1997 Feb – “Radical Priest: Fr Frank Cordaro looks at Jesus through prison bars” by Art Cullen, Populist

Father Frank Cordaro looks at Jesus through prison bars

Managing Editor

One night Father Frank Cordaro was sitting at my kitchen table, wolfing down a cheeseburger. The next night he was in my TV screen on the 10 p.m. news, getting hauled out of the Iowa House chambers by the Capitol Police.

Cordaro committed the venial sin of dropping anti-death-penalty leaflets onto the legislators and Supreme Court justices gathered for Gov. Terry Branstad’s condition of the state address, in which the Republican called for re-institution of capital punishment.

Iowa has been without execution since Gov. Harold Hughes (an ordained Methodist minister) rid the state of it by executive order. Hughes had just visited death row at Fort Madison, and realized that he could not pull the lever himself. He could order no one else to do so.

Cordaro is no stranger to prisons himself, having been locked up for nearly three years out of the last 11. The Capitol Police did not throw him into the slammer. That chore is normally reserved for the folks at the Strategic Nuclear Command at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

There, peace is achieved through strength.

For Cordaro, a start at peace is achieved through civil disobedience.

“We don’t have to see results,” he says. “We are just called to be faithful.”

For Cordaro, being faithful means climbing the fence at the command, then getting arrested. He has been in jails and prisons in South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Virginia and Minnesota. He served two six-month stints in a federal prison camp at Yankton, S.D.

He is probably Iowa’s best-loved convict. Cordaro says he is not so popular with Des Moines Bishop Joseph Charron.

The Roman Catholic priest, with two tiny parishes south of Des Moines, leads protests with delegations from across the state. He says that he is following the radical lead of Jesus, whose life is a chronicle of civil disobedience.

In that spirit, he says: “The poor tell us who we are and prophets tell us who we should be. We hide the poor and kill the prophets.”

Surely, Cordaro would like to be remembered as a prophet, but also as a University of Northern Iowa wrestler who performed in five different weight brackets (from 158 to 190).

His father was a revered coach and athletic director at a Catholic high school in Des Moines. The Cordaro family is steeped in religion and faith.

Cordaro’s local heroes were Msgr. Luigi Ligutti, who founded the Catholic Rural Life Conference, and Des Moines Bishop Maurice Dingman, who embodied the heartland’s response to the farm debt crisis of the mid-1980s. A highlight of Cordaro’s life was when Ligutti came to Des Moines to bless the Catholic Worker House that he helped found, now named the Ligguti House.

“The voices for progressive farming, the family farm, have pretty much disappeared,” he laments. “But you never say die, right up to the tree. We still have populist traces. I still preach to some sympathetic ears.”

So there he is, with a band of protesters from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, protesting at the construction of a hog confinement building.

Cordaro’s moral theology is capsulized in his “shit theory”: “The problem with humanity is that we don’t know what to do with our shit,” he explains. “It used to be a living thing, now it’s dead. The oldest shit is oil. We bring it up and spread it on the land, air and sea. The newest is plutonium.

“The challenge is how to manage our shit. We are going to abort the ecosystem because we don’t have good shit management. We have no control over technology, and in a world of technology gone amok, war gets the better share of it. Everything leads to war if not held in check with the dictates of our Maker.

“We haven’t had the ability before – our sins are the same but the difference is scale and size. In Jesus’ time, God would end the world. Now, with nukes, the human race can destroy itself. There’s a certain innocence that can never be regained.”

A new spin on original sin, as it were.

It spreads to the new hog factories that are cropping up across the Midwest, in the Texas panhandle, even in the desert of Utah.

“We are taking the corporate model and laying it on our land. It’s not a corporation, the land is a living, breathing thing,” Cordaro says. “The hog factories are the final string on the whole package of corporate control.”

With losses in farm and rural population, agriculture has been relegated to secondary-issue status.

The degradation starts with agriculture and leads to all other areas, Cordaro says. It corrodes the heart, he says, and then he remembers Daniel Berrigan and goes right back to nuclear arms, trying to make a link.

“Berrigan said that before we created the atom bombs we had to create them in our hearts,” Cordaro says. “My sense of reality says that nukes are gonna come back and kick us in the ass. For me, this is a spiritual thing: Christians must rediscover the non-violent spirit of Jesus at this critical moment.”

Cordaro says that he will go to prison again. His buddy, Norm, says he’s going to get arrested again, too. There is this sort of Gesthemene-like epiphany feeling, like Cordaro wants to feel it and be it. He says he is a better priest and prayer in prison. He says he is called to be like Jesus, and finds some inordinate comfort in going away in shackles.


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