Farewell to a revolutionary

Antonio Castillo, PhD
4 min readApr 2, 2020

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 (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.

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…

Antonio Castillo, PhD

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia