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Fr. Dan Berrigan SJ born 9 May 1921; died 30 April 2016 RIP

June 4, 2016

Dan Ber 6Daniel Berrigan was a writer, peace activist and Roman Catholic priest who, with his brother and fellow priest Philip, inspired a wave of non-violent protests against the Vietnam war.  On 17 May 1968, the Berrigans and seven other activists, mostly ordained, marched into a draft office in Catonsville, Maryland, and seized the records of almost 400 men who were about to be conscripted into the US Army. They then carried the files to a nearby car park, doused them with home-made napalm and set them alight, before being dragged away by police. The group became known as the Catonsville Nine, and their actions — six weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King, when riots were breaking out in cities across America — and subsequent arrest, trial and conviction, sparked a host of other draft-card burnings, marches and sit-ins. In a play about the event, Berrigan, who died in April 2016 aged 94, wrote: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlour of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

The fifth of six sons, Berrigan was born in 1921 into a family that was both devoutly Catholic and highly political. His father, a frustrated, violent man, was a trade union member, who passed his radicalism on to his sons; his mother was a housewife who opened their home to the poor. She recalled that even as a child, Daniel — frailer than his brothers — was “obsessed by the suffering of the world”. Growing up in upstate New York, Daniel went to a local high school, then entered a Jesuit seminary. He was ordained in 1952, and subsequently taught English in Catholic schools, while writing poetry; later, he taught at various universities. He grew close to some of his more radical students and became further involved in the civil rights movement.

Much like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan never set out to radicalize his life by resisting state violence and being jailed for it. Gandhi trained in England, envisioning life as a lawyer. King, after earning a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955, planned on pastoring a Baptist church. For Day, carousing in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, it would be journalism.

Little in Berrigan’s 13 years of Jesuit training, ending in 1952 with ordination, gave hints that he would stray from the tame, cassocked paths trod by most members of his order. For him, it looked to be education. In the mid-1950s, he taught at Brooklyn Preparatory School where one of his brighter students was Robert Bennett, a future titan of the Washington bar whose clients would include Pentagon hawks Caspar Weinberger and Paul Wolfowitz.

Dan Ber 4What wind swept Berrigan away from the conventional classroom toils he seemed marked for? It was his younger brother, Philip.

In a 1978 letter, Daniel wrote to him: “I saw the Jesuits yesterday AM at Detroit U pushing their golf bags ahead of them to a car, off for the day. It was a fractured scene out of the 40s and 50s. I thought, there but for you, went I. What a blessing to be beckoned along so gracefully. … For standing while others wilt + whimper + waste it, for speaking up while others hum along — thank you dear brother.”

Dan Ber 2In 1968, Berrigan flew to Hanoi, to help secure the release of three US PoWs, and witnessed at first hand the conditions being endured by US servicemen (who were disproportionately poor and black). On his return, he and Philip — who had an even more radical track record — began planning the Catonsville protest. For destroying US property, Berrigan was sentenced to three years, but before he could be jailed, he briefly went on the run, drawing yet more attention to the cause. He was the first priest to be put on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, and in 1971, he and Philip made the cover of Time magazine. Loathed by many conservatives, Berrigan was considered an enemy of both the state and the Catholic Church, said The Economist. But he was braced for that. As he liked to say: “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

Later, he and Philip joined the anti-nuclear movement: in 1980, they invaded a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania and rained hammer blows down on missile warheads, evoking the verse in the Book of Isaiah about people beating “their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks”. The so-called Ploughshare protest led to further criminal convictions. In the 1990s Berrigan worked with Aids patients in New York. He wrote dozens of books, and lived modestly, carrying most of what he owned in a small rucksack. “My deepest belief is that results are not important,” he said in 1993. “If you want to profess your faith, you have to seek consonance with Christ and let the chips fall. And they often fall in legal jeopardy and public disgrace.

Dan Ber 1In the 1996 book Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan, Bishop Walter Sullivan tells of being harassed by members of his flock in 1970 for inviting the felonious cleric to stay at his home while in town for a lecture. “I discovered firsthand how hostile and unforgiving the majority of Richmond’s Catholics were toward people who witnessed for peace by means of civil disobedience. … ‘A priest should not be in politics,’ they insisted. ‘This Father Berrigan is a disgrace to our religion. Why don’t the Jesuits do something about this wild man?’ ”

Fr. Berrigan was a fascinating figure and much more could be written about him; in a way his death marks the passing of one of the last of a whole generation of Catholics, mostly American, who spearheaded, along with various popes, the big shift in Catholic teaching against war: this has borne fruit recently in a recent conference in Rome which has called for a major reappraisal of the Just War doctrine. Fr. Berrigan once wrote: ‘Christians should take no part in abortion, war, paying taxes for war, disposing of people on death row or warehousing the aged.’

One of the most interesting things he did, and one of the bravest, was in the aftermath of the terrible ‘9/11’ attacks on New York in 2001. On that day he was working in New York and, with other priests, spent a lot of time ministering to the injured and the bereaved after the twin towers fell. A few months later he wrote an extraordinary book entitled Lamentations From New York to Kabul and Beyond (Sheed and Ward 2002). This is a reflection on the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament as a source of mourning and penitence, used by Jews and Christians for centuries and often associated for us with Holy Week; Fr. Berrigan draws on the text to reflect on the sufferings in New York, but also those caused by American military actions before 2001 and its retaliatory actions taken afterwards. It is a disturbing and very moving book, well worth prayerful reading.

Dan Ber 3At a time when in the rise of Donald Trump we are seeing the worst America has to offer to the world it is good to look at the life of a truly great American Catholic in the person of Daniel Berrigan. May he rest in peace.

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