The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a Jesuit priest and herald of the Catholic social justice movement, became synonymous with anti-war activism in the Vietnam era, had died. Father Berrigan, aged 94, had been living at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx when he died on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
It was more than just his activism—far more—that moved me. He challenged the government, he challenged his church, and he challenged a young boy growing up in Florida to think about the power of words and the power of compassion and love.
More fiery than his friend Thomas Merton, whom I came to admire only after his [Merton’s] death, Berrigan had a radical vision of justice that was based on the Gospels and that pushed his order and his church hard.
“Berrigan undoubtedly stands among the most influential American Jesuits of the past century, joining the likes of John Courtney Murray and Avery Dulles,” the Rev. Luke Hansen wrote in America, the Jesuit magazine, and was the first to report Berrigan’s death. Murray focused on religious liberty within Christianity, in general, and Catholicism, in particular. Dulles became known to me during graduate school as a thinker with profound theological insights. But Berrigan…
Berrigan was a prophet in the best sense of the word. He challenged everyone who heard or read his powerful words. I read them. Over and over and over.
In January of 1968, the horrific Tet Offensive took place during the Vietnam War (call it “conflict” if you like, it was war). During that offensive, over 80,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army combatants stormed out of the jungles into the cities of South Vietnam and wreaked incredible havoc. The Viet Cong and NVA even stormed into the compound of the US Embassy in Saigon. A friend of mine was a diplomat there and brought home two battle flags retrieved from the confines of the embassy grounds. And while the US claimed victory, Tet was proof that it was an American intelligence catastrophe. It sparked a brutal renewal of US bombing of North Vietnam.
It was a that moment that the historian Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States, a true history) and Fr. Daniel Berrigan arrived to receive three US prisoners from the North Vietnamese government. Berrigan and Zinn spent the first, and many subsequent, nights in bomb shelters. In that first night, Berrigan sat with children who were enduring a hellish firestorm. Berrigan was changed forever and his revulsion and horror were revealed in his poem, “Children in the Shelter” which marked his transformation:
I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (His sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down)
In my arms, fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
Those words rattled me to my innermost self and I could never think of war in the same way. That poem helped shape the person I am today.
“For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. “If this be heresy, make the most of it.”
Berrigan did just that.
Shortly after the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in May of 1968, Berrigan and his younger brother Philip, also a priest, with seven other Catholics stormed the draft office in Catonsville, MD, and set fire to draft records in the parking lot outside the office. The burned the draft records with a homemade napalm, the same stuff being dropped on Vietnamese children. While the records burned, the nine joined hands in prayer.
According to the New York Times, the Berrigans and the others issued the following statement: “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.”
The brothers were convicted in a federal court and released on their own recognizance in 1970. Following St. Augustine’s dictum Lex iniusta non est lex (An unjust law is no law), they refused to show up for jail and went into hiding. Berrigan was eventually arrested by the FBI and sent to federal prison. He was released in 1972.
After the Vietnam War was over, Berrigan continued protesting US military adventurism. Later, he was one of the first to minister to AIDS patients and helped shine a spotlight on the AIDS crisis. He combatted capital punishment and all issues in his “consistent ethic of life.”
As Berrigan declared in Milwaukee in 1984, Christians should have no part in “war, paying taxes for war, or disposing of people on death row or warehousing the aged.” He was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement at the age of 92.
As much as I was moved by his socio-political activity, his writings formed part of the foundation of my thinking. He wrote more than 50 books and an additional 15 volumes of poetry.
If you remember Paul Simon’s song Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, there was the line “When the radical priest come to get me released, we was all on the cover of Newsweek.” The radical priest reference was to Father Daniel Berrigan.
In his later years, Berrigan wrote brilliant commentaries on the prophets and why not? He was one of them.