The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
University of 

University of Rochester

Llama in a Taxicab

Like his kindred spirit, the llama, Curt Cadorette is most at home in the Andes. Still, zooming down the highway of modern America, he is enjoying the ride -- including his tenure as the University's first Newman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies.

By Denise Bolger Kovnat

A lone postcard decorates the door of Curt Cadorette's office in Rush Rhees Library: a black-and-white photo, maybe 40 years old, of a llama riding in a taxi down a busy street in Manhattan, calmly sticking its long neck out the window to see where it's going.

"I feel like that sometimes," confesses Cadorette.

Like his kindred spirit the llama, Cadorette is most at home in the Andes. Still, zooming down the highway of modern-day America, he's enjoying the ride -- including his tenure as the University's first John Henry Newman Associate Professor of Roman Catholic Studies.

Ordained as a Maryknoll priest in 1977, Cadorette has spent much of the past two decades as a missionary among the poor in the peasant villages of Peru. No heat, no electricity, no running water, no doctors: "I lived in an area where you had to carry your food over your shoulder in burlap sacks and when you woke up in the morning, the water in your tub was frozen solid," he says. "It was a transforming experience."


He returns to Peru often -- so often that his resume lists Lima as his home address.

"My point of perspective is and probably, surely, always will be Peru. I refuse to admit that I live in Rochester," he declares. Why does he feel this way? "I'll be primal about it: It's a great love for the people, an ongoing love affair. Someone once said to me, 'You have a mistress.' And I do.

"There's much about the Andean world that I find really admirable and more humane, in many respects, than the way we live, the way we define humanness." Among the indigenous people of Peru, he says, "there's great stress on the collective. I find that in some sense very wise -- which is not to say that there isn't pathology in their world, too. We're confronted with loneliness in our society. They are far less violent than we are; there's a sense of collective responsibility."

The people who have conquered his heart are the Aymara, who were themselves conquered by the Inca in the 15th century and again by the Spanish a hundred years later. Today, their culture blends aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and modern influences. Their native tongue is Aymara -- an Andean language unrelated to Spanish, the official language of Peru -- while their religion is Catholic, mingled with aspects of their ancient beliefs. ("Their religious traditions are insightful, almost subversive," says Cadorette.) They live and farm the land of the rugged altiplano, the high plains of the Lake Titicaca region in southernmost Peru and northern Bolivia.

Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and, at roughly 13,000 feet, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. At this altitude, the air is unusually clear and the waters particularly blue. For Cadorette, "to watch the moon come up over the lake is to be suffused in mystery."

In his 1988 book, From the Heart of the People: The Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cadorette writes eloquently of Titicaca, "whose waters change from an intense blue to an emerald green as the sun passes. The lake stretches into the horizon like a living sheet of colors, with a life and rhythms all its own. Pondering its expanse, one quickly realizes why the Aymara and Quechua peoples hold it in such reverence. It speaks of the power and transcendence of nature. When night falls the sky becomes a riot of stars; the darkness reveals swirls of constellations that pass through the night in patterns so dense it seems possible to reach up and touch them. The commonplace effects of nature, the cycles of day and night, assume an intensity that inspires awe."

He made the hard decision to leave Peru in 1992 as political violence intensified, with extremist groups bent on social change detonating 600-kilogram car bombs in downtown Lima. "Those bombs would take out areas of the city the size of downtown Rochester," he says. He even learned to distinguish the sounds of small arms and heavy caliber weapons. "In the middle of the night, if you hear the kind of weapons that can shoot through walls, you roll off the bed and sleep on the floor. You learn to budget your emotions."

Still, he didn't just leave Peru -- he came back for a reason, to teach his own bracing version of liberation theology and "to show that Catholicism is vital," as he said upon his University appointment in April 1994. "There's beauty, there's depth, there's wisdom in the tradition. I look at the modern world and I think the church has something to say about human worth and dignity."

He wants to reveal other cultures to his students as best he can, to show them "our wonderful complexity as human beings. I want them to see beyond Rochester, beyond the United States."

His post -- an endowed chair that honors John Henry Newman, the 19th century English cardinal and writer -- is one of just a handful at secular institutions nationwide. More than a decade ago, the University's Newman Community started an endowment with proceeds from the sale of property on Mt. Hope Avenue. Shortly thereafter, a six-figure gift was made anonymously to the endowment. The professorship became a reality in 1994, when a Rochester couple, William Pulsifer '50 and Barbara Rice Pulsifer '52, made an additional major gift.

Bishop Matthew Clark of the Diocese of Rochester says he's "very pleased that Professor Cadorette is sharing his scholarship and commitment to the human family through his work at the University. His sense of inclusiveness, his record of inquiry, the way he expresses his own scholarship -- all are totally compatible with the work of the University as I understand it.

"He's certainly enriched the life of the local church. He's very generous in assisting with our parish communities. And that very remarkable dimension he has in ministry is a precious gift to us. I think Curt is a tremendously enriching presence."

An authority on Latin American religion and culture as well as on issues of peace and justice, Cadorette speaks fluent Spanish, French, and Aymara and reads Portuguese, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. (He passes off this facility with languages as "an occupational hazard of religious school.") Before joining the University, he taught at the Maryknoll School of Theological Studies in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he was responsible for the Hispanic Ministry Program and the 1992 Global Classroom in Peru and Bolivia. During those years, he traveled often between Peru and the States, essentially spending a semester here and the next there.

The son of a French Canadian father and an English mother who was a devout Catholic, Cadorette grew up in Easthampton, Massachusetts. "It was one of those very safe working-class towns, very homogeneous, overwhelmingly Christian," he recalls.

He earned a Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael's College at Toronto, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Gustavo Gutiérrez, a priest and scholar who has devoted his life to working in the slums of Lima. The Cadorette resume lists four other degrees: an S.T.L., which is a theological degree, from Regis College in Toronto, magna cum laude; a master's degree in divinity from Maryknoll; and a B.A. and an M.A. (1970 and 1971, respectively) in New Testament and Early Christian Literature from the University of Chicago. (In Chicago, he put his theology to work on the streets of Cabrini Green and took part in demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic Convention. "It was kind of exciting," he recalls.)

Neat and trim as a tennis player, with close-cropped gray hair and beard, wearing aviator glasses, a starched white shirt and tie, and gray wool pants, Cadorette has the breezy, informal air of an outdoorsman. Despite his triple status as priest, scholar, and professor, he shuns any of the titles he's earned and prefers that people call him by his first name. "I've asked students to address me as Herr Doctor Pater Licentiat Professor, but they aren't very responsive," he jokes.

On this chilly morning, he walks briskly into the classroom, places a few books and notes on the table, takes off his watch and sets it before him, and warms up with some cheerful banter as the bells in Rush Rhees tower chime 11 o'clock. (The class, by the way, is a 200-level seminar on "Catholicism and American Life.")

"Well, it's the last hurrah now -- four weeks 'til the semester's over. Some of you move on to more glorious things. Actually, you get to pay taxes, that's the only advantage I can think of," he says wryly. "But there's always grad school. . . ."

Today's focus is the revolutionary event of the 1960s known as Vatican II. "Can you give me some adjectives to describe the church pre-Vatican II?" he asks the 12 students assembled.

"Closed," comes the first answer.


"Very clerical."

"There was no ambiguity," he responds. "You didn't wake up in the morning wondering what it's all about. I did, at 6:10 this morning, but I made it, and here we are."

Alternately pushing, pulling, questioning, and answering, he works to bring the historic gathering alive for his students. Describing the diversity of the 2,500 bishops, ranging from ultra-liberals to arch conservatives, who took part in Vatican II, he asks, "You ever try to create anything by committee? It's a recipe for a nervous breakdown." He lights on one "very significant" document, Dignitatis Humanae ("On Human Dignity"), which advances the ideal that no one has a right to determine what is truth for anyone else: "The person who wrote it was John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit who taught at Georgetown. He was silenced in the 1950s -- but he was one of those who don't give up. They're loyal; they believe that the institution can be reformed from within."

After class, back in his office, he says that he has grown over the past two years to love many of his students. "They're asking good questions. They're very agile intellectually and emotionally." He finds that teaching is fun, with the exception of grading midterms. "I think that in some ways I have died and gone to heaven. I find it very rewarding. One of the things that I like about the University is that we have a lot of middle-class students here who have seen both sides of the economic fence. They have some questions about what they've seen."

His students are "wonderfully honest" about religious issues, he feels. "I must say I'm utterly delighted to be in a secular institution. I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder -- which is a tragic comment on Catholicism. There's a pressure to be unimaginative."

Inside his office, along with the usual professorial clutter, one finds reminders of the land that has captured his imagination. There's a large map of Peru on the wall, along with color photographs of Machu Picchu and of an Andean mother and her three children. They wear native dress and cluster together inside a dark doorway, peering shyly at the camera.

Cadorette with Jacoba Barrientos, whose daughter is his godchild: Barrientos is his comadre, he says. "It's a term that literally means 'co-mother' and shows how important such social and family alliances are in the Andean world."

These are the people "whose faces are very visible in my mind," he says. "What is painful to me is seeing what the world -- the Spanish and Christian world -- has done to them. Their humanness has been degraded for 500 years." During the period of Latin American colonization, he asserts, "we didn't even entertain the possibility of conversation, we just charged in." The English, French, Italians, and Spanish were all partners in genocide, with "perhaps as many as 90 million people dying in the first century of colonial endeavor."

The destruction has echoed through the centuries, he says. Today, per capita income is roughly $150 a year and the infant-mortality rate is 30 to 40 percent. Compounding the problems of a most vulnerable country is the Latin American terrorist group known as Sendero Luminoso -- in English, the Shining Path. This extremist organization "overtly admires Pol Pot and subjected the Peruvian people to a decade of hyperviolence," he says. The death toll over that period was 25,000. "These people aren't really Marxists/Leninists. They have no sense of humor; they're so rigid that they hum in the breeze."

Even without the Shining Path, life is harsh for the campesinos -- the native Andean people who farm the land. Cadorette writes that "family responsibilities in the struggle for survival begin at five years of age and end when life ends. Romantic notions of childhood and the serenity of old age are concepts no campesino family can afford to entertain."

In response to the hardships of their lives, he has helped by "running untold numbers of people to the hospital in Puno, gotten people out of jail, smuggled the occasional refugee out of Bolivia during one of their innumerable coups -- things that just about everyone else has done working in the altiplano of Peru."

"In effect," he explains, "I was involved in the day-to-day stuff that one experiences in a class-stratified, developing country with the inherent social chaos and injustice one finds in such a world. Most of the time life was tranquil to the point of being prosaic. Occasionally, things were tense and even dangerous. There were a few moments that generated serious sweat, despite the incredible cold."

The operative word here is praxis, a theological term that means putting your money where your mouth is. Praxis is a central tenet of the Christian movement known as liberation theology. As Cadorette writes in Liberation Theology: An Introductory Reader, a book he co-edited with three colleagues, this is how "faith is made real in action on behalf of other human beings, particularly those who are poor and oppressed." He stresses that this theology is about hope:

"Fundamentally, we must believe that the struggle of millions of human beings for recognition and justice speaks of a transcendent spirit working in their lives and history. It is the Christian community's task to see and affirm that spirit. It is called to look beyond itself and the confusion of the present moment to a still-to-be-defined future, confident that life, not death, has the final word in history. The task of the Christian community in the post-modern world is to keep that message alive."

According to Mary Snyder, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College, her friend Cadorette practices what he preaches. (Snyder is one of the co-editors of Cadorette's book on liberation theology, and the two studied together at the Toronto School of Theology and in Peru 13 years ago.) "He lived in the campo with the poor and shared their way of life. He helped them -- not so much as someone who came in and said, 'I have all these great ideas, guys,' but as someone who is hoping to learn. He's shared not just their native wisdom but also their suffering: He's buried children, he's aided women in abusive situations, he's helped alcoholic men get back on their feet. No tragedy is too horrific for him.

"Theology for him is not abstract. It's deeply rooted in dealing with the real questions of people's lives." And in bringing those questions into the classroom. Cadorette laments the attitude of some of his peers in other disciplines -- those who think that "studying religion is cute."

"I believe there's a very significant role that religious institutions can play in society, helping people to understand that we are not threats to each other. What religion has to offer is the assumption that we're all graced, that we all have spiritual insight. This is the message that religious institutions are responsible for: Each of us is a gift."

And each of us has much to give. As this story is being written, he plans to return to Peru in the summer with a group of undergraduates for three weeks of work and study. He'll be climbing out of his taxicab, leaving the streets of the city, and going back to the altiplano --  where, like his friend the llama, he'll help bear the burdens of the Andean people.

Denise Bolger Kovnat reported on undergraduate Web pages and profiled Ethiopian ambassador Solomon Gidada '65, '67 (Mas) in the Spring-Summer 1996 issue of Rochester Review.

| UR Home | Review Contents | Mail |

Copyright 1996, University of Rochester
Maintained by University Public Relations
Last updated 12-4-1996      (jc)