Priest, Poet and Politician

Priest, Poet and Politician

Chris McDonnell CT March 20th2020

A couple of weeks ago the media, including the Catholic Times, recorded the death on March 1st  of the Nicaraguan priest poet and politician, Ernesto Cardenal, at the age of 95. The Times Literary Supplement once described him as “…the outstanding socially committed poet of his generation in Spanish America“. His poetry, like that of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, was starkly political.

Where did he come from? What was his background? What was his significance? Born in Western Nicaragua in 1925, he attended university in Mexico City from 1943 through to 1947. It was in 1946 that he published his first volume of poems, ‘the Uninhabited City’. His path as a poet was established, employing images from the realities of everyday life.

At that time his country was dominated by the dictatorial Somoza regime. For his political activities he spent a short period in jail in 1952. His was a voice that would not remain silent. In 1956 he experienced a religious conversion and in May of the following year he entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
It was there that two significant figures of the Church in the Americas met, for his novice master was the monk Thomas Merton, an accomplished writer of both poetry and prose. In a letter written in 1965 Merton observed that Cardenal “…will be one of the most significant voices in the two Americas”

By that time, ill health had brought Cardenal’s short spell in the novitiate, less than two years, to its conclusion. He left with Merton’s encouragement to seek ordination in 1962 and a return to his home country. It was in 1960 that his collection of poems, Zero-Hour was published. Unashamedly political, these words posed questions and offer challenge to the world he inhabits.

“I’d like to see billboards by the roadside here;
Your worth lies not in what you take
From others but is what you give“.

His return to Nicaragua saw him establish a religious community among peasant farmers and fishermen of Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua. Begun in 1966, it  soon became famous for the production of paintings and tapestries as well as the establishment of literacy and poetry workshops.

The influence of Marxism in his life came during a three month stay in Castro’s Cuba. He saw no contradiction between this and the life of the Christian community he was developing at Solentiname, exemplified in their published discussions ‘The Gospels of Solentiname’

In 1977 his settlement was destroyed  by the Regime following an attack on national guard barracks in the nearby town of San Carlos. Cardenal was forced to flee into exile in Costa Rica. There he became a core member of the Sandinista.

He returned to his homeland two years later with the overthrow of Somoza by the FSLN led by Daniel Ortega. He was appointed Minister of Culture. He saw no contradiction between his political role and his religious duties.

There were others who disagreed. Possibly the most memorable image of Ernesto Cardenal was taken in 1983 when, with other members of the revolutionary Sandinista government, he greeted John Paul II on the tarmac of the airport. The cameras caught a finger-wagging pope admonishing the kneeling priest, his black beret in hand.

Shortly after, with other priests in government, he was  deprived of his priestly faculties. It was only last year that Francis granted him ‘absolution from all canonical censorships”. He was then able to celebrate mass again for the first time in over thirty years. His faith meant that he couldn’t avoid accepting political responsibility when it was thrust upon him.

His poetry was the bridge between his priesthood and his political conviction. When questioned about his writing in an interview given in 1970, he responded “I have expressed one reality, which is political, economic, social, religious and mystical all at the same time”. He was nominated on four occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature, although it was never awarded to him.

The conflict between political activity and religious conviction remains a matter of dispute, nowhere more so than in the public square of the US political scene.

In 2018 he was a vocal supporter of protests against Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

The vision of life that inspired this simple man and priest continues to thrive in the Solentiname Community that he founded all those years ago.

Let’s leave the last word to his one-time novice master, Thomas Merton who, in a letter written at the end of June 1965, remarked-“Ernesto Cardenal has an unequalled gift of getting poetry out of the confusion and pathos of the modern world, without being bitter about it”.

In an interview with Margaret Randall, it was noted that ‘for Cardenal all of life is the stuff of poetry.’ May his spirit rest in the peace of the Lord.


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