by Dan Moriarty
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

I was a child in 1979 when Sandinistas guerrillas toppled the brutal and corrupt Somoza regime in Nicaragua. But from those heady years of conflict and prophetic witness, one image emerged that, for me, encapsulates the complexities of the time: the photo of Ernesto Cardenal, white-bearded revolutionary Nicaraguan poet priest, kneeling on the tarmac at Managua International Airport in 1983, black beret in hand, smiling expectantly up at visiting Pope John Paul II, as the pope angrily wags a finger in his face and President Daniel Ortega looks on.

The photograph captures tensions that endure today within Latin America, within the Catholic Church, and within me personally, as I grapple with issues of faith, solidarity, peace and justice, politics, and nonviolence. I am both inspired and challenged by the figure of Fr. Cardenal, who died earlier this week.


One of four priests who served in the Sandinista cabinet in the 1980s, Cardenal had joined the Sandinistas before they took power.  When the contemplative artist community of Solentiname he had founded was destroyed by Somoza’s forces in 1977, he joined a number of the young people from the community who had opted to take up arms. “Why did they do it? They did it for one reason only: for their love of the Kingdom of God, for their ardent desire to build a just society, a Kingdom of God, concrete and real, here on earth,” he told Pueblo magazine in Costa Rica.

This led to a famous public exchange between Cardenal and his US American friend, Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan, about what Berrigan calls “questions among the most crucial that Christians can spell out today.” Namely, does the call to discipleship ever allow the Christian to employ violence?

cardenalBerrigan wrote Cardenal an open letter in the National Catholic Reporter in November, 1978, lamenting the latter’s decision to abandon nonviolence. Sympathizing deeply with the Nicaraguan people and aware of the horrors they endured, Berrigan addressed his friend with humility, but firm in his conviction: “This may all be true: the guns may bring on the kingdom,” he writes. “But I do not believe it.”

In a speech in Germany in 1980, translated by J. Yoder, Cardenal offered a poignant rebuttal – I hope even the most ardent pacifist would pause when confronted with his words: “A North American Jesuit, a friend of mine and one of these uncompromising pacifists, wrote… that no principle, however high it might be, weighs as much as the life of a single child. I answered him that I agreed with that completely; that the Sandinista were fighting for the lives of thousands of men and women, old people and children, who are murdered day by day, and that no principle however high it might be, not even that of uncompromising pacifism [emphasis mine], can weigh as much as the life as one of these children.”

In the end, though, Cardenal seemed to rest on the assertion that ends justified means, inviting Berrigan to see the fruits of the victorious revolution. And indeed, there were great fruits. Ernesto’s brother, Jesuit Fernando Cardenal, led a successful literacy campaign as Minister of Education, and Ernesto led a popular poetry movement, among other welcome reforms. But in the 1990s, Cardenal left the Sandinista party, and more recently described the revolution as a failure. I always wanted to ask him if this changed his calculus regarding ends and means – if the ultimate failure of the revolution negated his defense of violence. I never got the chance.

For many of us pacifists and aspiring pacifists, the armed revolutions in Central America, given the horrific violence suffered under Somoza and other regimes, remains one of the greatest challenges to our own nonviolence. Some have made a distinction between embracing nonviolence as a positive force and declaring pacifism as an unbending absolute. It’s an uncomfortable bit of nuance, and I suppose in contemplating such matters, comfort is best avoided.

As I consider Cardenal’s remarkable life, I could condemn his decision to place his faith in arms and the power of the state, but first I must ask myself: have I walked with the poor, as he did? Have I shared beauty and wonder with the world, as he did? Have I risked the rebuke of my own Church and remained faithful, as he did? Have I sacrificed for the Gospel as he did? I am grateful to Fr. Cardenal for his undying commitment to the poor, for his faith in God, love, and science, for his poetry, for lifting the voices of the people of Solentiname, and for his dialogue with a brother priest and poet, which I’m sure I’ll continue to revisit for many years to come. ¡Que viva!

For more on the passing of Fr. Ernesto Cardenal:

One thought on “Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, visionary poet and complicated voice for justice and peace

  1. Excellent tribute to a man who, immersed in a problem, reached his wits end before a mountain of corpses and his humanity responded. How can we be critical of the man in a situation we have never experienced… how would we , as pacifists, respond. ? We will never know. What we think to be perfect may be flawed since there is no such thing as perfection. Institutions of power and influence should act for peace by taking the chance of being unpopular. When they fail to act in time anything can happen. And it did.

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