Ernesto Cardenal: Poet Priest of Revolution

The Nicaraguan-Austrian connection may well be the clue to the claim ‘Wir sind Kirche’, or ‘We are the Church’

Ernesto Cardenal, a poet and a controversial hero from Nicaragua | Photo courtesy of Eu Passarin

Ernesto Cardenal is a staunch Roman Catholic priest from Nicaragua who has been a thorn in the flesh of the Church. His political activism as a liberation theologist was of long standing, beginning many years before he was ordained in 1965. In fact, having been forced to flee his country at the end of the 1950s, he went to the U.S and considered becoming a monk. He spent two years as a novice in the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, which he left because of ill health.

As a priest, he continued working for the revolution and writing poetry while ministering to a community of other religious, intellectuals and indigenous peasants on Mancarron, one of the islands in the Solentiname Archipelago on Lake Nicaragua.  It was there, some 40 years ago, that Cardenal had set up the basis of a shared structure and environment following the ideals of early Christian communities.

A poet of major standing not only in Latin America, Cardenal is a controversial hero whose political perseverance helped, in 1979, to successfully end decades of oppression in Nicaragua under Samoza dictatorship. He successfully integrated religious and political positions into a powerful movement, despite formidable opposition from both church and government authorities.

That movement became known as liberation theology: geared towards ending oppression particularly of the poorest of the poor and of those historically forced into silence. Liberation theology also included radical moves such as allowing priests to marry and empowering women who had never had a voice within hierarchical structures.

Amidst all the current media uproar around sexual and other violence against children by priests in the U.S. and Europe, here’s the good news: Cardenal, who has consistently practised an integral spirituality as a poet, artist and liberation theologian, has been recently honoured by Austria in both the public and civic sectors, topped by the Ehrenzeichen für Wissenschaft und Kunst I. Klasse, one of the Austrian Republic’s highest honorary awards.

Cardenal, who turned 85 in January, travelled to Vienna in March to receive the honour, presented by Minister for Education and Culture Claudia Schmied, for “el pueblo de Nicaragua“.

The current honour may have been triggered by the 2009 GLOBArt Award given to Cardenal last June. GLOBArt, a Vienna-based international NGO, established the Award in 1997 to honour outstanding personalities whose lifetime achievements mirror the organization’s vision, linking arts & culture with sciences & business by bringing people together with innovative ideas that could translate into meaningful joint engagement in civil society.

Cardenal is in good company. Previous GLOBArt awardees include writer and ex-Czech President Vaclav Havel; Erwin Kräutler, who is endangering his life by applying his authority as Brazilian Bishop in the struggle for the rights of the poor, especially indigenous groups in the Amazon; anti-nuke activist & Austrian Green Party founder Freda Meissner-Blau, who was a joint recipient with Caritas President Franz Küberl; and the musicians Yehudi Menuhin, Ricardo Muti, and Jose Antonio Abreu. The latter set up a Venezuelan-wide programme that is being emulated in many countries including Austria: training out-of-school youth and street children and organizing them into national orchestras.

In presenting the award, GLOBArt President Prälat Joachim Angerer, emphasized Cardenal’s integral spirituality as the foundation that sustains his artistic, political and cultural involvement in Mancarron, where he lives with simple campesinos living off the land and their artesanal products. Angerer had led a GLOBArt team with Secretary General Heidi Dobner that visited Mancarron and witness how Cardenal lives – like all the others – in huts with no electricity and only the barest of necessities. Both leaders came back imbued with a heightened sense of shared community combined with a keen awareness of ecosystems and climate change. “Todo busca la misma cosa, el cielo.” says Cardenal – everyone is going for the same heaven.

Cardenal’s poetry has been translated also into German, shared with audiences here on several visits, usually in performance with musicians. His oeuvre comprises more than 35 books of poetry, several with political themes, as well as translations of many others works especially those speaking out against Samoza. Thus, many of his early works were distributed along with others in the underground. The famous Hora Zero (Zero Hour), which dealt with the assassination of a revolutionary hero called “Sandino” was published underground.

Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, for which Cardenal won the Christopher Book Award, reveals a philosophy and spirituality that blends Catholicism and Marxist Socialism. A review in The Christian Century (May 1982) heralded the book’s ‘…hymns of praise… exuberance and joy. Yet it is the harsh cry for justice and peace, which makes these poems memorable.’

Many Austrians, deeply touched and sympathised with Cardenal’s religious-political struggles, have found their way to his home in Mancarron. Almost three decades ago, film actor Dietmar Schönherr mobilized the German-speaking world to ensure that Cardenal’s work as Cultural Minister – setting up literacy and poetry workshops throughout Nicaragua — could continue. Schönherr spearheaded  Pan y Arte (“Bread and Art”), an integrated project which included renovating Cardenal’s ancestral home in his birthplace. Thanks to Cardenal’s parents, this architectural scheme provided a beautiful infrastructure for the project, becoming its Bildungshaus or Training Centre called Casa de los Tres Mundos.

The ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) made a touching film-documentary by journalist Trautl Brandstaller about Cardenal’s life in the community of artists in Mancarron, which helped to rally Austrian intellectuals, artists and political activists, among them the renegade theologian Adolf Holl, behind Cardenal – especially as Minister of Culture under the Sandinistas from 1979 until 1988.

By accepting that post, Cardenal acted in direct defiance of the Roman Catholic canon law, which forbids a priest from holding government office without the permission of his local bishop. When Pope John Paul II went on a tour of Central America, the Pope’s flock in Latin America was  “split into at least three factions: the traditionalist right wing, the reform-minded middle, and the radical revolutionary left,” reported Richard N. Ostling in Time magazine in March, 1983. Prominent among the latter faction was Austrian Ivan Illich, who had long before hung up his bishop’s hat in Mexico in order to actively write and advocate for reforms within the church, particularly its responsibility to act against social and political injustice.

A defining moment in Cardenal’s courageous activism is printed indelibly in my own mind when the media captured disturbing images of John Paul II who, when visiting Nicaragua, pulled his hand away from Cardenal, who genuflected to kiss the Pope’s ring in the traditional manner. Hundreds of thousands must have been appalled at the sight of the Pope wagging his finger at this brave man, publicly reprimanding him like a little boy before globalized television networks.

Undeterred, Cardenal carried on. He remained a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front until 1995 when, disillusioned with the government of President Daniel Ortega and seeing that the movement had been corrupted away from its revolutionary ideals, he resigned.

At a poetry event in March organized by GLOBArt and the Essl Museum, there was a burst of thunderous applause when Angerer referred to the exemplary courage of Cardenal as the spirit everyone in the audience should aspire to. Together, they are the principals in the Nicaraguan-Austrian connection.

Angerer received the same Ehrenzeichen for a range of achievements, among them, as Abbot of the Monastery Waldviertler Stift Geras and as initiator of an innovative cross-border Tourismusprojekt „Klösterreich“, linking 21 monasteries in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. This pioneering project was also considered visionary in that it created a reflective and ecumenical place of encounter for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

That connection took another dimension when Angerer was able to persuade Protestant Karlheinz Essl and his wife, Agnes, to offer their museum to showcase Cardenal’s sculptures internationally for the first time, as well as to mobilize interest for an auction to raise money for the church in Mancarron which had fallen into severe disrepair.

The auction included paintings by Nicaraguans and prominent artists like Hermann Nitsch and Max Weiler, which altogether garnered a total amount that astounded the organizers: they managed to get far more than double the estimate of $75,000 that is required for the reconstruction work.

“Now, I really believe in miracles, because I have finally seen one,” Cardenal allegedly said as he was leaving Vienna.

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