The priest sat under a giant mango tree in one of the houses that once belonged to the deposed leader Anastosio Somoza Dabayle.

The priest, Ernesto Cardenal, allied himself with the guerrillas during the struggle against Somoza, who was overthrown in July 1979. Now Cardenal was using a Somoza house in his role as head of the Ministry of Culture under the new government.

Cardenal is one of several priests serving in the new Nicaraguan government. Others include Foreign Minister Miguel D'scoto, a Mary-knoll priest; Cardenal's brother, Fernando, a Jesuit who heads a national literacy campaign and two economic advisers, Edgar Parrales and Xavier Gorostiaga.

They are all under a mandate the Nicaraguan bishops issued in May to end their government associations as soon as possible, but with no deadline. Similarly, Pope John Paul II has directed priests to get out of partisan politics.

"Lay Christians can fufill with no less effectiveness the public jobs now held by some priests," the Nicaraguan bishops declared.

The priests in government positions appeared to be neither openly defiant of the directives nor eager to quit their jobs soon.

Ernesto Cardenal claimed that the Vatican is not insisting that priests get out of politics in Nicaragua. "I was recently in Rome where I spoke to Cardinal (agostino) Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state," he said "and he told me that for the Vatican, the case of Nicaragua was different -- that I was an exception to the pope's edict. He told me this was a whole new experience, a whole new exception."

The minister of culture, an accomplished poet, is proud of being both a priest and a revolutionary.

"As a priest, I see myself as a prophet in the bibical sense of the word, which means one who denounces injustice on earth," he said. "And as a poet, I am also a prophet in that for me, that also means to be a revolutionary."

When questioned about the pope's recent trip to Brazil, Cardenal said, "When the pope makes political declarations, including when he says that priests should not make political declarations, I do not always agree with him. I don't see why all Catholics should share the view of the pope, especially when he speaks about political matters."

Cardenal is concerned with encouraging the renaissance in the arts that Nicaragua is experiencing. Under his auspices, a new cantata to a hero of the revolution was performed for the first time.

Cardenal's brother, Fernando, heads a literacy campaign with the ambitious goal of teaching every Nicaraguan to read and write at a basic level. All public and private schools have closed their doors for the duration of the the campaign. Thousands of teachers and students, even at the elementary-school level, have fanned out throughout the countryside to "alphabetize" the illiterate. About 100,000 persons, it is said, have been taught basic reading skills so far.

"In the past," Fernando said, "as a Jesuit priest, I used to teach in the university where I taught the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers. In those years no one seemed to care whether my work was evangelical . . . . But now that I follow Christ's words the closets, as stated in St. Matthew 25:31, where it says that one must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and Iwould add, teach the illiterate -- now is when they ask me if my work is in accordance with the Gospel."

The Rev. Alvaro Arguello represents the priests of his country before the Council of the State, which in turn reports directly to the ruling junta. t"To be a Christian in Nicaragua today, one must also be a revolutionary," he said.

"Most of the bishops of the Nicaraguan Bishop's Conference support the revolution. Therefore, if anyone in Nicaragua is not willing to participate in the revolution that was fought to bring a better lot for the poor of the country and cannot control his or her selfishness and egoism in a Christian commitment towards the poor, they are certainly not Christian."

The Rev. Xavier Gorostiaga, a Spanish Jesuit and chief economist for the revolutionary government, has developed the so-called "Plan '80," geared toward the restructuring of the Nicaraguan economy. He said that efforts are being made to restruture a new economic system that takes into account the need of the poor. The previous system, he said, was built to accommodate multinational companies and the country's bourgeoisie.