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Tribute to Ernesto Cardenal — an inspirational priest, poet, and revolutionary

Fr. Ernesto Cardenal (1925-2020) was a Nicaraguan priest, revolutionary and poet who died on 1 March. In his youth he joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front and participated in an unsuccessful insurrection against the then dictator Anastacio Somoza. Later as a priest, he maintained his ties to the Sandinista movement which subsequently took power in 1980 and served as culture minister. In the 1990s distanced himself from the party and current president, Daniel Ortega, for their increasing oppressive and corrupt leadership. Cardenal’s liberation theology, revolutionary activities, and poetry have inspired religious and non-religious people alike. He was reprimanded by Pope John Paul II and welcomed as a brother by Pope Francis. Peter-John Pearson reflects on how Cardenal inspired him in his priestly ministry.

Over the past days I have thought of and remembered with great gratitude our older brother in the faith, Ernesto Cardenal, who died on 1 March at the wonderful age of 95.

His legacy has been at the centre of my Lenten reflections over these days. His whole, long life had been a living out of the Ash Wednesday formula: ‘turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.’

Principled, courageous, prophetic and deeply political in the broadest most inspirational way. Priest, poet and prophet. An extraordinary wordsmith. To my generation, (now elderly in itself), a hero and a towering intellectual, a wise interpreter of liberation theology who, with many others across multiple countries, straddling continents and languages, taught us to love, to pray and to honor God by changing the lives of those on the margins and on the barricades of a myriad of struggles.

An inspiration for new theologies

He and his generation taught us to sing songs and hymns (and the difference between the two was not always clear) as we struggled to construct our spiritualities, reread old texts, encounter our foundational documents using different hermeneutics and ponder the Scriptures through the experiences of those on the various peripheries. As we reflected on words, on the power and the manipulation of words, some words, such as solidarity rose in our consciousness and over time were infused with almost credal resonances.

We read the English translations of his poems and learnt that we were baptized into turbulent waters, felt ourselves still hungry for more at the Table of the Lord and searching, opened our hearts to the ‘more’ that would go some way to satisfy our longings, which more often than not we found in unchartered territories. Our hearts leapt as we linked our own struggles on this tip of Africa to struggles everywhere and we watched with fascination as new theologies were born.

We read the English translations of his poems and learnt that we were baptized into turbulent waters.

Black theology across the vast expanse of Africa, our African American sisters reinterpreted the old spirituals and gifted us with womanist theology. Minjung theology in Korea. In our own country contextual theology challenged our walls of race and class and bade them tumble. With our Palestinian comrades we entered our Kairos moments. A thousand flowers were blooming. As we devoured the now-no-longer fashionable theologians, we understood gratefully that we were building on the work of Cardinal, Sobrino, Gutierrez but also of Metz, James Cone and Dolores Williams. We learnt from Freire and Tillich but also from Bujo, Mbiti and Mercy Oduyoye and the brilliant galaxy of our own theologians who drew from this rich tradition and whose work, in turn, enriched it.

As with Cardenal, many have been disappointed by routes once revolutionary parties took in later years.

Many of us were deeply saddened by John Paul II scolding and finger wagging when he visited Nicaragua, just we were warmed by Francis embracing him years later. As with Cardenal, many have been disappointed by routes once revolutionary parties took in later years. Yet they always remembered the rich legacies and the courage of the halcyon days of struggle. Cardenal begged us remember in the days of power, those who had died in order to bring us to victory. That legacy is so well written into every word, and indeed, between the words that come together as the poem ‘For those dead: our dead.”  

A prophet in unlikely places

Through it all Cardenal wrote poetry, used words to continue to challenge meanness and arrogance, especially amongst those who wielded power. He continued to explore the mysteries of science and revolutionary insights into the mechanics of the universe. His intellectual explorations and creative musings helped to infuse mystery into mechanics and grace into a fractured world.

To the end he remained a prophet tracing the finger of God in the most unlikely places and chronicling the awe of our human responses. He continued to be a priest sanctifying the liminal spaces while being acutely aware of the sacrifice that is at the heart of every priest’s daily ritual. He never forgot in offering that sacrifice, that the poor brought to the altar intolerable burdens and offered a sacrifice beyond all descriptions. He understood that the heart of every priest is embedded in those daily struggles.

He continued to be a priest sanctifying the liminal spaces while being acutely aware of the sacrifice that is at the heart of every priest’s daily ritual.

Now he has left us. A part of him will be forever present where justice is proclaimed, where the poor reclaim their rights and workers their just wages. Maybe even more poignantly: wherever the heart is sad and the struggles seem temporarily crushed, there in those dark and torrid times, the poor will whisper his name, put his poetry in their hearts and feel a new stirring of inspiration that says we encountered a prophet, a priest and poet who believed in us.

I read again today during the morning Office those reflections he penned when thinking of death. His thoughts were neither morbid nor dark but radiant with the brilliance of one who sees beyond. May Ernesto and God now enjoy each other face to face.

Stardust by Ernesto Cardenal

What’s in a star? We are.
All the elements of our body and of the planet
were once in the belly of a star.
            We are stardust.
15,000,000,000 years ago we were a mass
of hydrogen floating in space, turning slowly, dancing.
            And the gas condensed more and more
            gaining increasingly more mass
            and mass became star and began to shine.
As they condensed they grew hot and bright.
Gravitation produced thermal energy: light and heat.
That is to say love.
                        Stars were born, grew, and died.
And the galaxy was taking the shape of a flower
the way it looks now on a starry night.
Our flesh and our bones come from other stars
and perhaps even from other galaxies,
we are universal,
and after death we will help to form other stars
and other galaxies.
            We come from the stars, and to them we shall return.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. Amen. He was an inspiration to me too. Fascinated by the Gospel In Solentiname series of books, challenged by interviews I read in a book by Teofilio Cabestrero in the 1980s, and loved his poetry. Reading his work reminds me of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.


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Peter-John Pearson
Peter-John Pearson is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cape Town. He is currently the director of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town. He was also Vicar-General of the Archdiocese. Fr Pearson is a well-known lecturer and speaker - specifically on Catholic Social Teaching.

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