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How the revolutionary priest & poet, Ernesto Cardenal, helped to radicalize my life nearly 40 years ago

March 9, 2020

On March 1st, Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest & poet, died at the age of 95. Cardenal is known in some circles as the Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government, after the Sandinistas ousted the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in July of 1979.

Other people know about Cardenal, because of his role in founding the religious community in Nicaragua, known as Solentiname.

I first came to know of Cardenal when I was reading he works of Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk who’s writings were very influential in my early 20s. I was living in Puerto Rico in 1981 and teaching in a barrio school. I was exploring Catholicism and was encouraged to read the numerous books by Thomas Merton.

Cardenal had participated in a failed uprising against Somoza in the 1950s, which resulted in the death of many of Cardenal’s friends. Cardinal decided to leave Nicaragua and he came to the US and entered the same monastery that Merton was part of, the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Cardenal was a novice and Merton was one of his teachers. Cardenal did not stay, but his time there was rather impactful, since he influenced his decision to go back to Nicaragua and help found the religious community in Solentiname.

Solentiname adopted some monastic qualities, but it was also influenced by liberation theology, a theology that was initially developed by Peruvian theologian, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez.

However, Cardenal did not believe in divorcing himself from the world and he maintained a connection to the growing revolutionary movement that was organizing in the 1970, particularly around the FSLN, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional. After the Sandinistas overthrew the Somozan dictatorship, Cardenal was asked to be the Minister of Culture. In fact, several other priests were asked to be part of the Sandinista government, including Cardenal’s brother and Fr. Miguel D’Escoto.

After teaching in Puerto Rico for a year, I moved to Grand Rapids in the summer of 1982. I was hired by St. James Catholic Church on the westside to be their youth minister. I quickly became friends with Tom Pieri, who was the head of the Social Justice committee at St. James. Tim had organized an evening of clarification, which consisted of a simple meal and focused theme for discussion, which also included two priests from Grand Rapids who had just returned from Nicaragua on a fact finding mission after the Sandinista revolution.

The two priests spoke favorably about the changes that had taken place in Nicaragua. They also shared that the Catholic hierarchy was not terribly supportive of what the Sandinistas were doing and that there were so many priests involved. The same time that these two priests were in Nicaragua, Pope John Paul II was visiting in Managua. Ernesto Cardenal went to be part of the delegation to greet the Pope. When the Pope descended from the airplane, Cardenal knelt on the tarmac, as was customary when greeting the pontiff. Cardenal attempted to kiss the Pope’s ring, but John Paul II did not extend his hand, instead he waved his finger at Cardenal and scolded him for being involved in politics.

Upon hearing this story I was puzzled that the head of the Catholic Church would reprimand people for being involved in trying to create a more just form of government. Why would the Pope chastise priests who were trying to insert gospel principles in their various positions in government?

Well, the priest at St. James heard about the evening of clarification and was livid, in part because he was not informed that there would be two priests speaking, but mostly because he took the Pope’s side on this matter.

A few months went by and I went to mass one Sunday morning at St. James. The priest did not give the sermon that day. Instead, the priest had invited a Nicaraguan to speak, a Nicaraguan who was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan in exile. This Nicaraguan was not a supporter of the Sandinista revolution and in fact was part of a far-right Catholic Charismatic community that was bank-rolled by Domino’s Pizza owner Tom Monaghan.

A few weeks later, the priest I worked for, then told me that he had arranged for me to go to Ann Arbor to stay at this religious community to “get my mind right.” I told him that I already had several commitments as youth minister, but he told me that I could cancel whatever plans I had and that this was more important. I resisted and told him that I did not want to go and that I was hear to work with the youth of the congregation. He told me that he could not have people working for him that were disobedient and he fired me on the spot and said I needed to pack my things and leave immediately.

I was pissed, but gladly packed my things, since I no longer wanted to work for such an authoritarian. I found out years later that this same priest had sexually assaulted several people while I St. James. 

Fortunately, I found a place to stay temporarily and this incident led me to the decision to enter the seminary in the Grand Rapids diocese. While I was in the seminary, I read a series of letters that were exchanged between Ernesto Cardenal and Dan Berrigan. Cardenal was first writing about the importance of the Sandinista revolution, but Berrigan had criticized the Nicaraguan poet for supporting a revolution that involved the killing of people. Cardenal responded back to Berrigan, saying that his moral judgement was from a position of privilege and that unless he had experienced the repression of living under a dictatorship, he could not comprehend why Cardenal fully endorsed the Sandinista revolution.

I was only in the seminary for one year, but the incident at St. James, centered around differing ideological positions on Nicaragua, would have a tremendous impact on me, since Central American solidarity work became a large part of the organizing work I did from 1984 through the present. Until I went to do solidarity and accompaniment work in Guatemala in 1988, I was pretty committed to non-violence, both ideologically and in practice. However, after seeing the level of repression that people experienced and listening to labor organizers, campensinos, widow’s groups, the Mothers of the Disappeared and student organizers, I understood Cardenal’s response to Berrigan.

Then, in 2009, Ernesto Cardenal came to West Michigan to speak and read his poetry at several venues. He read his poetry at Fountain St. Church and one of the organizers of this event ask several people if they would read his poems in English, after Cardenal had read them in Spanish. I was honored to be one of those people.

After the event, I was able to visit with Ernesto briefly, listening him talk about what he had been doing in recent years. I brought a copy of a book of his poetry and asked him to sign it to my brother, especially since my brother was the one who introduced me to Merton in 1981, which led me directly to Cardenal’s work.

I stopped identifying with the Judeo-Christian tradition nearly 30 years ago, but I recognize the impact that those early years had in my formation, plus I continue to try to practice the kind of collective liberation that Cardenal and so many others introduced me to. Gracias Companero Ernesto. Descansa en paz.

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