Reflections on Daniel Berrigan

Lecture at Villanova University, 9 June 2019

By Jim Forest

I first met Dan Berrigan in 1961, thanks to Dorothy Day. Dorothy brought me with her to a small gathering in Harlem at which Dan presented a paper on Catholic social teaching and the impact of Pope John XXIII. Dan was introduced to us as a poet who had won the Lamont Poetry Prize and was currently teaching New Testament studies at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York.

I didn’t see him again until a few years later, mid-June 1964, when he was on sabbatical and I was one of several Catholic participants in a traveling seminar headed to Prague, where we were to participate in an ecumenical conference of Christians, east and west, concerned about peace. It was during this trip that our friendship took root.

Dan was already in Paris, our first stop, when we arrived. At the time he was chaplain to a group of students at St Severin parish on the Left Bank. I asked what had brought him from Syracuse to France? It was due, he said, to his liturgical innovations — saying the Mass in English well before such usage was officially authorized — plus his engagement in the local civil rights movement, jeopardizing contributions to the university from donors whose businesses practices resembled those of the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge. These impolitic activities had caused tension between him and the college administration. After six years teaching theology at Le Moyne, Dan had been given a year-long sabbatical in France — “a sugar-coated exile,” Dan commented, “but what a place to be!”

We traveled on together from Paris to Rome and then to Prague. One night in Prague the several Catholics participating in the seminar resolved to found, on our return to the U.S., a group we christened the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Our main goal would be to organize Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War, then in its early stages as far as America was concerned, and as part of that endeavor launch a national program to make better known the fact that conscientious objection to war is an option for Catholics.

Both of us back in New York, Dan was assigned to be one of the editors of Jesuit Missions, a monthly magazine, and I left my job — at the time I was a reporter for a daily newspaper — to work full-time for the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Tom Cornell, another former editor of The Catholic Worker, soon joined me. Beginning in January 1965, the three of us normally met once a week in Dan’s one-room apartment for Mass, to discuss letters the CPF had lately received, and to decide on other aspects of our work.

How to respond to the worsening conflict in Vietnam was a factor in every meeting. “I returned to the United States,” Dan later recalled, “convinced of one simple thing — the war in Vietnam could only grow worse…. [We Americans] were about to repeat the already bankrupt experience of the French. I [was] afflicted with a sense that my life was being truly launched — for the first time — upon mortal and moral events that might indeed overwhelm me, as the tidal violence of world events churned them into an even greater fury…. I had a sense that this war would be [my] making or breaking.”

One of the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s significant initiatives was publishing a booklet, Catholics and Conscientious Objection. I was the author; Dan was one of the editorial advisors and Thomas Merton another. Its orthodoxy was certified by an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York. The booklet remains my all-time best seller — we distributed more than 300,000 copies. The booklet plays a part in explaining how it is that so many thousands of young Catholics refused to fight in Vietnam.

Dan was of course pleased that the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was having a definite impact in building opposition to the war but by 1968 decided it was time not only for education and opposition but resistance. On the 17th of May, with his brother Phil and seven others, he burned 378 draft records in a parking lot adjacent to a draft center in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb. The event was headline news. The Catonsville Nine are still being talked about.

Dan’s was nothing if not a writer. When he died in April 2016, age 94, he left a legacy of more than sixty books of prose and poetry. But the text he is best known for is quite short — a two-page declaration in which he explained what led him to Catonsville. Here are extracts:

“Our apologies, good friends, 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. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children….

“All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims, to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say: Killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness are the only order we recognize.

“For the sake of that order we risk our liberty, our good name…. How many … must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder? When, at what point, will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here.

“Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar and Mars…. They embrace their society with all their heart and abandon the cross. They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death….”

The nine defendants argued in court that attempts to impede an immoral and illegal war and to prevent the commission of war crimes should be seen as legally justified, like running a red light to get a gravely injured child to the hospital. Unfortunately, the court was unwilling to hear arguments that put war itself on trial. Though convicted and sentenced to three years confinement, for a time the nine were free on bail while the judgment was being appealed. During that intermezzo of court-authorized freedom, Dan wrote a play based on the trial of the nine. It’s something of a modern Greek drama in the tradition of “Antigone.” The script has become assigned reading in many classrooms. The play continues to be performed all over the world.

Declining to exit the stage in order to begin serving his sentence as scheduled, the ever-theatrical Dan went underground. Sheltering in a Sherwood Forest of friends and friends of friends, Dan led the FBI on a Robin Hood-like chase that lasted four months. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, poet and theologian, was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. In the annals of crime in America, he was the only person ever promoted to that august rank who never possessed a deadly weapon or posed a threat to anyone’s life. The wanted poster should have included a sentence: “This man is disarmed and dangerous.” While in hiding Dan did television and newspaper interviews and even preached in church one Sunday morning. I had a meeting with him one evening in an apartment a short walk from the FBI’s Manhattan headquarters. Dan seemed to be available to anyone and everyone except FBI agents. Finally he was found and handcuffed while staying with friends on Block Island.

It takes a book to review all that happened in Dan’s life — a remarkable journey in which the homeless, the gravely ill, those dying of AIDs, the unborn, all played a part. Dan taught in various schools and traveled widely. New books by him appeared every year. He was arrested over and over again for acts of protest. Dan’s life was shaped by the conviction that God does not sanction killing and that the way to heaven is the way of nonviolence and mercy.

If you are drawn to take a closer look at his life, I recommend my biography of him, At Play in the Lions’ Den. Let me read to you a shortened version of the book’s last chapter.

Dan was the target of sharp criticism through much of his adult life, but lived long enough to witness some validations. Not least he saw a fellow Jesuit with a similar conscience elected pope and take the name Francis, thus linking his pontificate to the poor man of Assisi who became a missionary of mercy and an enemy of war. He lived to hear the same pope stand before both Houses of Congress and single out for praise two of Dan’s principal mentors, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton

Just months before Dan’s heart stopped beating, the Vatican hosted a global meeting of peacemakers who proposed that it was time to bury the “just war” doctrine and focus instead on nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and what makes for a just peace. In all the sixteen centuries of the just war theory, it was pointed out at the conference, no national hierarchy had ever condemned as unjust any war its nation’s military was engaged in. Dan was one of those who has helped speed the day when Christians could no longer attach the adjectives “just” or “holy” to the word “war.”

Dan was easy to love but even late in life he could be a challenging person to be with. While he wasn’t a recruiting sergeant, he made clear to all who encountered him that the possibility exists to reshape one’s life around the beatitude of peacemaking: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Saying “no” to any death-centered activity is an integral part of such a commitment. Dan’s life raised the question: as a step in the right direction, how about shaking the dust out of your life with an act of protest, even little civil disobedience, now and then? Would a sabbatical in jail, even a brief one, be such a bad idea? In any event, get out of the tomb and make some gestures, however modest, that favor life.

In my own case Dan helped me imagine taking a step — becoming one of fourteen people to burn draft records in Milwaukee in September 1968 — that I might otherwise not have taken. I am in debt to Dan for nudging me over the cliff of my own fears.

Dan had powerful convictions but was not self-righteous. One of the things Dan showed me was that you don’t have to wag a scolding finger at others in the effort to live and advocate a peaceful life. Accusations seldom change anyone’s mind. Glares don’t convert. You can be as absolute as Dan about not killing anyone and at the same time enjoy the company of people who don’t agree with you and perhaps never will. In his writing and lectures, Dan could be as unyielding on life-and-death issues as Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments in hand, but in face-to-face encounters he had an amazing gift to make space for and welcome the other, to tell stories and jokes, to create bridges of affinity and laughter. In Ireland, arguing the virtues of nonviolence with a leader of the far-from-nonviolent I.R.A., Dan realized how much he liked the man despite their radically different views. It didn’t make their differences less significant or their verbal jousting more restrained, but their mutual affection put a dimension of love into their exchange.

Dan, like many others involved in anti-war protest, was often described as “a peace activist,” but it’s worth noting that he was far from being a full-time activist. In one letter to me he remarked that many “good people are overworked and underjoyed.” He loved cooking and rarely ate alone. He enjoyed a glass or two of wine at the end of the day — or a martini, if one were available. Daily walks were a major part of his spiritual life. I cannot recall Dan ever being in a hurry.

“Unless you’re coming from somewhere, you’re not going anywhere,” he said from time to time. What the “somewhere” Dan was coming from is not easily described, but silence and sacrament were essential elements and helped keep him from being underjoyed. So were the works of mercy, most of all being with the sick. A great deal of Dan’s life was spent caring for the gravely ill. He became “a listener of last resort” to countless people dying of cancer or AIDS.

One of Dan’s great talents was friendship. He was a delight to be with, loved to have guests and to cook for them, often enjoyed company on his daily walk, listened closely and remembered what others had said, never saw Mass as a solitary event but as a seed of community. When a friend was in need, Dan often found ways to help. On one occasion, aware I badly needed money to fix up my decrepit, uninsulated apartment, he signed over to me a check big enough to cover all the basic expenses of making it more weatherproof. I was astonished — still am.

I have known many people who lived what one might call Jesus-shaped lives, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton among them. Dan was another. Such people remind those who encounter them of the Gospels. These are people who, in ways large and small, lay down their lives for their neighbor, including the hostile neighbor, the enemy. One can make no sense of the pivotal choices Dan made in his long life apart from the New Testament.

In a conversation he and I were having one afternoon with a group of students, I recall Dan saying that everyone has a god — that life is impossible without some center point in one’s life. One’s micro-god might be national identity, an ideology, politics, science, a religious institution, a baseball team, a theory about health and the ideal diet, might be celebrities, might be Hollywood, might be just about anything. But, Dan proposed, if you’re going to have a god, it might as well be God, capital G. Then the big project begins: the lifelong quest of finding who God is and why we exist and why such great hopes have been placed upon us — the love of creation, the care of life.

In contrast to his athletic brother Phil, Dan didn’t look like a warrior, but he was a brave man, not only in his many actions in opposing war and militarism but in challenging his friends on issues about which they took a militant opposing view. Like many of the early feminists, Dan was an outspoken opponent of abortion. He saw life whole, from womb to deathbed, and tried to inspire protection of life every inch of the way. Parting company with many friends, Dan had the courage to raise his voice on behalf those tiny humans awaiting birth as well as women who, in various ways, were being pushed toward abortion.

Dan’s commitment to the unborn was in part inspired by the gratitude and wonder awakened in him by the Eden-like beauty of children’s faces, a beauty so often dulled as we get older and fears deform us — such powerful fears as being out of step with our peer group.

How often children figured in his writing and how easily Dan connected with children… I recall how much he enjoyed playing with our own kids during his stays with us after my work brought me to Holland. In one of my favorite photos of him, he is playing catch with our five-year-old daughter Cait in the parking lot behind our house. As a house gift at the end of one visit he left this poem:

If war is about children,
so is peace.
We cannot put things off,
put off peacemaking,
any more than we can put off
the discomforts
of a child’s hunger or thirst
in favor of our own comfort.

One of the achievements of Dan’s life is that somehow he remained a Jesuit. It wasn’t always easy. He once sent me, a young man not even thirty at the time, to intercede for him with his provincial at a point when there was a more than even chance that Dan would be “given the Jonah option,” that is thrown overboard. Following the Catonsville action and other less famous crimes and misdemeanors, many of his fellow Jesuits made their distaste for him and what he represented quite clear. It’s not only remarkable that he hung on but that he wanted to hang on. Happily, by the time he reached old age, many, perhaps most, of his Jesuit adversaries had come not only to respect Dan but to take pride in his being a Jesuit. In some cases he even changed their minds.

In a period when celibacy was regarded by many as an indication of mental illness, Dan remained a celibate and even managed to joke about it. I recall an exchange with Dan at a Student Christian Movement conference in Sheffield, England in 1973. The question was raised, “Father Dan, would you please explain celibacy?” Without missing a beat, Dan replied, “Forgive me, I forgot to bring my celibacy slide show.” Much laughter, but that was all the answer the questioner pried out of him.

As I can bear witness, Dan was unjudgmental, even sympathetic, toward those whose sexual lives had gone off the church-sanctioned tracks in various directions, but he clung to celibacy — he once described it as sexual solitude — like a barnacle to a ship’s hull. Though he had great compassion for those, like myself, who had failed in attempts at marriage, he tried to inspire fidelity and perseverance. In a letter I received from him in 1973, Dan reminded me that he was “a priest for whom marriage is sacred, a sacrament, sealed with Christ’s love. This is a very deep thing with me; faithful love. I have tried in my own life to take this course, with fits and starts, but at least a clear vision of the summons; to be a sign of this.”

At the center of Dan’s life was the Mass. Looking back over my old journals while writing this book, I found these words of his celebrating bread, every fragment of which is a reminder of the eucharistic bread: “When I hear the sound of bread breaking I see something else. It seems almost as though God never meant us to do anything else. So beautiful a sound. The crust breaks up like manna and falls all over everything and then we eat. Bread gets inside humans.” His greatest gift may have been the path he opened (or in many cases re-opened) to eucharistic life and faith for people who had been estranged from almost everything.

“The good is to be done because it is good,” Dan said in an interview, “not because it goes somewhere. I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go. We have not lost everything because we lost today.”

Once asked by a journalist if he thought he was on the right track, Dan replied, “Well, I’m embarrassed when I compare what I am with what I should be.” It was a modest response. Dan loved the word “modesty” and used it often. Be modest about what you are doing, be modest in your expectations of what your acts of witness will accomplish, be modest about who you are. Do your best but get used to failure. It’s God who made the world and God who saves it, not you, not me. But be confident that whatever you do to safeguard life is not wasted.

Daniel Berrigan, pray for us.

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Draft as of 10 May 2019
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