Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician
circa 1979

I took the photo that you see here of Nicaragua’s Father Ernesto Cardenal in the Mexican city of Puebla in February, 1979. Catholic bishops from all over Latin America were meeting there and the new pope, John Paul II, was on hand to inaugurate the gathering. I was there as a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. The Vatican had already begun the process of reeling in its priests, theologians and some bishops from pronouncements that had been made at a similar meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968. There the bishops had promulgated a “preferential option for the poor” — not a popular thing to do in a continent where the division of wealth was scandalous and dictators sat in many of the palaces.

Attacking liberation theology

In Puebla, John Paul launched a harsh attack on liberation theology, warning priests and the church in general against involvement in politics and class struggle. (The new pope was soon to become deeply involved politically in Poland and elsewhere, but that is another story).

Cardenal and a good number of others, mostly theologians, were in Puebla trying to convince bishops that they should stay with the preferential option for the poor. As I recall, I took the photo of Cardenal, wearing his signature black beret, at an evening meeting where he and others participated in a panel discussion.

Poet and politician

In February 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was trying to topple the dictator Anastasio Somoza, something which they accomplished in July of that year. Cardenal was best known at that time as a Sandinista, a revolutionary priest and politician, but in the longer sweep of time it is his writing that most distinguishes him. He is one of giants of Latin American literature.

Cardenal was born into an upper-class family in 1925. He studied literature first in Nicaragua then in Mexico and New York. In 1950, he participated in an insurrection against the Somoza regime but it failed and many people died as a result. Cardenal later entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky best known as the home of Thomas Merton, another poet-priest. Cardenal left there in 1959 to study theology in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965 in Nicaragua and went to the Solentiname Islands on Lake Nicaragua, where he founded a Christian community. It was there that he wrote his famous book, The Gospel of Solentiname. He also worked closely with the Sandinistas to overthrow the brutal and corrupt Somoza régime. In 1977, the National Guard raided Solentiname and burned it to the ground. Cardenal fled to Costa Rica and later became a roving ambassador on behalf of the Sandinistas. (Solentiname would later be rebuilt and still exists.)

Rebuked by pope

Immediately after the fall of the regime on July 19, 1979, Cardenal was named minister of culture by the new Sandinista government. His brother Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest, was appointed minister of education. When Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in 1983, Ernesto Cardenal met the plane and knelt before him on the Managua airport runway, hoping to receive his blessing. Instead, the pope waved his finger at Cardenal and openly scolded him for resisting the Vatican’s order to resign from the government. Cardenal’s defiance led to the Vatican’s banning him from administering the sacraments, a penalty that he made no attempt to overturn. He remained minister of culture until 1987, when the ministry was closed for economic reasons.

Sandinistas then and now

The Sandinista era, so promising at the beginning, ran into insurmountable problems. The Reagan government in Washington financed and orchestrated the so-called contra war, which featured relentless armed attacks on Nicaraguan communities, factories and farms from bases in Honduras. This was an intense period of the cold war between Washington and Moscow and Americans believed (with reason) that the Soviets were helping to finance and arm the Sandinista government.

That government also suffered from its own internal contradictions. Sandinista leader and President Daniel Ortega was a big disappointment and over the years he became just another opportunistic politician.

Cardenal left the FSLN in 1994, protesting against the authoritarian direction that the party had taken under Ortega but insists that he has retained his leftist opinions. He participated in the 2006 Nicaraguan elections as a member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement. Ortega’s government, Cardenal told the Washington Post, is “not leftist, not revolutionary. It’s a family dictatorship.”

Continues to write

Throughout it all, Cardenal has continued to write. In 2011, at age 86, he undertook a grueling American tour to promote his new collection of poems, The Origin of Species. Cardenal has received many awards for his writing and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 2005. In many of his books he uses the long poem (or documentary) format. Among my favourites is a book called Hora 0 (Zero Hour), a collection of his poems between 1954 and 1979.

The Washington Post quotes Robert Hass, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, on Cardenal’s work and his reputation. Hass calls Cardenal “one of the best living Latin American poets, perhaps the best — certainly one of the most influential (and controversial) of his generation.”

Hass describes Cardenal’s Origin of Species as a work that “combines wonder at the richness and complexity of life and the simplicity of its origin with a sense of mystery that anything exists at all and then leaps to a theology of chance, change, mystery and love. . . It’s a poem that will be talked about and argued about in the new discipline of ecopoetics for a long time to come.”

Death and cosmos

Over breakfast during his American tour in 2011, Cardenal told The Washington Post that these days he thinks a lot about death, a subject that he also contemplates in his poetry. It’s cosmic thinking. “The sun is only in middle age,” he says.


4 thoughts on “Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

  1. Thanks Dennis – Ernesto is one of my great heroes, full of contradictions as are most, but a prophetic voice coming out of Nicaragua.


  2. Nice report, Dennis. I met Padre Ernesto in Nicaragua, and we funded a handicraft project for orphans that his Ministry directed in Somoto, near the border with Honduras. His Canto Cosmico is a book of incredible depth, as well.


  3. Nice read and good to re-visit some of this info. While governments, even revolutionary, do sometimes disappoint….reminding ourselves of courageous, giving, individuals such as Ernesto is what the world is really all about. Their tenacity and connectedness to those less fortunate provides and inspirational model. Even now, with all that has past, many still believe in a ¨Solentiname¨


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