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Person for others

Written by Mike Thee
May 3, 2010

Fernando Cardenal, S.J., was faced with an agonizing choice. 

For years he had been a champion for the downtrodden and oppressed in his native country Nicaragua. It was this commitment to the poor, particularly its children, which led him into politics. He became active in the Sandinista Front for National Liberation and worked nonviolently to support the overthrow of the Somoza regime. Now, in the mid-1980s, Cardenal was appointed minister of education. The idea of a clergy member serving in the government did not sit well with the Vatican, and Cardenal essentially was forced to choose between what he considered his two greatest loves: the poor and marginalized, and the Society of Jesus.

He decided to leave the Jesuits and stay in government to continue his fight for the people of his country. He helped raise the nation’s literacy rate from 49 percent to 87 percent, all the while continuing to live in his Jesuit community and live out his Jesuit vows. Eventually he would leave government and be welcomed back into the Society of Jesus. To this day, he is the only Jesuit to ever leave and later return.

This is just the “CliffsNotes” version. Anyone interested in hearing  a more complete recounting of Father Cardenal’s extraordinary life in his own words will get that chance this week when he presents a public lecture, “Together with my people, with their revolution” (4-5:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 4, Pigott Auditorium).

Cardenal’s visit to campus has been a long time in the making. For the past decade, he has inspired scores of SU faculty and staff who visit Nicaragua as part of the immersion-trip delegations Joe Orlando leads to the country every year. So inspiring is Cardenal that Orlando, assistant vice president for mission and ministry, has made the Jesuit’s presentation to the group the capstone moment of their trip.

Of the SU delegations who have gone to Nicaragua, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., said this as at his recent President’s Forum: “Every time they come back, the single most impactful thing is the conversation with Fernando Cardenal. It’s a gift to be in his presence.”

Orlando says it’s natural for Cardenal to visit SU. “His life is an authentic expression of the service of faith, the promotion of justice and the solidarity with the poor that is at the heart of our educational commitment.”

These days, Cardenal is continuing to make a difference in the lives of children. He is director of Fé y Alegría (Faith and Happiness) elementary school system in Nicaragua (http://www.feyalegria.org/), which seeks to bring education and sustainable development to poor communities.

Like all the other faculty and staff who have had a chance to meet Fr. Cardenal, Orlando is in awe. “He has made a lifelong commitment to the poor and helped shape the modern history of Nicaragua.”