoke of Fr. Cardenal –those who had been teachers in the youth movement of the national literacy campaign, who left their families for 5 months to live in homestays and teach in the countryside. The literacy campaign of the 1980s, directed by Fr. Cardenal, drew nearly 60,000 youth teaching campesinos how to read and write, drastically reducing the country’s illiteracy rate from approximately 50.3% to 12.9%. At the sound of Fr. Cardenal’s name, people lit up about a man who made them believe in something bigger then themselves, and how they could have a role in changing the world for the better. He, however, always pointed to something beyond himself.

Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P., liberation theologian from Peru, writes that the preferential option for the poor is ultimately about friendship.  He says we have to become “friends” with the poor. To become friends is to truly know someone, to welcome them into your life and to share your life with them, so much so that they create an imprint and we are “much more likely to remain committed” to them.

Fr. Cardenal made us his friends, in just a brief span of 45 minutes. He shared stories of his neighbors in impoverished sectors of Medellin and how he made a promise that until the day he died, he would dedicate himself “to the liberation of the poor and the struggle for justice.” We shared life with Fr. Cardenal by expressing our solidarity with the popular movements in Nicaragua, such as Fe y Alegria schools and other local initiatives by Ignatian friends.  He let us know that by purchasing his new book, Faith and Joy, (recently translated into English by Orbis Books) we were sharing those funds directly with his friends, the people to whom he would donate the proceeds of the book. Fr. Cardenal made us feel connected to the people that shaped his life in Medellin, and those who have shaped each of our lives.

By making us his friends and by connecting us to his friends, Fr. Cardenal reminded us of our common friendship with Jesus. Fully dedicated to the Christian message, Fr. Cardenal showed us that to be friends with those on the margins is to be a friend of Jesus, “when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink; when I was in prison, you visited me.” [Mt 25]

There’s a story in his memoir, about a moment in which the university students asked him to speak at a rally in Managua, when he was new on the job and did not have the words to say.  As the microphone was being passed to him, he closed his eyes and considered what Jesus would do or say. The first thing he responded to the students was, “I hear your concerns.”

For me, the legacy of Fr. Cardenal is about friendship with the people – those marginalized, learning, alienated in someway – where Jesus is found walking alongside. Fr. Cardenal was always pointed to the people. May our lives in turn reflect the same, promises to our brothers and sisters most in need.

Margaret Nuzzolese
Boston College
Arrupe International Immersion Program Director