Word spread on Friday, April 30, 2017 that Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. died in a Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University where the firebrand pacifist, thinker, and poet had taught for years and where he made at last a sometimes shaky accommodation with his order. He was 94 years old. With his activist brothers Jerry and especially Phillip, he defined if he did not create a robust and defiant Catholic peace movement which influenced and energized the wider secular anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear movements. He even inspired a certain young heathen and heretic’s draft resistance and prison sentence.
Daniel was the fifth of six sons and born to Thomas William Berrigan and the former Frida Fromhart. in, Virginia, Minnesota a Masabi Iron Range town better known for the production of hockey players than future pacifists. His German mother and Irish father were both devout Catholics. His father was a railroad engineer, union officer, with thwarted ambitions to be a Catholic scholar who took his deep frustrations, often physically out on his wife and sons. The tension between piety and daily brutality at home deeply shaped the lives of Daniel and Philip.
Sometime after the birth of Philip two years after him, the family moved to Syracuse, New York where his father had extended family. Young Daniel was sickly and was born with such weak ankles that he could not walk until he was four years old. That allowed him to stay close to home under as much protection as his mother could offer and buffered him from some of the stern demands placed on his brothers. At an early age he resented the Church for excusing, even empowering his father’s brutality toward his mother and tyranny over his family. Yet he also felt a strong call to the priesthood.
After graduating from high school those weak ankles and general fragility kept him out of the World War II draft, unlike Philip who entered the Army and saw action in Europe as an artillery man and infantry officer. Daniel enrolled at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park, New York where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946.
Berrigan taught at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City from 1946 to 1949 then continued his education at Woodstock College in Baltimore where he finished his master’s degree in 1952. He was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order the same year.
Recognized for his brilliant mind in school, Daniel seemed destined to join the ranks of Jesuit intellectuals and academics. He had an eye opening experience when he was sent to France for a year of study. That brought him into contact with the French worker priest movement which gave him “a practical vision of the Church as she should be.”
Back in the States in 1954 he joined the faculty of the Jesuits’ Brooklyn Preparatory School, teaching theology and French. He also undertook his own personal study of poetry and was particularly influenced by Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings and the 19th-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. He began publishing his own poetry which combined nature spirituality with Catholic symbolism.
He also established contact with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, which had also been influenced by the French worker priests and with the Trappist mystic, pacifist, and poet Thomas Merton. Both would significantly influence his own development.
In 1957 Daniel became professor of New Testament Studies—another intellectual passion—at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. He also won the Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets for his first collection, Time Without Number. In many ways the next few years there were the happiest of a life not used to happiness or comfortable with it. He was a very popular instructor making friendships with his students, the cause of some manageable friction with school authorities. Satisfying, but more troublesome to his school and Jesuit superiors was his growing reputation as a radical, civil rights militant, and pacifist as a part of the small but emerging ban the bomb movement. He was also drawn to interfaith work which before Vatican II was regarded with deep suspicion by American church leaders. He founded International House while at Le Moyne.
Daniel’s increasingly high profile role in the growing anti-war movement and the anarcho-socialist tendencies of Dorothy Day’s followers and supporters, drew the ire of Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, the most powerful prelate in the U.S. and a rabid anti-Communist and Vietnam hawk. Spellman was particularly infuriated by his leadership involvement in the interdenominational Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.
Berigan was eased out of Le Moyne before he could obtain tenure in 1963.
In 1965 Daniel felt the full force of Spellman’s wrath. First, on October 15, 1965 one of Daniel’s former Le Moyne students and friend, David Miller, became the first man to publicly burn his draft card at a mass demonstration in New York City. Two years later Miller was the first man convicted and sentenced to prison for draft card burning.
Next, Roger La Porte, a young Catholic anti-war activist with whom he had only a slight acquaintance self-immolated himself outside United Nations Headquarters in New York in November to protest the War in Vietnam. Although inspired by the act of a Buddhist monk in Saigon, Spellman launched an investigation meant to blame the young man’s death on Berrigan’s influence. Partly to protect him and partly to insulate themselves from him, his Jesuit superiors got him out of the country by sending him on a fact finding mission to study the South American working class. An uproar from Daniel’s supporters in the Jesuit community cut short that exile, but what Berrigan learned from the experience only deepened his radicalism.
Daniel found himself virtually blackballed from Jesuit and Catholic colleges and universities.
Now we must back track and pick up the story of Phillip Berrigan because from this point forward their lives and activism were intertwined.Fr. Phillip Berigan pouring blood on Baltimore Draft records.
Phillip Berrigan was born on October 5, 1923 in Two Harbors, Minnesota, a tough Iron Range port on Lake Michigan. He was the youngest of six brothers.
Unlike other well-known anti-war figures of the Vietnam era, Philip knew war—and injustice—first hand. At the age of 20 he was drafted in 1943. Basic training in the South was an eye-opening and painful experience for him. He had never before witnessed firsthand the brutal racism of the Jim Crow South and was stunned that the Army that accommodated it in every way possible.
And that was just the start of his education. He witnessed the stark horror of war first hand as an artilleryman in the Battle of the Bulge and, as the war drew to a close in Europe, as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry. He was the recipient of combat decorations/
After the war instead of resuming his interrupted studies at the St. Michael's College in Toronto, he entered the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduation in 1950 Philip decided to enter the seminary of the Josephite Fathers, an order founded to minister to recently freed slaves after the Civil War and explicitly dedicated to service to the African diaspora in the U.S. He was ordained in 1955.
As the Civil Rights Movement heated up, so did Phillip’s involvement. He marched and participated in sit-ins and other protests immersing himself in the movement’s non-violence and sacrificial militancy, in both of which he found resonance with his pacifist Catholic theology.
Serving Black parishes, Berrigan was beginning to get in trouble with his order superiors by the mid-60s. After speaking at a public forum in which he blasted the Church for complicity in war crimes , his superiors removed him from his Up State New York parish and assigned him to Baltimore. He was assigned to St. Peter Claver Church in 1965 and founded the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission. The group began with public witnesses against the war and actions like the picketing of the homes of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Washington suburbs. It was out of this group and extensive prayerful consideration that the Baltimore Four decided to act.
On October 27, 1967 Father Phillip Berrigan and three others calmly walked into a Selective Service office in the Baltimore Customs House. As the Reverend James L. Mengel, a United Church of Christ minister and activist distributed copies of The Good News For Modern Man to workers, Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis, and writer David Eberhardt poured blood on the Draft Board files.
Each of the four men had contributed some of their own blood then supplemented it with duck blood purchased at a local Polish market. In a leaflet distributed along with the Bibles, Berrigan wrote, “This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.”
When they were finished all four men calmly awaited the arrival of police and arrest. The Baltimore Four, as they came to be known, succeeded in grabbing national attention. Their act of symbolic defiance helped energize the Anti-War Movement as a whole. Phillip would be sentenced to four years in prison in this celebrated case. And it was just his Act I.
Daniel meanwhile had gotten a position at a prestigious non-Catholic Cornel University as the assistant director of the campus United Religious Work organization in 1967. In addition to this interfaith work he was chaplain to the Catholic Cornel Newman Club. He continued writing and speaking out against the war and was becoming one of the best known national figures in the rapidly growing national movement. He also found time to become directly involved in Philip’s work in Baltimore.
Daniel had been further radicalized against the government by Phillip’s long sentence in the Baltimore case and by mischaracterizations by the government of his work on behalf of American POWs held in North Vietnam. In January of 1968 Daniel and historian Howard Zinn went to Hanoi as the Tet offensive raged in South Vietnam where they received and brought home the first American POW released since the beginning of President Johnson’s bombing campaign against the North. He was widely denounced as a traitor in the press.
While Philip was out of jail awaiting sentencing in the first Draft Board raid, he planned another even more dramatic raid.. This time he was joined by his older brother Daniel In addition to the Berrigan brothers Tom Lewis was once again on hand as were George Mische, De La Salle Christian Brother Br. David Darst, John Hogan, Marjorie Bradford Melville, Thomas Melville, and Mary Moylan. On May 17, 1968 they went to a Draft Board in Cantonville, Maryland. Not content with the mere symbolic vandalism of draft records, this time they hauled hundreds of files from the office into the parking lot, doused them in homemade napalm concocted of gasoline and soap flakes, and set them on fire.
The trial of the Cantonville Nine—which Philip Berrigan would later turn into a play using mostly trial transcripts—became a media sensation and offered the Berrigans and their collaborators an opportunity to eloquently and defiantly state their positions about war, exploitation, and the complicity of the Church and American society in the carnage. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
All of the defendants were convicted. Phillip and Berrigan were sentenced to 3½ years in prison. Allowed out on bail before reporting to serve their sentences the Berrigan brothers and some of the other defendants decided that since they had a right to protest manifest injustice, they also had a right not be complicit in their own persecution. They disappeared before reporting and went underground.
Both Berrigans would emerge from hiding, make a public appearance, and once again slip away. Daniel was even interviewed for the documentary film The Holy Outlaw. Despite Philips more central role in planning the Cantonville raid, Daniel who was better known became the center of much of the press’s attention. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was enraged and put both Berrigans on the Ten Most Wanted List. A massive nationwide man hunt followed. On April 11, 1970 Philip Berrigan was arrested when FBI agents broke down the door of Church of St. Gregory the Great in New York City and arrested him in the rectory. Daniel was nabbed at the home of radical lay Episcopal theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow.
Both brothers were sent to high security Federal Prisons. Daniel spent his time writing poetry and essays that continued to be published. But his always fragile health deteriorated. He suffered from painful even life threatening bleeding ulcers. His health problems led to his early release in 1972.
Philip was sent to prison with his two sentences to be served concurrently. While serving these sentences he secretly wed Sr. Elizabeth McAlister and anti-war activist in her own right. He was released in 1972. When the church learned of the marriage both Berrigan and his wife were excommunicated.
The pair faced a new hurdle when they and five others were indicted for an alleged plot to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and perhaps “blow up” some steam tunnels. The Federal case against the so called Harrisburg Seven was built on smuggled letters between the two facilitated by a prisoner/informant and intercepted by authorities. The government spent over $2 million trying to prove the case in the 1972 trial. The lead defense attorney, former Attorney General turned anti-war activist Ramsey Clark did not even call a witness. After lengthy deliberations there was a hung jury. The greatly embarrassed government declined to re-file the charges.
In 1973 Philip and McAlister founded Jonah House in Baltimore to support the community of non-violent resistance to war and injustice. Styled a Catholic Worker Resistance House, it was their home for the rest of his life. The couple had three children. The House served as a center of action and in 1980 was the birthplace of a new activist group, Plowshares which initiated many more actions over the next decades. Daniel was also deeply involved in Plowshares.
He had attempted to resume an academic career after his release while continuing peace work in the post-Vietnam era. He held faculty positions or ran programs at Union Seminary, Loyola University New Orleans, Columbia, and Yale but was often seen as a trouble maker and a facilitator of campus radicalism. A journey to Holy Land and Middle East led him to denounce the State of Israel for its repression of the Palestinian people. That, predictably, led to charges that he was engaged in “old-fashion theological anti-Semitism.”
Despite the turmoil in his career, Daniel kept up a steady stream of publican—about a book a year—including theological works, Biblical history and interpretation, philosophical and political essays, and a stream of poetry. His work with Philip and Plowshares, however ushered in a new, even more intense period civil disobedience and protest.
The first Plowshares action was a raid on the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania where nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were made. Phillip and Daniel Berrigan and six others symbolically pounded on the nose cones with hammers and drenched them in blood. This time they were sentenced 11 years in prison after the trial and appeals dragged on for nearly ten years. Much of that time both brothers were held in custody. In 1990 the Berrigans were re-sentenced to 23½ months and immediately paroled for time served.
Plowshares would continue to conduct similar such raids often planned by the Berrigan brothers.
In December of 1999 Philip Berrigan participated in his last Plowshares protest—at the Warfield Air National Guard Base in Maryland where members pounded on A-10 Warthog warplanes like those which had been used in the Persian Gulf War. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for malicious damage to Federal Property. He was released from prison for the last time in 2001.
Altogether Phillip served more than 11 years in jail or prison for his defiant acts of civil disobedience. That is likely a record for any non-violent activist in American History.
Soon after release, Philip died at Jonah House surrounded by his family and supporters of cancer on December 6, 2002 at the age of 72. He was buried on the grounds of Jonah House, where his wife continues his work.
Daniel continued his work. He finally found a comfortable academic home at Jesuit Fordham University, embraced by a new generation of Jesuit leaders who had matured admiring him. He was able to hold on even when he became publicly and harshly critical of conservative Pope John Paul II and the reactionary leadership he installed in the American church hierarchy.One of Daniel Berrigan's final arrests in 2006 at the United Nations.
He continued to plan and participate in Plowshares actions and was regularly arrested. Daniel called the days after 9/11 when the American people embraced the aggressive War on Terror, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the darkest of his life. He was deeply disappointed by a feeble anti-war movement and despaired that the government and media had become a seamless, unchallengeable monolith. Yet he continued on, offering his frail body time and time again in arrest. Among his last arrests in 2006 were for civil disobedience blocking the Intrepid Naval Air and Space Museum and United Nations Headquarters in New York.
He was a contributing editor at Sojourners, a left interfaith journal with strong connections to radical Evangelicals.
He was encouraged by the Occupy Wall Street Movement and addressed a rally at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan in 2012. No longer physically able to put his body on the line, he also embraced the Black Lives Matter protests. In those two movements he saw the seeds of real and widespread popular resistance to systematic evil.
The frail man outlasted all expectations. Despite infirmities, he was tough to the core. He left behind a great legacy that morally challenges each and every one of us.An Orthodox style icon of the Berrigan brothers.
I know National Poetry Month has passed, but I would be remiss if I did not include some of Daniel Berrigan’s accomplished and moving verse.
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.
mischance, malice, knives.
Tears dried. Would resolve all
flaw and blockage of mind
that makes us mad, sets lives awry.
So I pray,
the sign of the world's murder, the ruined son;
why are you silent?
feverish as lions
hear us in the world,
caged, devoid of hope.
some redress and healing.
The hand of an old woman
turns gospel page;
it flares up gently, the sudden tears of Christ
—Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
too loosely webbed against
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
her backhanded love of freakishness
allows us to stand.
—Daniel Berrigan, S.J.