November 29, 2010
Nicaraguan liberation theologian and poet Fr. Ernesto Cardenal shared his message during University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Nicaraguan liberation theologian and poet Fr. Ernesto Cardenal shared his message during University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas

RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — The role of the priest is to bring the Good News of Jesus to the poor and to assist them in their liberation, says Father Ernesto Cardenal, a renowned Nicaraguan liberation theologian and poet currently visiting Edmonton.

To do that, he said, the priest must be not afraid to get involved in the political process because "the whole message of the Bible is a political message (about) justice, equality and love."

Cardenal, 85, visited Edmonton as part of the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas. He delivered a lecture to university students Nov. 18, gave a well-attended poetry reading at City Hall Nov. 19 and participated in a debate at the Citadel Theatre later that day.

Cardenal, with white beard and hair, appeared at the poetry reading in his characteristic informal dress, wearing his trademark black beret.

He read fragments from his 600-page poem Cosmic Canticle — an assortment of philosophical, scientific, political and religious themes — and a poem about a young man who was killed fighting the contras, a contra-revolutionary group backed by the United States' government.

He read in Spanish after an interpreter had given an English translation.

Cardenal was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965 but was suspended from priestly ministry in 1985 because he refused to give up his post as minister of culture with the Marxist-inspired Sandinista government.

In a Nov. 20 interview, Cardenal said he still hasn't asked the pope to reinstate his priestly faculties because he doesn't need to.

"I didn't become a priest just to celebrate the sacraments but to lead a contemplative life," he explained. "I live my priesthood through my poetry."

Following his priestly ordination, Cardenal went to the Solentiname Islands, an archipelago towards the southern end of Lake Nicaragua, and founded a contemplative Christian community.

"It was that community that led me to the revolution," said Cardenal, who collaborated closely with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, in working to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

His philosophy and spirituality was an unusual mixture of Catholicism and Marxist socialism.

He said Thomas Merton, his friend and mentor, had told him that being contemplative didn't mean he could ignore the social and political reality of his country.

FREEDOM FIGHTERS

Many members of his Solentiname community got involved in the guerrilla warfare that the FSLN had developed to strike at the regime. "Some of them died."

In mid-1979, immediately after the fall of Managua, he was named minister of culture by the new Sandinista regime. He served until 1987.

When Pope John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983, Cardenal attempted to greet the pope in the traditional manner of dropping to one knee and kissing his ring. John Paul pulled his hand away from Cardenal and wagged his finger at him.

Cardenal resigned from the FSLN in 1994, protesting the authoritarian direction of the party under Daniel Ortega, the current Nicaraguan president, but insists that he is still a leftist. He is a member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement.

LIBERATION THEOLOGY LIVES

"I've always supported the revolution but I became disenchanted with the direction of the movement," he said. Weakened by criticism of the last two popes, the liberation theology movement is still relevant, he maintains.

The Sandinista Party ruled Nicaragua for 11 years until it lost the 1990 national election to Violeta Chamorro. Cardenal said the leaders of the party stole everything they could before handing the reins of power over to Chamorro.

"When they became corrupted, they stopped being revolutionaries," he said in the interview.

Ortega and the Sandinistas were returned to power in 2006 but Cardenal said it's no longer a progressive left-wing government like that of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia.

REVOLUTION DESTABILIZED

"They (the Sandinista Front) abandoned the most beautiful revolution; they are only interested in holding on to power," he said, noting that in his effort to regain power, Ortega allied himself with the rich and the powerful.

The priest refused to continue talking about the Nicaraguan government for fear of reprisals.

"There are things I can't say because there is no freedom."

But he said he remains a revolutionary, committed to bringing the Good News to the poor and the marginalized.