Nicanotes: Fr. Joe Mulligan: Revolutionary Priest

Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activists

By John Kotula

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

Gustavo Gutiérrez

“Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate.”

―  Ignacio Ellacuria

“To ask about the Kingdom is not to ask about the Church, but to ask how the dream of Jesus is coming along, His dream consists of unconditional love, solidarity, compassion, social justice, openness to the Sacred; and the centrality given to the oppressed.”

― Leonardo Boff, The strength of the lowly: the Theology of Liberation, 2017

Father Joseph Mulligan has been living and working in Nicaragua since 1986. He is a good friend of mine, but I recently “interviewed” him because I wanted to draw on his 31 years of experience to better understand the relationship between the Nicaraguan Revolution, Nicaragua today, and liberation theology.

I “interviewed” Joe at my house over lunch; two guys in their 70s, eating a damn good tuna salad and polishing off a bottle of wine. I’m not a particularly religious guy and some of the vocabulary and phrasing of liberation theology doesn’t come easily to me. However, I try to take it in, because it is clear to me that the relationship between the Nicaraguan revolution and this beautiful belief in god as liberator is profound.

Joe has a Youtube channel to which he has posted more than fifty videos. Some are recordings of lectures he has given on speaking engagements in the United States, others are interviews, and others take the form of short documentaries. His themes are the history of the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, liberation theology, non-violent protest and social activism, and The Nicaraguan Revolution, among others. His videos are not visually polished or fancy, but they contain first hand accounts and a committed, passionate point of view of some of the most important events of the last half century. I strongly urge you to take a look, starting perhaps with his personal reflections, My Involvement in the Struggle for Justice and Peace.

Before coming to Nicaragua, Joe was no stranger to the struggle for justice and peace. He first embraced the need for non-violent resistance and non-cooperation in his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was 25 at the time and a seminarian studying to be a priest. He undertook a period of discernment in hopes of finding understanding and a direction for his opposition. He came to recognize his love for the young Americans dying in Vietnam and his love for the Vietnamese people. Through his discernment, he also freed himself to do what needed to be done. “Love,” he says, “Expresses itself in deeds, not words.”

His first deed was to send back his draft card, despite the fact that as a seminarian he had a draft deferment. This particular act did not result in jail time. However, soon after he took part in the destruction of draft records. He was convicted and sentenced to five years. Joe served two years before being released and placed on parole. He had to ask his parole officer for permission to travel from Chicago to Detroit to be ordained as a Catholic priest. I’d be willing to bet it was the first and last request of that nature the parole officer received.

“Joe being arrested at the White House in 1990.”

Of course, religion has often been viewed with suspicion by activists and revolutionaries. There is ample justification for this perception. Often religion is, in fact, the “opiate of the masses”, offering only consolation in oppression and promising a better life only in the world to come. In contrast to this version of the church, there is liberation theology, which posits that to be Christian is to be a liberationist and a revolutionary. This is seen as a reflection of a god who wants a better, more just world; a god who wants people to be free, a god who wants a “preferential option for the poor.”

Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez coined that phrase and it has been at the heart of liberation theology since the early 1970s. Liberation theology is a powerful voice within the Catholic Church. Certainly it is a minority point of view and has been contested by the church hierarchy, but, especially in the developing world, it has been passionately advocated and had great impact socially, culturally and politically. One heartbreaking measure of the power of liberation theology is that those who use it to advocate for a better life for the disempowered are frequently killed. Joe has extensively studied and documented the Jesuits who were murdered in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Joe came to Nicaragua looking for liberation theology at work. “The revolution led by the Sandinista Front was an unusual revolution because a lot of people were involved in it as Christians, involved because of their faith,” he told me. There were four Catholic priests who played significant roles in liberating Nicaragua from the murderous Somoza dynasty and from domination by the United States; Miguel d’Escoto, Ernesto Cardenal, Fernando Cardenal, and Edgard Parrales. They went on to help govern the fledgling nation throughout the 80’s, during the U.S. instigated and financed Contra war. Miguel d’Escoto was foreign minister, the equivalent of the Secretary of State in the United States, from 1979 to 1990.

Ernesto Cardenal was minister of culture during the same period and guided an unprecedented flowering of the arts in the new nation. His brother, Fernando, was minister of education. Under his leadership, Nicaragua undertook a literacy campaign that taught tens of thousands of rural people to read and write, and perhaps just as importantly, bridged social gaps and created a sense of Nicaraguans as one people working together for the good of all. Edgard Parrales was Nicaragua’s representative to the Organization of American States. Although the Sandinistas tried to negotiate with the Vatican for years, in the end, the Catholic Church told the four men they could be priests or politicians but not both. Each chose to continue working for justice and equality with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Edgar Parrales left the priesthood and the other three were denied the right to offer mass and other sacraments to the people. In his letter of resignation Edgar Parrales said that his service to the Sandinista cause ”fulfills all of my deepest aspirations, something I have never experienced before…You know well that I am a deeply religious man fully concerned with the ethical aspects of life… If others see an incompatibility between revolution and religion, I see none at all.’’ Parrales’ sense that making revolution may be a deeper manifestation of god’s will than serving as a priest resonates with many liberation theologists.

Miguel d’Escoto as a very young priest

Ernesto Cardenal being castigated by by Pope John Paul II.

Fernando Cardenal during the literacy campaign.

Edgard Parrales with Miguel d’Escoto.

For several years after Joe came to Nicaragua there were weekly protests in front of the US embassy in Managua objecting to US intervention in Central America. Joe told me the point of the protests was “to say that the Sandinista government showed a lot of promise to change things for the better if they would be left in peace.” He also took this message to Washington, DC on many occasions.

Joe in Managua in 2017.

Joe says, “We don’t talk about god without talking about the kingdom of god; the manifestations of god’s will for how we should live together here on the earth. God wants structural change, economically, socially, and politically. God wants a better world. God wants a more just world. God wants us to declare good news to the poor.” As my own country moves further and further from the kingdom of god, I am glad to have the experience of Nicaragua, which took root and grew from a belief that you should love your neighbor as yourself.








  • The Nicaragua Central Bank reported that Gross International Reserves (GIR) reached US$2.7 billion dollars last December, equivalent to 2.4 times the monetary base of the country. The report states that this level of reserve represents an increase of US$ 310 million dollars over the amount reported at the end of 2016. (Nicaragua News, Jan. 8)
  • Eight of ten top export products grew in value in 2017 according to the Center for Procedures for Exports (CENTREX). Coffee led the way, as it usually does, generating over half a billion dollars (US$514.7 million), a whopping 28.5% increase over 2016. It was followed in descending order by: beef, gold, cane sugar, peanuts, farmed shrimp, beans, lobster, fresh cheese, and leaf tobacco. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8)
  • Registration continues for the beginning of the 2018 school year which starts Feb. 5. The Ministry of Education reports that it is on target to register 1.7 million students by close of registration on Feb. 3. This year’s education budget of US$474 million includes US$20 million for an 8% teachers raise and 1,000 new teacher hires. In 12,000 schools, 1.2 million children will receive school meals provided by the government. The budget also includes infrastructure improvements, over 600,000 solidarity packets for low income students, new textbooks and teachers guides, teacher training, and a stimulous bonus for 64,000 graduating students. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 8)
  • International Living, a magazine and website aimed at English speaking retirees, put Nicaragua as the eighth best country to retire to for the second year in a row. The rating is based on investment, benefits, rental prices, cost of living, entertainment and amenities, healthy lifestyle, and climate among other things. Nicaragua got extra points for its beautiful beaches and cheap food. International Living considers Nicaraguan real estate to be a real bargain and particularly called out Granada as a great place for gringo retirees to land. Meanwhile the US government ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Nicaraguan emigres last year and just this week ended TPS for 200,000 Salvadorans who don’t get to choose where they will retire. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 4)
  • A new M & R Consultants poll shows that 80.5% of Nicaraguans oppose the people or groups in Nicaragua and the US that support the NICA Act, up from 60.2% in April 2017. That includes the US Senators who introduced it on Dec. 23, and groups in Nicaragua such as the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the associates of banker and US favorite Eduardo Montealegre. The NICA Act passed the US House in October 2017. If passed by the Senate and signed by the president, it would attempt to cut Nicaragua’s access to multilateral loans. To tell your Senators to vote no, click here. The poll was taken between Dec. 15-28 and included 1,600 people. It had a margin of error of 2.5% and 95% confidence level. President of the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) Alvaro Rodríguez told Bolsa de Noticias that the NICA Act and the Magnistky law (sanctions of individuals) represent risks but he is confident that the Sandinista government “will handle this in an appropriate manner.” He said, “We are optimistic. We do not see any impact in terms of commercial relations between the United States and Nicaragua.” Skopos Labs, a company that analyzes the probability of bills becoming law in the US predicts just a 32% chance for the NICA Act. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 4; Informe Pastran, Jan. 5)