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.
As a Jesuit activist, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, has taken part in civil disobedience for over 50 years.
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.
Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, following an arrest, circa 1968
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.
The Jan. 25, 1971 cover of Time magazine, featured “Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans.”
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.
At age 94, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, pictured during Mass at Murray-Weigel Hall, still possesses a look of 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.”