Sitting on a couch at a home in North Boulder, clad in jeans, a white shirt and a light jacket, Ernesto Cardenal doesn’t look like a Catholic priest.
Then again, “priest” is only one of Cardenal’s titles.
He holds a red paperback book in his hands, a pen clipped to the cover to mark his place. He stops reading to greet me, and says, in Spanish, that I should take a seat. I follow his direction and take a seat across from him, but he goes back to his book for a moment once the pleasantries are out of the way.
Far from offended, I’m grateful — we have exhausted my “comfortable” Spanish and would now have to venture into uncharted linguistic territory.
The Nicaraguan celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, and it seems that nearly a century of life has rendered three men within a single body: a religious iconoclast, a political revolutionary and a poet whose words can inspire a kind of Sagan-like wonder in the universe.
These seemingly disparate personalities are inextricable in Cardenal. Born to a wealthy family in the colonial city of Granada, Cardenal left home at 18 to study literature, first in Mexico and then at Columbia University in New York. He returned to Nicaragua after his studies and opened a bookstore, but the despotic political climate in his native land would pull the young man away from such a mild-mannered professional endeavor.
In 1954, Cardenal joined the April Revolution, an uprising against the brutal regime of Anastasio Somoza Garcia — but shortly thereafter, the leaders of the uprising were captured and killed.
In an abrupt change of course, Cardenal entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky, where he studied under famed American Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton. Merton’s writings, much like Cardenal’s, took up controversial issues like race relations, economic injustice and violence, and the Christian responsibility in alleviating these problems.
Cardenal transferred to a Benedictine monastery in Mexico, and then studied theology at a seminary in Colombia before finally traveling back to Nicaragua where he was ordained as a Catholic priest in his hometown of Granada in 1965.
And since then it seems Cardenal has found satisfaction in nothing less than changing the world — he founded an artist’s community and relentlessly championed Marxism and denounced American imperialism in Central America. He joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which ultimately overthrew Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1979. Within the resulting new government, Cardenal took a position as Minister of Culture, in which he hosted workshops in poetry and theater and further promulgated Sandinista political views.
His political involvement was a direct defiance of the conservative views of the Catholic Church at the time, and consequently drew the ire of Pope John Paul II (a moment immortalized in a tense picture of the Pope’s visit to Nicaragua in 1983).
And all the while Cardenal was writing, creating a vast collection of theology-infused poems and books.
Ultimately, his life’s work has aimed to upend any establishment that creates vast chasms between humans. He has, for decades, traveled the globe, reading from his collective works and continuing to spread the message of liberation theology, an interpretation of the Bible through the eyes of poverty.
His time in Colorado will be spent doing more of the same. Cardenal will speak at the third annual Americas Latino Eco-Festival, specifically about Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, which is what has brought me to the home in North Boulder.
A translator — whose home we are in — makes me a cup of green tea and takes a seat between Cardenal and me, and I ask how he reconciles religion and science when so many see the two pursuits as mutually exclusive.
“For me it’s all one thing: Science that studies the cosmos and the cosmos that studies mysticism,” Cardenal says. “I conceive of God as the creator of this world and science as the study of this creation. For me, reading science books is a type of prayer.”
He passes the red paperback book to me via the translator. The book is called El Viaje al Amor: Las nuevas claves cientificas (The Journey to Love: The new scientific keys) by Spanish lawyer, economist and scientific communicator Eduardo Punset. The book examines love from a scientific perspective, from the chemistry that occurs when we “feel” love, to the psychology of mate choice, to the evolutionary reasons we marry.
“There’s an English biologist who says that science is a more sure path toward God,” Cardenal continues as I examine the book. “And I agree with that.”
It seems, finally, that the Vatican’s vision of Christianity is beginning to skew closer to Cardenal’s. While Pope Francis maintains some of the traditional views of the Church, he shares Cardenal’s appreciation for science, a fact made clear in his second encyclical, Laudato si’, in which the Pope calls for international action against the threat of global warming.
Earlier this year, Cardenal wrote he expected the election of nothing more than another “conservative and reactionary” pope in 2013. Instead, the church elected Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the non-traditional papal name Francis, and quickly eschewed many of the ornate trappings of papal life.
“We are seeing a true revolution in the Vatican,” Cardenal wrote. “Pope Francis does not want to live like a pope. He has refused to occupy the pontiff ’s palace, with its 14 rooms. He has rejected the popemobile. He talks directly to people on the telephone. He uses simple and clear language. He does not want to be called pope, but simply bishop (the Bishop of Rome).”
I ask Cardenal if the popularity of this progressive pope can create real change in the face of a slow-moving, existential threat like global warming.
“I don’t know, but I hope it can,” he says. “If we follow what the encyclical says, we can save the world.”
Despite uncertainty, Cardenal sees hope in “miracles” happening around the world: the election of a black president in the U.S., and an Indian president in Bolivia. Perhaps these are signs that humans can see past superficial differences and take action to save our shared home.
And this, Cardenal says, cannot happen without evolution, without revolution. It cannot happen without God. These things are not mutually exclusive, but symbiotic.
“Mahatma Ghandi said the Gospel is political or it’s not anything,” Cardenal says. “That’s what I believe. The message of the Gospel is that the world must be changed and that’s a political message.”
Much the same way we entered our conversation, Cardenal gently exits the conversation after 45 minutes or so by saying he thinks that’s enough for now. But I take a chance and ask if he’ll tell me if he has hope that humanity can overcome the climate crisis we’ve created.
True to form, he calls on science — man’s study of God’s work — for his answer.
“My hope is in evolution, that it can solve the problem.”