Daniel Berrigan SJ: RIP 30 April 2016
Fr. Tim Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, announced the death today of Daniel Berrigan at the age of 94.
America Magazine has posted the following article by Luke Hansen, S.J
The peacemaking legacy of Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and acclaimed poet who for decades famously challenged U.S. Catholics to reject war and nuclear weapons, died on April 30 in New York City. He was 94. He was a Jesuit for 76 years and a priest for 63 years.
Berrigan undoubtedly stands among the most influential American Jesuits of the past century, joining the likes of John Courtney Murray and Avery Dulles. Priest, poet, retreat master, teacher, peace activist, friend and mentor, he is the author of more than 50 books on Scripture, spirituality and resistance to war.
Berrigan received the Campion Award from America in 1988.
A literary giant in his own right, Berrigan was best known for his dramatic acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. He burned draft files with homemade napalm and later hammered on nuclear weapons to enact the Isaiah prophecy to “beat swords into plowshares.” His actions challenged Americans and Catholics to reexamine their relationship with the state and reject militarism. He constantly asked himself and others: What does the Gospel demand of us?
“For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote. “If this be heresy, make the most of it.”
Daniel J. Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minn., the fifth of six boys, and grew up on a farm near Syracuse, N.Y.
At age 18, Berrigan entered the New York Province of the Society of Jesus with a close childhood friend after receiving a matter-of-fact brochure about the Jesuits’ rigorous training program. At the time, he knew no Jesuits. It was “an act of faith on both sides,” he later wrote. “Not a bad arrangement.”
During his first teaching assignment, at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J., in the late 1940s, Berrigan brought students across the Hudson to introduce them to the Catholic Worker. They often attended the “clarification of thought” meetings on Friday evenings, when speakers addressed topics of importance to the young Catholic movement. There he met Dorothy Day.
“Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” Berrigan told The Nation in 2008. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”
After being ordained a priest on June 19, 1952, Berrigan went to France for a year of studies and ministry, the final stage of Jesuit formation, and was influenced by the Worker Priest movement. Berrigan professed final vows on the Feast of the Assumption in 1956.
Berrigan taught French and philosophy at Brooklyn Preparatory School from 1954 to 1957, won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957 for his first book of poetry, Time Without Number and then taught New Testament at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.
In 1963, Berrigan embarked on a year of travel, spending time in France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rome, South Africa and the Soviet Union. He encountered despair among French Jesuits related to the situation of Indochina, as the United States ramped up military involvement in Vietnam.
Berrigan returned home in 1964 convinced that the war in Vietnam “could only grow worse.” So he began, he later wrote, “as loudly as I could, to say ‘no’ to the war…. There would be simply no turning back.”
He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the interfaith group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, whose leaders included Martin Luther King Jr., Richard John Neuhaus and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Berrigan regularly corresponded with Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and William Stringfellow, among others. He also made annual trips to the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton’s home, to give talks to the Trappist novices.
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), Merton described Berrigan as “an altogether winning and warm intelligence and a man who, I think, has more than anyone I have ever met the true wide-ranging and simple heart of the Jesuit: zeal, compassion, understanding, and uninhibited religious freedom. Just seeing him restores one’s hope in the Church.”
A dramatic year of assassinations and protests that shook the conscience of America, 1968 also proved to be a watershed year for Berrigan. In February, he flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, with the historian Howard Zinn and assisted in the release of three captured U.S. pilots. On their first night in Hanoi, they awoke to an air-raid siren and U.S. bombs and had to find shelter.
As the United States continued to escalate the war, Berrigan worried that conventional protests had little chance of influencing government policy. His brother, Philip, then a Josephite priest, had already taken a much greater risk: In October 1967, he broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured blood on the draft files.
Undeterred at the looming legal consequences, Philip planned another draft board action and invited his younger brother to join him. Daniel agreed.
On May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers joined seven other Catholic peace activists in Catonsville, Md., where they took several hundreds of draft files from the local draft board and set them on fire in a nearby parking lot, using homemade napalm. Napalm is a flammable liquid that was used extensively by the United States in Vietnam.
Daniel said in a statement, “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 parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”
Berrigan was tried and convicted for the action. When it came time for sentencing, however, he went underground and evaded the Federal Bureau of Investigation for four months.
“I knew I would be apprehended eventually,” he told America in an interview in 2009, “but I wanted to draw attention for as long as possible to the Vietnam War and to Nixon’s ordering military action in Cambodia.”
The F.B.I. finally apprehended him on Block Island, R.I., at the home of theologian William Stringfellow, in August 1970. He spent 18 months in Danbury federal prison, during which he and Philip appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
The brothers, lifelong recidivists, were far from finished.
On Sept. 9, 1980, Daniel and Philip joined seven others in busting into the General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., where they hammered on an unarmed nuclear weapon—the first Plowshares action. They faced 10 years in prison for the action but were sentenced to time served.
In his courtroom testimony at the Plowshares trial, Berrigan described his daily confrontation with death as he accompanied the dying at St. Rose Cancer Home in New York City. He said the Plowshares action was connected with this ministry of facing death and struggling against it. In 1984, he began working at St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York City, where he ministered to men and women with H.I.V.-AIDS.
“It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop killing,’” he explained at the Plowshares trial. “There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people.”
In 1997 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Berrigan’s later years were devoted to Scripture study, writing, giving retreats, correspondence with friends and admirers, mentorship of young Jesuits and peace activists, and being an uncle to two generations of Berrigans. He published several biblical commentaries that blended scholarship with pastoral reflection and poetic wit.
“Berrigan is evidently incapable of writing a prosaic sentence,” biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote in a review of Berrigan’s Genesis (2006). “He imitates his creator with his generative word that calls forth linkages and incongruities and opens spaces that bewilder and dazzle and summon the reader.”
From 1976 to 2012, Berrigan was a member of the West Side Jesuit Community, later the Thompson Street Jesuit Community, in New York City. During those years, he helped lead the Kairos Community, a group of friends and activists dedicated to Scripture study and nonviolent direct action.
Even as an octogenarian, Berrigan continued to protest, turning his attention to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prison in Guantánamo Bay and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Friends remember Berrigan as courageous and creative in love, a person of integrity who was willing to pay the price, a beacon of hope and a sensitive and caring friend.
“I owe him my heart, my life and vocation,” Bill Wylie-Kellermann, pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, writes of Berrigan. “In a century, how many souls on this sweet and beset old planet has Berrigan called to life in the Gospel? How many deeds of resurrection? How many hearts so indebted?”
Luke Hansen, S.J., a former associate editor of America, is a student at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Berkeley, Calif.
The article below on the late Daniel Berrigan was published in the Jesuits Magazine Fall / Winter 2015.
By Alyson Krueger
Edited by Mike Benigno and Robert Ludwig, PhD.
One night in the spring of 1968, Daniel Berrigan moved his Jesuit vocation into the breach: his faith collided with his conscience and with the American legal system, and his life would never be the same.
Daniel was always aware of injustice, sensing that the world God had envisioned didn’t match the world he was living in. During a portion of his Jesuit training spent in France, he encountered the worker-priests and met many who had resisted the Nazi occupation during World War II. Closer to home, he had become a critic of America’s war in Vietnam and had been deeply influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent campaign to end segregation.
Probably no one had had a greater impact on him than his younger brother Philip, a Josephite priest, who, like Daniel, had engaged in anti-war activity for years with friends like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
Now, Phil was hatching a new plan.
A group of Catholics were planning to break into the Selective Service Office in Catonsville, Maryland. There, they would remove draft records and burn them with a mixture of homemade napalm. Phil had journeyed to Cornell, where Daniel was serving students as a campus chaplain, imploring his brother to join him and others in the action at Catonsville.
After an all-night conversation that included shared prayer, Daniel agreed and bid Philip safe travel back to Baltimore. “Immediately I began quaking in my boots because I could see the storm coming,” he later recounted to Daniel Cosacchi, a doctoral candidate in Christian Ethics at Loyola University who is publishing a book of letters between the brothers.
“The Catonsville Nine” performed what they called “a liturgy” in the parking lot outside the draft offices, burning A-1 draft records while joining hands in prayer.
From then on, Daniel didn’t stop acting for peace. After their raid on the Catonsville draft board office, there was a celebrated trial in which the defendants challenged the government’s “illegal and unjust war.” Daniel turned the trial transcript into a play (“The Trial of the Catonsville Nine”), which became a contemporary classic drama of conscientious political trials. When they were convicted and released on their own recognizance, both Daniel and Philip went underground and refused to show up for jail. Daniel evaded authorities for weeks until his capture at Block Island and subsequent imprisonment in a federal correctional facility.
In the ‘80s, he entered a nuclear missile facility and destroyed key instruments and papers. The following decade found Daniel Berrigan protesting the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the United States invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and abortion. Three years ago, when Berrigan was 92, he joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York’s Zuccotti Park.
He inspired “the radical priest” in Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio…” Time magazine put him and Phil on the cover on January 25, 1971, with the headline: “Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans.” He also became close friends with actor Martin Sheen, who joined in acts of civil disobedience. During these many years, Daniel was also publishing more than 50 books, teaching in various universities and colleges, and leading retreats.
Today, Daniel is 94 and living in Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit health care community in the Bronx. He has difficulty communicating, but he continues to inspire peace and justice activists across the globe. He inspires so many young people, even today, not just because of his brave actions but also because he has lived according to the Gospels as he sees them.
On the surface, Berrigan seems like an unlikely candidate to rebel against the status quo. Eric Martin is a doctoral student of theology at Fordham University who is working with Cosacchi on the book. “When I read about Dr. King or Oscar Romero or Cesar Chavez, it’s clear to me that they are part of a people who are oppressed in some way, and Daniel was not,” said Martin. “He was part of the power structure; he’s white; he’s a priest. There was no real reason for him to engage in what he engaged in.”
It did take Berrigan a while to become “the radical priest.” He didn’t engage in bold civil disobedience like that at Catonsville until three decades after he joined the Jesuits in 1939. He applied to many religious orders after high school and chose the Jesuits because they were the only ones not desperately chasing him. For those years, his main occupations were teaching and writing poetry, for which he received prestigious recognition like the James Laughlin Award. But Berrigan always had seeds within him that made him fight for social justice, even if they took time to be translated into action.
He was born to an Irish/German-Catholic family in Virginia, Minn., where his dad worked for the unions and supported the Catholic Worker Movement. They moved to Syracuse, N.Y., when Daniel was still a young boy. His mother invited strangers in off the street to live in their house. Both parents taught him to reach out to others and to engage with the world; they sent the message that it’s important to act for what is right.
The priests Daniel would later encounter in France during tertianship weren’t standing on a stoop, lecturing to people. They weren’t even solely focused on spiritual guidance. Rather, they were working alongside the fringes of society every day and contributing tangibly to the world. After that, Berrigan was itching to get back to the United States and do something similar, said Martin. “He went through a period of struggle, of saying, ‘What can I do? It’s not enough, it’s not enough.’”
He would find his direction with his brother Philip in the anti-war movement in the ’60s after his return from Europe. He became comfortable with breaking the law. “When the laws of humans and the laws of God clashed, he chose to be faithful to the laws of God,” said Martin. He was also willing to endure the repercussions of doing so. Once, while he was underground, he was scheduled to give a talk to students at Cornell. Instead of missing it, he had the students sneak him on and off stage in a 10-foot tall puppet costume. “The FBI couldn’t apprehend him, even though there were 10,000 people who had just seen this felon speak,” recounted Cosacchi, clearly still amused by the story.
He saw his country spending money and time and making sacrifices for war, when no one was doing the same thing for peace. “There is no peace because there are no peacemakers,” he wrote in his book No Bars to Manhood. “Peacemaking is hard, almost as hard as war.” From 1970 to 1995, Berrigan would spend many years in prison, a sacrifice that he considered essential.
Berrigan’s way with words made him a leader, said Cosacchi. “He was able to put into writing their feelings better than anyone else could, so that is why he ended up being the voice of the Catholic radicals.” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” is still being produced today. When he traveled with historian Howard Zinn to Vietnam to bring back prisoners of war, he wrote poems about his experience, including what it was like to be with the Vietnamese under the bombs. His book Night Flight to Hanoi further publicized the tragic consequences of warfare. “He experienced first-hand a number of our nation’s bombings,” said Liz McAlister, who became Phil’s wife after he left the priesthood, and who was a strong anti-war advocate. “It would have been unforgettable to anyone, but especially so for a poet. His poems about that experience are among his best.”
The more he engaged in these acts, the more he started questioning his relationship with the Jesuits. He even left posts at Jesuit universities because they had ROTC programs.
An even more pressing question was whether the Jesuits would allow him to act in any way he saw fit. In 1965, even prior to the Catonsville action, Berrigan’s Jesuit superiors transferred him to Latin America after he spoke at a memorial service for a Vietnam protester who had set himself on fire in front of New York’s U.N. headquarters in an event the man claimed was a religious act. Other times, Berrigan reported coming back from a stay in prison to find his room occupied and his belongings in the hallway.
Ultimately, Berrigan never left the Jesuits, nor did they kick him out. In many of his letters, he describes the relationship like a marriage, full of quarrels and questions but also commitment and love. And now, rather than being perceived as a threat, many of the younger Jesuits look to him for guidance about how they too can live their lives with moral courage and conviction.
Martin first met Daniel Berrigan after sending him a letter asking him for guidance about how to best live out his desire to be a peacemaker. Berrigan surprised Martin not only by writing back but also by inviting him into his home for long conversations and giving him books to guide him. Many younger Jesuits have the same story; Martin was hardly alone in receiving such a warm welcome.
When he taught, Berrigan encouraged his students to come with him to protest and see injustices playing out in the streets. “He introduced them to life beyond the classroom,” said Liz McAlister. “He taught them that each one of them not only could but also needed to make a difference in the world.”
“Even those who don’t get one-on-one time with Berrigan still benefit from this gentle but radical priest,” said Cosacchi. “He didn’t shut down the Vietnam War, he didn’t stop children from being burned, he didn’t stop America from developing a nuclear weapon. But he maintained faith in the Gospels and discipleship anyway, and I think that is a huge thing for today’s generation. He showed a singular focus that he is not going to be deterred, and he is not going to play games, and ultimately, it was not about him. It was about justice, peacemaking, the Gospels, and following God.”
So many walls
all so pointless,
so many wars
I wrote these few words on the morning of April 30th, anniversary date of the fall of Saigon. Only later that evening did I learn of the death of Dan Berrigan. Considering his untiring efforts to halt the Vietnamese war, it is appropriate that he should go to the Lord on that date. May he rest in the peace he spent his life seeking for others
Fall of Saigon
April 30th 1975
Ho Chi Min City
A great prophet-priest!Thank God for him and his well-lived life of love and service. Dan Berrigan was an inspiration to me since my teens and I was glad to meet him in Dublin in 2002 at the launch of Mary Condren’s book The Serpent And The Goddess,for which he had written the foreword. In it Dan Berrigan did not mince his words about “the vile game” against women,including the recent church declaration banning the ordination of women…”Half of our species,half of our body of believers,were arbitrarily,sacramentally(yes,humanly)declared outsiders,pariah,unclean.And with a final twist of the garrote,the’arrangement’ was encoded in law,and declared a matter of faith(sic!).”
Some vintage Daniel Berrigan on priests,women,womenpriests etc… in