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Practicing Christian anarchy.

Council Bluffs, Iowa

When Father Frank Cordaro received his assignment as associate pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Parish last July, he had to tell the church he would be four months late. He had to get out of jail first.

Cordaro, a forty-one-year-old "Christian anarchist," was released in November from a Federal prison camp, after serving a six-month sentence for repeated trespassing on the Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha. His crime: He and other nuclear arms protesters had crossed the line of jurisdiction that marks the Air Force base's boundary. "We say a prayer, then send 'em across the line," says Cordaro. "You have to wonder if laws are really getting broken. But it makes for a good liturgy."

Cordaro's parishioners have grown accustomed to nontraditional liturgies. During his previous seven-year tenure at two parishes in rural Harrison County, Iowa, "Father Frank" was arrested fifteen times. He served a total of fourteen months in jail for protests involving the arms race, the farm crisis, U.S. policy in Central America, and poverty.

Ministering to a traditionally conservative parish in the heartland, Cordaro believes he has earned the respect of his parish members. "While many may not have agreed with my civil disobedience, they also said they appreciated the fact that I was willing to stand up for what I believed," he says. And I never let my personal beliefs interfere with my ability to pastor."

During his latest jail stint, Cordaro sent back a monthly newsletter, "Prison Letter and Reflections," to his congregation. He refused to accept his salary while he was imprisoned, however. When the diocese's bishop insisted he be paid at his new parish, Cordaro mailed his check to St. Patrick's as a donation.

Frank Cordaro was hardly cut out to become a radical priest. An all-state football player and wrestler in his Des Moines high school, he earned four wrestling letters in college and planned to coach. He was "radicalized" in the early 1970s, after working for a summer in the South Bronx.

After earning a master's degree in theology, Cordaro returned to Des Moines and in 1976 co-founded the city's Catholic Worker House. Cordaro's reputation as a radical was cemented in November 1979, when The Washington Post ran a six-column, front-page photograph that caught him dumping a bag of ashes at the feet of President Carter during a briefing on the SALT II treaty.

"Would Jesus use a nuclear weapon? No way, Jose," says Cordaro. "The fact that the Soviet Union disintegrated simply means we're now at the top of the dung heap. We're still the best killers in the world."

When Cordaro was ordained as a priest in June 1985, he was assigned to a team ministry in Harrison County, which was ripe for his brand of political activism. Southwest Iowa lay in the heart of the wrenching farm crisis of the mid-1980s. In neighboring Shelby County, seventy-five farms were auctioned at sheriffs sales in the first five years of the Reagan Administration. During one such auction in February 1987, Cordaro organized a nonviolent protest, gathering 200 people on the steps of the Shelby County courthouse in Harlan.

While the farm economy has improved, Cordaro believes that structural flaws continue to fuel the crisis. "Because of the nature of corporate agriculture, the demise of the family farm is still with us, and it's not going to get better," he says.

Cordaro criticizes the Catholic Church for its all-male, celibate hierarchy, and characterizes it as "a wealthy institution that isn't working with the poor." Bishop William Bullock of the Des Moines Roman Catholic Diocese has described Cordaro as "the Francis of Assisi of our diocese," and has supported his work. But, says Cordaro, "I get mixed reviews from him. I'm always going to be in his face, because he supports the Church's sexism, and he says he's not a nuclear pacifist. It shouldn't be hard to come clean on issues of war and peace, so it's hard for me to trust his vision."

Cordaro has lost count of his actual number of arrests ("thirty to forty . . . I imagine"), and continues to practice his notion of Christian anarchy. "Some may think I'm a kook, but I'm on a holy quest," he says. "I'm out to save the world. Is that impractical? Foolish? When I follow my values, I'm in jail. When George Bush followed his, he killed 200,000 people."

"I'm a priest wherever I go, but as a Christian I will always confront the powers that be -- as long as society is unfairly distributed -- I couldn't do one without the other."
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Title Annotation:Father Frank Cordaro
Author:McElwain, Max
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1993
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