Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan gave an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, 1972.
WILLIAM E. SAURO / THE NEW YORK TIMES
By DANIEL LEWIS
APRIL 30, 2016
The Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet whose defiant protests helped shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War and landed him in prison, died on Saturday in New York City. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America magazine, a national Catholic magazine published by Jesuits. Father Berrigan died at Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx.
The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an intellectual star of the Roman Catholic “new left,” articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.
It was an essentially religious position, based on a stringent reading of the Scriptures that some called pure and others radical. But it would have explosive political consequences as Father Berrigan; his brother Philip, a Josephite priest; and their allies took their case to the streets with rising disregard for the law or their personal fortunes.
A defining point was the burning of Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, Md., and the subsequent trial of the so-called Catonsville Nine, a sequence of events that inspired an escalation of protests across the country; there were marches, sit-ins, the public burning of draft cards and other acts of civil disobedience.
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The catalyzing episode occurred on May 17, 1968, six weeks after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the outbreak of new riots in dozens of cities. Nine Catholic activists, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered a Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville and went up to the second floor, where the local draft board had offices. In front of astonished clerks, they seized hundreds of draft records, carried them down to the parking lot and set them on fire with homemade napalm.
Some reporters had been told of the raid in advance. They were given a statement that said in part, “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America.” It added, “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”
In a year sick with images of destruction, from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the murder of Dr. King, a scene was recorded that had been contrived to shock people to attention, and did so. When the police came, the trespassers were praying in the parking lot, led by two middle-aged men in clerical collars: the big, craggy Philip, a decorated hero of World War II, and the ascetic Daniel, waiting peacefully to be led into the van.
Protests and Arrests
In the years to come, well into his 80s, Daniel Berrigan was arrested time and again, for greater or lesser offenses: in 1980, for taking part in the Plowshares raid on a General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., where the Berrigan brothers and others rained hammer blows on missile warheads; in 2006, for blocking the entrance to the Intrepid naval museum in Manhattan.
“The day after I’m embalmed,” he said in 2001, on his 80th birthday, “that’s when I’ll give it up.”
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It was not for lack of other things to do. In his long career of writing and teaching at Fordham and other universities, Father Berrigan published a torrent of essays and broadsides and, on average, a book a year, almost to the time of his death.
Among the more than 50 books were 15 volumes of poetry — the first of which, “Time Without Number,” won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, given by the Academy of American Poets, in 1957 — as well as autobiography, social criticism, commentaries on the Old Testament prophets and indictments of the established order, both secular and ecclesiastic.
While he was known for his wry wit, there was a darkness in much of what Father Berrigan wrote and said, the burden of which was that one had to keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that it would make no difference. In the withering of the pacifist movement and the country’s general support for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw proof that it was folly to expect lasting results.
“This is the worst time of my long life,” he said in an interview with The Nation in 2008. “I have never had such meager expectations of the system.”
What made it bearable, he wrote elsewhere, was a disciplined, implicitly difficult belief in God as the key to sanity and survival.
Many books by and about Father Berrigan remain in print, and a collection of his work over half a century, “Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings,” was published in 2009.
He also had a way of popping up in the wider culture: as the “radical priest” in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”; as inspiration for the character Father Corrigan in Colum McCann’s 2009 novel, “Let the Great World Spin.” He even had a small movie role, appearing as a Jesuit priest in “The Mission” in 1989.
But his place in the public imagination was pretty much fixed at the time of the Catonsville raid, as the impish-looking half of the Berrigan brothers — traitors and anarchists in the minds of a great many Americans, exemplars to those who formed what some called the ultra-resistance.
After a trial that served as a platform for their antiwar message, the Berrigans were convicted of destroying government property and sentenced to three years each in the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Having exhausted their appeals, they were to begin serving their terms on April 10, 1970.
Instead, they raised the stakes by going underground. The men who had been on the cover of Time were now on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most-wanted list. As Daniel explained in a letter to the French magazine Africasia, he was not buying the “mythology” fostered by American liberals that there was a “moral necessity of joining illegal action to legal consequences.” In any case, both brothers were tracked down and sent to prison.
Philip Berrigan had been the main force behind Catonsville, but it was mostly Daniel who mined the incident and its aftermath for literary meaning — a process already underway when the F.B.I. caught up with him on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, on Aug. 11, 1970. There was “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” a one-act play in free verse drawn directly from the court transcripts, and “Prison Poems,” written during his incarceration in Danbury.
Father Berrigan served time for acts of civil disobedience.
In “My Father,” he wrote:
I sit here in the prison ward
nervously dickering with my ulcer
a half-tamed animal
raising hell in its living space
But in 500 lines the poem talks as well about the politics of resistance, memories of childhood terror and, most of all, the overbearing weight of his dead father:
I wonder if I ever loved him
if he ever loved us
if he ever loved me.
The father was Thomas William Berrigan, a man full of words and grievances who got by as a railroad engineer, labor union officer and farmer. He married Frida Fromhart and had six sons with her. Daniel, the fourth, was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minn.
When he was a young boy, the family moved to a farm near Syracuse to be close to his father’s family.
In his autobiography, “To Dwell in Peace,” Daniel Berrigan described his father as “an incendiary without a cause,” a subscriber to Catholic liberal periodicals and the frustrated writer of poems of no distinction.
“Early on,” he wrote, “we grew inured, as the price of survival, to violence as a norm of existence. I remember, my eyes open to the lives of neighbors, my astonishment at seeing that wives and husbands were not natural enemies.”
Battles With the Church
Born with weak ankles, Daniel could not walk until he was 4. His frailty spared him the heavy lifting demanded of his brothers; instead he helped his mother around the house. Thus he seemed to absorb not only his father’s sense of life’s unfairness but also an intimate knowledge of how a man’s rage can play out in the victimization of women.
At an early age, he wrote, he believed that the church condoned his father’s treatment of his mother. Yet he wanted to be a priest. After high school he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park, N.Y., and a master’s from Woodstock College in Baltimore in 1952. He was ordained that year.
Sent for a year of study and ministerial work in France, he met some worker-priests who gave him “a practical vision of the Church as she should be,” he wrote. Afterward he spent three years at the Jesuits’ Brooklyn Preparatory School, teaching theology and French, while absorbing the poetry of Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings and the 19th-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. His own early work often combined elements of nature with religious symbols.
But he was not to become a pastoral poet or live the retiring life he had imagined. His ideas were simply turning too hot, sometimes even for friends and mentors like Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and the Trappist intellectual Thomas Merton.
At Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he was a popular professor of New Testament studies from 1957 to 1963, Father Berrigan formed friendships with his students that other faculty members disapproved of, inculcating in them his ideas about pacifism and civil rights. (One student, David Miller, became the first draft-card burner to be convicted under a 1965 law.)
Father Berrigan was effectively exiled in 1965, after angering the hawkish Cardinal Francis Spellman in New York. Besides Father Berrigan’s work in organizing antiwar groups like the interdenominational Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, there was the matter of the death of Roger La Porte, a young man with whom Father Berrigan said he was slightly acquainted. To protest American involvement in Southeast Asia, Mr. La Porte set himself on fireoutside the United Nations building in November 1965.
Soon, according to Father Berrigan, “the most atrocious rumors were linking his death to his friendship with me.” He spoke at a service for Mr. La Porte, and soon thereafter the Jesuits, widely believed to have been pressured by Cardinal Spellman, sent him on a “fact-finding” mission among poor workers in South America. An outcry from Catholic liberals brought him back after only three months, enough time for him to have been radicalized even further by the facts he had found.
For the Jesuits, Father Berrigan was both a magnet to bright young seminarians and a troublemaker who could not be kept in any one faculty job too long.
At onetime or another he held faculty positions or ran programs at Union Seminary, Loyola University New Orleans, Columbia, Cornell and Yale. Eventually he settled into a long tenure at Fordham, the Jesuit university in the Bronx, where for a time he had the title of poet in residence.
Father Berrigan was released from the Danbury penitentiary in 1972; the Jesuits, alarmed at his failing health, managed to get him out early. He then resumed his travels.
After visiting the Middle East, he bluntly accused Israel of “militarism” and the “domestic repressions” ofPalestinians. His remarks angered many American Jews. “Let us call this by its right name,” wrote Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, himself a contentious figure among religious scholars: “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism.”
Nor was Father Berrigan universally admired by Catholics. Many faulted him for not singling out repressive Communist states in his diatribes against the world order, and later for not lending his voice to the outcry over sexual abuse by priests. There was also a sense that his notoriety was a distraction from the religious work that needed to be done.
Not the least of his long-running battles was with the church hierarchy. He was scathing about the shift to conservatism under Pope John Paul II and the “company men” he appointed to high positions.
Much of Father Berrigan’s later work was concentrated on helping AIDS patients in New York City. In 2012, he appeared in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to support the Occupy Wall Street protest.
He also devoted himself to writing biblical studies. He felt a special affinity for the Hebrew prophets, especially Jeremiah, who was chosen by God to warn of impending disaster and commanded to keep at it, even though no one would listen for 40 years.
A brother, Jerry, died in July at age 95, and another brother, Philip, died in 2002 at age 79.
Father Berrigan seemed to reach a poet’s awareness of his place in the scheme of things, and that of his brother Philip, who left the priesthood for a married life of service to the poor and spent a total of 11 years in prison for disturbing the peace in one way or another before his death from cancer in 2002. While they both still lived, Daniel Berrigan wrote:
My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful indulging also her backhanded love of freakishness allows us to stand.
Christopher Mele contributed reporting.