Farewell to a revolutionary



Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, Catholic priest, poet and revolutionary, was an essential figure of Latin American liberation theology. He died on March 1. He was 95. Cardenal’s spiritual life was the unyielding foundations of his country’s social and political struggle.

Ernesto Cardenal writing at desk (Jimelovski Platano Macho/Flickr)

As a staunch revolutionary, he joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN in Spanish) in its armed struggle against US backed and US educated Anastasio Somoza, the last of the Somoza dynasty of dictators that ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979. He became the moral voice and spiritual heart of the Sandinistas.

His conviction that Catholicism, socialism and revolution were compatible drove him to accept, after the triumph of the revolution, the position of Minister of Culture from 1979 to 1987. Due to his political commitment Cardenal was already under the critical gaze of the Vatican. On March 4, 1983 he was publicly humiliated by the Polish born Pope John Paul II at Managua airport as punishment for being part of the Sandinista government.   

The photo of John Paul II wagging his right-hand finger at a kneeling Ernesto Cardenal became iconic. It was a symbol of a deeply conservative head of the Catholic Church condemning the actions of a priest deeply committed to the concept of a ‘preferential option for the poor’. This was a dictum central to the 1968 Medellin Second Episcopal Conference.

‘You have to reconcile with the Church,’ the enraged Pope told Cardenal.

‘Since I did not answer, he repeated the abrupt admonition,’ Cardenal wrote in his autobiography. A year after his visit to Nicaragua — in 1984 — Pope John Paul II banned Cardenal ‘a divinis’ from administering the sacraments.


'His religious vocation was not contemplative. "You can't be with God and be neutral. True contemplation is resistance," he wrote.'


Ernesto Cardenal was born to a well-off family in Managua, the country’s capital. He was ordained a Trappist priest in 1965 and he settled in the Solentiname archipelago, in the Great Lake of Nicaragua. His religious vocation was not contemplative. ‘You can't be with God and be neutral. True contemplation is resistance,’ he wrote. It was this sense of resistance that inspired him to set up in Solentiname, in 1966, a community of artists, poets, farmers and fishermen. They became known as the ‘primitivists.’

Solentiname became also — in the 1960s — a sanctuary for the Sandinistas. ‘At first I had told the guerrilla leaders that I agreed with their goals but not their methods, but in the face of Somoza's dictatorship, the only possible way was armed struggle,’ Cardenal told BBC World in 2007. When the artists of Solentiname — the ‘primitivists’ turned into guerrilla fighters, Somoza ordered the destruction of the community. Today many of these rural artists are still active and their work is still shown in Nicaragua and around the world.

Ernesto Cardenal is one of the great figures of Latin American literature. He was nominated four times for the Nobel prize in literature. As a poet, Cardenal defined himself as the founder of what he called ‘scientific poetry.’ It was ‘poetry about science’ — poetry that shows — he said — ‘God’s creation’.

Cardenal’s Psalms and poems, especially his 1950s poem ‘Hora Cero’ (Zero Hour), became the muse for the creation of the ‘Misa Campesina’ (Peasants Mass), a Catholic mass where traditional Latin American folk music intersects with canonical texts of the theology of liberation. The author of the Peasants Mass — described once as the ‘soundtrack of the Sandinista Revolution’ — was Nicaragua’s composer Carlos Mejia Godoy.

Cardenal and Mejia Godoy, described by The Guardian as ‘Sandinismo’s pre-eminent bard,’ were close friends and collaborators. In later years both men — and many other Nicaraguans - became the vicious targets of the increasing despotic regime of Daniel Ortega, the leader of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution and now the country’s president.

Cardenal became deeply saddened by the moral erosion of the Sandinista Party. In one of his last books, The Lost Revolution (2003), Cardenal launched a devastating critic of Ortega and the Sandinista party, a party he resigned from in the 1990s.

During the April 2018 protests accusing Ortega's government of crimes against humanity. ‘The state of Nicaragua has engaged in conduct that should be considered crimes against humanity,’ Cardenal said. ‘For many years I had been saying a prayer taken from one of the Psalms, ‘Lord, make us become what we were again.’

The white-haired, white robe and black beret wearing Ernesto Cardenal never left the Catholic Church. His faith was unwavering. In February 2019 Cardenal was rehabilitated by Pope Francis. In a personal letter the Argentinean born Pope told him he was ‘absolved of all canonical censure.’ 

He received the news while in an hospital in Managua — he was hospitalized due to a serious kidney infection. As soon as the news from the Vatican arrived, a fragile Ernesto Cardenal was finally able to wear a priest’s stole and celebrate in bed — after 35 years — a mass. His 1967 ‘Psalm 25’, finally proved prophetic: ‘Do me justice Lord because I am innocent.’



Antonio CastilloAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and Director of the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture, CPC, RMIT University, Melbourne-Australia.

Main image: Ernesto Cardenal writing at desk (Jimelovski Platano Macho/Flickr)

Topic tags: Antonio Castillo, Ernesto Cardenal



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"Cardenal’s Psalms and poems, especially his 1950s poem ‘Hora Cero’ (Zero Hour), became the muse for the creation of the ‘Misa Campesina’ (Peasants Mass), a Catholic mass where traditional Latin American folk music intersects with canonical texts of the theology of liberation. The author of the Peasants Mass — described once as the ‘soundtrack of the Sandinista Revolution’ — was Nicaragua’s composer Carlos Mejia Godoy." Now there's a global challenge with its many particular contexts. Although I would prefer 'continuing praxis' to the expression 'canonical texts'. Noel McMaster
Noel McMaster | 23 March 2020

Antonio, that's a wonderful piece and truly inspirational. After the struggles Karol Józef Wojtyla had in Poland he was truly out of line in rebuking Cardenal and suspending his right to administer the sacraments for 35 years. He deserves to be canonised more so than his persecutor.
Francis Armstrong | 23 March 2020

Ernesto Cardenal became a priest in 1965, and a revolutionary in 1970 during a visit to Cuba: “In Cuba, I converted to revolution” he told Nicaragua’s ConfidecialTV. But by 1970, the full horrors of communism were well known, and the Catholic Church’s opposition to socialism had been condemned by every Pope going back to Leo XIII whose encyclical Rerum Novarum condemned socialism as an economic error and contrary to natural law and social justice. Cardenal also embraced Hugo Chavez, the man who destroyed once-rich Venezuela, and created the largest refugee crisis in the history of the Americas. By the end of last year some 4.6 million had fled the country with UNHCR predicting as many as 6.5 million refugees by 2020. Instead of a “Farewell to a Revolutionary” I’d prefer a “Farewell to a Doctor”. Last week the Australian obstetrician Catherine Hamlin died aged 95. She’d spent more than 60 years in Ethiopia helping poor women suffering from childbirth injuries. She made a real contribution to the alleviation of human suffering.
Ross Howard | 23 March 2020

Ross Howard forgets that everyone was housed during communism, whereas beggary are now commonplace in most of post-communist Eastern Europe. I visited Cuba in 2018 with my daughter and delighted in the celebration of equality and defeat of extreme capitalism, which has also been condemned in every papal social encyclical since Rerum Novarum. And there are those within the Catholic fold who argue, persuasively, that John Paul II was a proto-fascist who returned the Church to a primitivity not encountered since Vatican I. Indeed, by 1970 communism was well on the nose, collapsing under the weight of its own utopian contradictions. The point here is that while no ideology of either the Right or Left is without its flaws, Ross Howard's relentless endorsement of anti-communism would return institutional Catholicism to the paranoic and authoritarian fortress it was before Vatican II.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 24 March 2020

It was not because Fr Ernesto Cardenal was deeply committed to "a preferential option for the poor" that John Paul II censured him: rather, it was because of his espousal and promotion of a materialist ideology the Pope deemed incompatible with the Gospel of Christ; an ideology of which he had first-hand experience in his own country, and one with a history of betraying the very poor its propaganda purports to serve. Years later, in 2006, Fr Cardenal himself stated: "I think more desirable an authentic capitalism . . . than a false revolution." May Fr Cardenal now enjoy the freedom and society of God and the saints in a lasting realm beyond the most extravagant conceptions of any earthly utopia.
John RD | 24 March 2020

On the contrary, Dr Michael Furtado: Ross Howard's incisive contributions provide a welcome and necessary alternative to the otherwise one-sidedly neo-leftist perspective that is predominant in ES articles and posts. A counter-narrative, among other things, may serve to rescue ES from a insularity and irrelevance to all but an academic elite; it would be a very small number of Catholics who would regard Pope John Paul II as a "proto-fascist" - a description I, for one, take to be as shameful as it is untrue.
John RD | 24 March 2020

Shame is something as John RD correctly writes that we can acknowledge. Indeed the actions of Pope John Paul on greeting Ernesto Cardenal in his own country were indeed shameful. That Catholics at the time let such an authoritarian pope have his way with his behavour and appointment of like minded bishops across the world is reflected in the sad state of the Catholic Church today. That such Catholic leaders, who simply encouraged Vatican Council II theology, as Ernesto Cardenal did, and were simply ignored by this pope is a sad tale.
Tom Kingston | 24 March 2020

Dr. Furtado asserts that “endorsement of anti-communism” will return Catholicism to an “authoritarian fortress.” Nonsense! Communism itself is authoritarianism on steroids. Unsurprisingly, the biographer of former communist spy Whittaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus, writes that Lenin’s authoritarianism was “precisely what attracts Chambers…He had at last found his church.” The Catholic Church always understood that communist nihilism could never lead to human liberty and dignity. Dostoevsky’s characters are possessed not by an ideology, but by a social-spiritual void in search of a totalizing cause to give meaning to their lives. But creation of a social-spiritual void was exactly the goal of communist strategists Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs when they planned a Cultural War to de-Christianise the West, starting by destroying the tradition family: “A worldwide overturning of values cannot take place without the annihilation of the old values and the creation of new ones by the revolutionaries.” Catherine Hamlin’s Christian dedication to helping poor women meant she stayed in Ethiopia throughout Mengistu’s Marxist regime (1977-1991) where the communist body count was 1.7 million dead out of a worldwide communist tally of 100 million dead. It’s by their fruits you know them, not by their pious sentiments or erudite sophistry.
Ross Howard | 25 March 2020

Thank you for this article. I actually briefly visited Solentiname in 1986 while visiting Nicaragua for the first time and was part of a round-the-world sojourn which lasted two years and included five months in Central America. [I went again briefly in early 90s after the fall of the Sandinistas]. I only mention as a 'naive Australian suburban youth' I saw first hand the devastation that occurred in this maligned region and was impressed by the likes of Ernesto Cardenal who found by way of liberation theology etc and his impressive cultural work in Solentiname to maintain a strong, thriving semblance of humanity in a war scarred region then fraught with so much inhumanity during the civil wars. Ernesto Cardenal's humanising principles are still very much needed due to the massive social legacy post-civil war and as someone who was much involved in solidarity groups for Central America (including the Guatemalan Human Rights Committee in Sydney which still intermittently re-activates) it is both tragic & shocking that Daniel Ortega has wholly betrayed the revolutionary principles of 'Sandinismo'; as I thought at the time in the 80s it was encouraging to see sort of a 'bottoms-up democracy' emerging in Nicaragua which was eventually undermined by the cobra insurgency etc ; (nevertheless even back then Ortega's 'true colours' emerged with the Pinanta scandal in the early 90s during the transfer of power). Ernesto Cardenal (along with those of the 'real Sandinistas' (persecuted by Ortega) kept to his spiritual, revolutionary principles throughout his long graceful life; he did not compromise and chose to even face up to Ortega who is now regarded the new Somoza. His uncompromising stand for real justice is his long standing legacy and an inspiration which will outlast the political nightmare of Ortega's authoritarianism. After this new dark period in Nicaraguan history it will be up to Nicaraguans to look back towards Ernesto Cardenal and again to Sandino to find a way out to re-establish the just society that was briefly glimpsed in the 1980s before even Sandinista leaders such as Ortega became fully corrupted. All the best.
Nicholas Nicola | 27 March 2020

One wonders who the sophist is in assessing my post alongside Ross Howard's. While I am an ardent admirer of Catherine Hamlin, Ross's distinction between her and Ernesto Cardenal is driven by his one-sided anti-Communism. Both Hamlin and Cardenal were champions of the poor, among whom they lived and to whom they dedicated their life's actions. While I see no distinction between the effects of their life's work, their respective intentions, which provide the hallmark for any authentic comparison of their moral impacts, lie in abjectly different spheres: Hamlin's in the field of charity and Cardenal's in the milieu of justice. As for Dostoyevsky, Ross is advised to read again the account of The Prisoner that lies within the section of that grand author's epic novel, 'The Brothers Karamazov' in the Story of The Grand Inquisitor. In it, Jesus reappears in one of the pogroms conducted by zealots of the Inquisition. When hauled up before the Grand Inquisitor, the latter recognises him and chides him for His untimely presence. Jesus responds in silence with a kiss; but the Inquisitor, while elated, maintains his paranoia. +Francis alludes to this body/spirit dualism in his recent reference to the work of Charles Peguy.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 27 March 2020

Father Cardenal, out of love, misplaced his trust. Had he lived in Costa Rica, there would have been nowhere to misplace his trust and we would not have heard of him or his service in the comfort of the bosom of his Church.
roy chen yee | 28 March 2020

I don't understand your point, Roy. Ernesto Cardenal lived in Nicaragua and never said anything about the transfer or application of his theology to Costa Rica!
Michael Furtado | 31 March 2020

I read this article far too late but delighted to see the tribute to Ernesto Cardenal and know of his passing via Eureka Street Thank you. Ernesto Cardenal was surely one of Thomas Merton's most beloved novices at Gethsemane the Trappist monastery and for so many years the two men kept up their correspondence and mutual encouragement. RIP Rejoicing In Paradise . Thank you Antonio Castillo and congratulations on your fellow Latin American and his extraordinary life journey
Michele Madigan | 11 April 2020


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