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Monday, May 23, 2016

       DAN BERRIGAN, S.J. : The Activist as Saint? 

Thom Nickels

   Long before the Occupy movement and the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders, there was Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the fiery Jesuit who rocked the then complacent American Catholic world with its ties to government power elites. Catholics in the 1960s and ‘70s knew priests as ‘Bells of Saint Mary’s’ stereotypes, men who would no sooner join a picket line or a war protest than raise a fist against their superiors.  
    Few young people alive today have any sense of how difficult life was for young men during the Vietnam War. That war split families apart much the same way that the Civil War set brother against brother. Draft age men who opposed the war and the draft, escaped to Canada or registered as conscientious objectors were often disowned by their families. Conversely, antiwar men and women, called ‘peaceniks’ by their detractors,  sometimes returned the favor by disowning their war hawk parents or their military enlisted siblings. By the war’s end in 1975, U.S. military personnel casualties numbered 58, 220 with 1.3 million deaths overall. This was not the era of the carefree collegiate spring break in Cancun. Life for the average young male was consumed by worry about being drafted and killed.   
    Fr. Berrigan broke the priest = Bing-Crosby association like a meteorite hitting Kansas City.  With his younger brother, Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, the two made their mark as antiwar activists when they joined two other men in pouring animal and human blood on Selective Service records in Baltimore. Known as the (October 1967) Baltimore Four, this “sacrificial act” was followed six months later by another non violent raid. The Catonsville Nine involved the pouring napalm on Selective Service files in Catonsville, Maryland.
   The choice of napalm as a protest tool was significant because during the course of the war over 388,000 tons of napalm had been dropped in Vietnam.   
    In Napalm in the Vietnam War, Alan Rohn wrote that the wounds caused by napalm are too deep to heal. “When contacting human, napalm immediately clung to the skin and melt off the flesh. The only way to put it out is to smother it as trying to wipe it off only spread it around and expanding the burnt area.” Napalm became a symbol of the war’s ultimate brutality. The word was part of the general lexicon in 1970. One saw it on political posters, graffiti postings and on the cover of magazines like Time and Ramparts.

   After the Catonsville Nine raid, indictments were brought against the Berrigan brothers but the priests initially evaded prosecution when they went underground. Eventually they were apprehended and served time in prison. Philip’s total time in prison before his death in 2002 amounted to 11 years.

   The average American Catholic at that time supported the Vietnam War. The belief then was that elected public officials knew what was best for the country. Members of the so called Greatest Generation could not wrap their minds around the concept of an illegal or unjust war. Their memories of WWII were just too vivid.  The fact that the Berrigan brothers were both priests led to long stretches of silence when their names were brought up at Sunday family dinners. This was certainly true in my parents’ home. 

      Dan and Philip were two of six sons born to Thomas William and Frida Berrigan. Thomas, a railroad engineer, had an unmanageable temper that frequently erupted into violence. Dan was a sickly child with weak ankles who didn’t walk until he was four years old, a condition that kept him out of the WWII draft. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952. A decade later he became familiar with the Catholic priest worker movement when he went to Paris on a teaching sabbatical. While working as a professor of New Testament Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY his poetry attracted the admiration of Marianne Moore while his (Gospel-based) activism irritated the American Church’s most ardent hawk, Cardinal Francis Spellman. Spellman, eager to snuff out the renegade priest and the Roman Catholic “left,” had him removed from Le Moyne before he could gain tenure.  

    Spellman blamed Berrigan for the self-immolation death of a young 22 year old New York Catholic Worker activist, Roger La Porte, an acquaintance of Berrigan’s. On the morning of November 9, 1965, La Porte, in protest of the war in Vietnam, left the NY Catholic Worker house with a large container of gasoline. Sometime after 5 am he arrived at the United Nations Plaza and set himself on fire. A priest, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, reported that “The intensity of the heat melted the pavement.” 

    He lived in agony for several hours; and, according to the priest who administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the hospital he made a “profound” confession. Roger insisted that he wanted to live, that he did not strike the match in order to kill himself but to try to communicate to the American people the reality of the horror and misery they were mindlessly, callously and self-righteously pouring onto the people of Vietnam.”

   A total of 8 American set themselves on fire in public places to protest the war in Vietnam, while many more burned their draft cards, like Catholic pacifist, David Miller, who was the first person to be prosecuted for his action.  The epidemic of draft card burnings caused President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law in 1965 making it a crime to mutilate draft cards. 
    In 1980, Dan and Philip and six others entered a GE plant in King of Prussia where the group struck two missile nose cones with a hammer, in their words, “turning them into plowshares.” Throughout his years as activist, poet and author, Dan avoided the trappings of fame but dressed simply in a Beat manner of dress.  Philip left the priesthood after it was discovered that he was secretly married to Sister Elizabeth McAlister. They were excommunicated long before Philip’s death in 2002. 

    Dan, who remained a priest until the end, wrote in To Dwell in Peace, that he “had come of age in a church that, for all its shortcomings, honored vows and promises. I had examples before me in the people of the church, especially in laypeople and nuns, of those who lived to the hilt the life commended by the Gospel. Such were my people.”
   His critics within the Church, included some progressive thinkers like Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in a 1968 journal entry that, “[Berrigan] is a bit theatrical these days, now he’s a malefactor—with a quasi-episcopal disarmament emblem strung around his neck like a pectoral cross.”

    Dorothy Day, whom Berrigan credited with influencing his views on pacifism and war, disapproved of some of his protests but remained united with him in spirit. “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.”

    Kurt Vonnegut was moved to comment: “For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet, if this be heresy, make the most of it.”
      In the 1980s Berrigan turned his attention to the plight of gay men dying of AIDS in New York City. He would visit the sick and dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC at a time when few Catholic priests would do so.  True to his respect for all life, he angered political progressives when he made known his anti-abortion, pro-life views.  He was not going to follow a left political agenda blindly, unlike many of today’s social justice warriors.  “I have always made it clear,” he said in an America magazine interview, “that I am against everything from war to abortion to euthanasia. I have avoided being a single cause person. “ 

    Before his death in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University, Berrigan did offer his support for the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, although it’s doubtful he would have approved of “trigger warnings” and the insanity of “safe spaces” on college campuses. 
 In one poem, Berrigan writes:  
Were I God almighty, I would ordain,
rain fall lightly where old men trod,
no death in childbirth, neither infant nor mother,
ditches firm fenced against the errant blind, aircraft come to ground like any feather.
No mischance, malice, knives.
Tears dried….