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A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan

Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the renowned anti-war activist, award-winning poet, author and Jesuit priest, who inspired religious opposition to the Vietnam war and later the U.S. nuclear weapons industry, died at age 94, just a week shy of his 95th birthday.

He died of natural causes at the Jesuit infirmary at Murray-Weigel Hall in the Bronx. I had visited him just last week. He has long been in declining health.

Dan Berrigan published over fifty books of poetry, essays, journals and scripture commentaries, as well as an award winning play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” in his remarkable life, but he was most known for burning draft files with homemade napalm along with his brother Philip and eight others on May 17, 1968, in Catonsville, Maryland, igniting widespread national protest against the Vietnam war, including increased opposition from religious communities. He was the first U.S. priest ever arrested in protest of war, at the national mobilization against the Vietnam war at the Pentagon in October, 1967. He was arrested hundreds of times since then in protests against war and nuclear weapons, spent two years of his life in prison, and was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

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Daniel Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921 in Virginia , Minnesota , the fifth of six boys to Thomas and Frieda Berrigan. His family subsequently moved to Syracuse , New York, where the boys grew up attending Catholic grade schools. After high school, Berrigan applied to the Society of Jesus, the Catholic religious order known as “The Jesuits.” He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie , New York in August, 1939.

With his classmates, he made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a thirty-day silent retreat; spent two years studying philosophy; went on to teach at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey (from 1946-1949); and eventually, to study at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (from 1949-1953).

Berrigan was ordained a priest on June 21, 1952 in Boston. In 1953, he traveled to France for the traditional Jesuit sabbatical year known as “tertianship.” There, his worldview expanded as he met the French “worker priests.” He returned to teach at Brooklyn Prep until 1957, when he moved on to LeMoyne College , in Syracuse , New York , where he taught New Testament until 1962. There he founded “International House,” an intentional community of activist students who seek to live solidarity with the third world poor, a project that continues today.

In 1957, Berrigan published his first book of poetry, Time Without Number. The book won the Lamont Poetry Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His poem “Credentials,” had first caught the attention of poet Marianne Moore who recommended his poetry to publishers and became a friend:

I would it were possible to state in so

Few words my errand in the world: quite simply

Forestalling all in quiry, the oak offers his leaves

Large handedly. And in winter his integral magnificent order

Decrees, says solemnly who he is

In the great thrusting limbs that are all finally one:

a return, a permanent river and sea.

So the rose is its own credential, a certain

Unattainable effortless form: wearing its heart

Visibly, it gives us heart too: bud, fullness and fall.

[And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems of Daniel Berrigan, 1957-1997, edited by John Dear]

After that first book, Berrigan began publishing one or two books of poetry and prose each year for the rest of his life. His early books include The Bride: Essays in the Church; Encounters; The Bow in the Clouds; The World for Wedding Ring; No One Walks Waters; They Call us Dead MenLove, Love at the End; and False Gods, Real Men.

Denied permission to accompany his younger brother Philip, a Josephite priest, on a Freedom Ride through the South, Berrigan went to Paris on sabbatical in 1963, and then on to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and South Africa. On his return, he began to speak out against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 1964, along with his brother Philip, A.J. Muste, Jim Forest and other peacemakers, he attended a retreat hosted by Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani. That retreat marked a turning point for Merton and the Berrigans as the committed themselves to write and speak out against war and nuclear weapons, and advocate Christian peacemaking.

Merton recorded his meeting with Berrigan in the early 1960s in Conjectures of a Guilty dwellinpeaceBystander, calling Berrigan “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.”

In 1965, he marched in Selma, became assistant editor of “Jesuit Missions,” and co-founded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam with Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He began a grueling weekly speaking schedule across the country that continued until about ten years ago.

In November, 1965, a young Catholic Worker named Roger LaPorte immolated himself in front of the United Nations. After speaking at a private liturgy for LaPorte, Berrigan was ordered to leave the country immediately by his Jesuit superiors. Berrigan began a six month journey throughout Latin America. His expulsion cause a national stir throughout the media, and Berrigan returned to New York and 1967, because the first Catholic chaplain at Cornell University. His book, Consequences: Truth and chronicled his journeys to Selma, South Africa and Latin America.

On October 22, 1967, Berrigan was arrested for the first time with hundreds of students protesting the war at the Pentagon. “For the first time,” he wrote in his journal in the D.C. Jail, “I put on the prison blue jeans and denim shirt; a clerical attire I highly recommend for a new church.” In February, 1968, he traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn to receive three U.S. Air Force personnel who were being released. While they awaited their meeting with the VietCong, they took cover in a Hanoi shelter as U.S. bombs fell around him. His diary of his trip to North Vietnam, “Night Flight to Hanoi” was published later that year.

On May 17th, 1968, along with his brother Philip and eight others, Berrigan burned three hundred A-1 draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, in a protest against the Vietnam war. “Our apologies, good friends,” Dan wrote in the Catonsville Nine statement, “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.” Their action attracted massive national and international press, and led to hundreds of similar demonstrations. After an explosive three day trial in October, he was found guilty of destruction of property.

In his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, Berrigan reflected on the effect of the Catonsville protest:

The act was pitiful, a tiny flare amid the consuming fires of war. But Catonsville was like a firebreak, a small fire lit, to contain and conquer a greater. The time, the place, were weirdly right. They spoke for passion, symbol, reprisal. Catonsville seemed to light up the dark places of the heart, where courage and risk and hope were awaiting a signal, a dawn. For the remainder of our lives, the fires would burn and burn, in hearts and minds, in draft boards, in prisons and courts. A new fire, new as a Pentecost, flared up in eyes deadened and hopeless, the noble powers of soul given over to the “powers of the upper air.” “Nothing can be done!” How often we had heard that gasp: the last of the human, of soul, of freedom. Indeed, something could be done, and was. And would be.

The Catonsville Nine Protest was followed extensively around the world, in large part because of the shock of two Catholic priests facing prison for a peace protest.

In his 1969 bestseller, No Bars to Manhood, Berrigan wrote:  “We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial…There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war–at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”

Back at Cornell, Berrigan wrote the best-selling play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” which later opened in New York and Los Angeles, and became a film under the direction of actor Gregory Peck. The play has been performed hundreds of times around the world, and continues to be performed as a statement against war.

“We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly.”

When Berrigan and his co-defendants were to report to prison to begin their sentences in April 1970, both Berrigans went “underground” instead of turning themselves in. For five months, Daniel Berrigan traveled through the Northeast, speaking to the media, writing articles against the war, and occasionally appearing in public, much to the anger and frustration of J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I., which eventually tracked him down and arrested him on August 11, 1970, at the home of theologian William Stringfellow on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. He was brought to the Danbury, Connecticut Federal Prison where he spent eighteen months. On June 9, 1971, while having his teeth examined, he suffered a massive allergic reaction to a misfired novacain injection and nearly died. On February 24, 1972, he was released.

In The Dark Night of Resistance, a bestseller written during his months underground, Berrigan used St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” as a guide for anti-war resisters. Harvard professor Robert Coles recorded a series of conversations with Berrigan during his months in hiding in Boston, later published as “The Geography of Faith.” “America is Hard to Find” collected letters and articles from underground and prison, and was published along with “Trial Poems” and “Prison Poems.” His prison diary, “Lights on in the House of the Dead,” another bestseller, recorded his Danbury experience.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Berrigan attracted widespread media attention, was on the cover of Time magazine, and became the focus of intense national debate not only about the war, but how people of faith should oppose the war. He become one the most well known priests in the world, and consistently called for the Church to abolish its just war theory and return to the nonviolence of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel.

While he was underground, Berrigan wrote a widely-circulated open letter, first published in the Village Voice, to the “Weathermen,” the underground group of violent revolutionaries who blew up buildings in opposition to U.S. wars. “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred,” Berrigan wrote. Some credited his statement as a major reason for the break up of the Weather Underground.

In 1972, the U.S. filed indictments against the Berrigans and other activists charging them with threatening to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, aimed mainly at Philip Berrigan was the longest trial in U.S. history, up to that time, and resulted in a mistrial and equivalent acquittal. Afterwards, Berrigan spent six months in Paris living and studying with Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, collaborating on a book of conversations about peace, called The Raft is not the Shore.

In 1973, after teaching at Union Theological Seminary and Fordham University, Berrigan joined the New York West Side Jesuit Community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lived with some thirty other Jesuits for the rest of his life.

After the indictments and mistrial in Harrisburg, the Berrigans turned their attention to the U.S. nuclear weapons industry and embarked on resistance as a way of life. On September 9, 1980, with Philip and six friends, Berrigan walked in to the General Electric headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on unarmed nuclear weapon nosecones. They were arrested, tried, convicted and faced up to ten years in prison for the felony charge of destruction of government property. Their “Plowshares” action opened a new chapter in the history of nonviolent resistance and the anti-nuclear movement. Berrigan drew inspiration from the biblical prophet Isaiah who wrote that one day, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again”(Isaiah 2:4).

During their 1981 trial in Philadelphia, which was later dramatized in the film, “In the King of Prussia,” starring Martin Sheen, Berrigan said:

The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly…It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, “Stop killing.” There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Ours is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that–everything.

Over 100 plowshares anti-nuclear demonstrations have occurred since 1980, including in England, Ireland, Germany and Australia.

As he continued to speak each week around the country and publish books of poetry and essays, Berrigan also served as a hospital chaplain in Manhattan at St. Rose’s Home for the poor, and then at St. Vincent’s Hospital, with cancer patients and later with AIDS patients, which he chronicled in his books, “We Die Before We Live,” and “Sorrow Built a Bridge.”  In 1984, he traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to learn first hand from church leaders about the effects of the U.S. wars there, and wrote about the journey in “Steadfastness of the Saints.”

In 1985, filmmaker Roland Joffe invited Berrigan to Paraguay, Argentina and Colombia to serve as advisor to the film, “The Mission.” He also had a small part, alongside Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. Berrigan published an account about the making of the film, the Jesuit missions in Latin America of 1770s, and their relevance to contemporary efforts against war today, in his book, “The Mission.” In 1988, he published his autobiography, “To Dwell In Peace.”

In the mid-1980s, Berrigan began to publish a series of twenty scripture commentaries on the books of the Hebrew Bible. And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems of Daniel Berrigan, 1957-1997, edited by John Dear, was published in 1996.

Dan was my greatest friend and teacher, for over thirty five years. We traveled the nation and the world together; went to jail together; and I edited five books of his writings. But all along I consider him one of the most important religious figures of the last century, right alongside with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and his brother Philip. Dan and Phil inspired millions of people around the world to speak out against war and work for peace, and helped turn the Catholic church back to its Gospel roots of peace and nonviolence. I consider him not just a legendary peace activist but one of the greatest saints and prophets of modern times. I will write more about him, but for now, I celebrate his extraordinary life, and invite everyone to ponder his great witness.

Thank you, Dan. May we all take heart from your astonishing peacemaking life, and carry on the work to abolish war, poverty and nuclear weapons.

More articles by:

John Dear is an American Catholic priest nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been arrested more than 75 times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war, injustice, and nuclear weapons.

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