Jesuit Father Daniel J. Berrigan, a peace activist and writer, died on April 30 in New York City at the age of 94. He was a Jesuit for 76 years and a priest for 63 years.
An acclaimed poet who for decades famously challenged U.S. Catholics to reject war and nuclear weapons, he wrote more than 50 books on Scripture, spirituality and resistance to war. Jesuit Father James Martin described him as “one of the great Catholics of our time, a champion of social justice and tireless promoter of peace.”
Fr. Berrigan was best known for his dramatic acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. He burned draft files with homemade napalm and later hammered on nuclear weapons to enact the Isaiah prophecy to “beat swords into plowshares.” His actions challenged Americans and Catholics to reexamine their relationship with the state and reject militarism. He constantly asked himself and others: What does the Gospel demand of us?
Fr. Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, the fifth of six boys, and grew up on a farm near Syracuse, New York.
At age 18, Fr. Berrigan entered the Society of Jesus with a close childhood friend after receiving a brochure about the Jesuits’ rigorous training program. At the time, he knew no Jesuits. It was “an act of faith on both sides,” he later wrote. “Not a bad arrangement.”
During his first teaching assignment, at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the late 1940s, Fr. Berrigan brought students across the Hudson to introduce them to the Catholic Worker. They often attended the “clarification of thought” meetings on Friday evenings, when speakers addressed topics of importance to the young Catholic movement. There he met Dorothy Day.
“Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” Fr. 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.”
After being ordained a priest on June 19, 1952, Fr. Berrigan went to France for a year of studies and ministry, the final stage of Jesuit formation, and was influenced by the Worker Priest movement. Fr. Berrigan professed final vows on the Feast of the Assumption in 1956.
Fr. Berrigan taught French and philosophy at Brooklyn Preparatory School from 1954 to 1957, won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957 for his first book of poetry, “Time Without Number” and then taught New Testament at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
In 1963, Fr. Berrigan embarked on a year of travel, spending time in France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rome, South Africa and the Soviet Union. He encountered despair among French Jesuits related to the situation of Indochina, as the United States ramped up military involvement in Vietnam.
Fr. Berrigan returned home in 1964 convinced that the war in Vietnam “could only grow worse.” So he began, he later wrote, “as loudly as I could, to say ‘no’ to the war…. There would be simply no turning back.”
He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the interfaith group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, whose leaders included Martin Luther King Jr., Richard John Neuhaus and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
A dramatic year of assassinations and protests that shook the conscience of America, 1968 also proved to be a watershed year for Fr. Berrigan. In February, he flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, with the historian Howard Zinn and assisted in the release of three captured U.S. pilots. On their first night in Hanoi, they awoke to an air-raid siren and U.S. bombs and had to find shelter.
As the United States continued to escalate the war, Fr. Berrigan worried that conventional protests had little chance of influencing government policy. His brother, Philip, then a Josephite priest, had already taken a much greater risk: In October 1967, he broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured blood on the draft files.
Undeterred at the looming legal consequences, Philip planned another draft board action and invited his younger brother to join him. Daniel agreed.
On May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers joined seven other Catholic peace activists in Catonsville, Maryland, where they took several hundreds of draft files from the local draft board and set them on fire in a nearby parking lot, using homemade napalm.
Fr. Berrigan was tried and convicted for the action. When it came time for sentencing, however, he went underground and evaded the FBI for four months.
“I knew I would be apprehended eventually,” he told America in an interview in 2009, “but I wanted to draw attention for as long as possible to the Vietnam War and to Nixon’s ordering military action in Cambodia.”
The FBI finally apprehended him in August 1970. He spent 18 months in Danbury federal prison, during which he and Philip appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. He wrote of the incident and the trial in his play “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
The brothers, lifelong recidivists, were far from finished.
On Sept. 9, 1980, Daniel and Philip joined seven others in entering the General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., where they hammered on an unarmed nuclear weapon — the first Plowshares action. They faced 10 years in prison for the action but were sentenced to time served.
In his courtroom testimony at the Plowshares trial, Fr. Berrigan described his daily confrontation with death as he accompanied the dying at St. Rose Cancer Home in New York City. He said the Plowshares action was connected with this ministry of facing death and struggling against it. In 1984, he began working at St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York City, where he ministered to men and women with HIV-AIDS.
Fr. Berrigan’s later years were devoted to Scripture study, writing, giving retreats, correspondence with friends and admirers, mentorship of young Jesuits and peace activists, and being an uncle to two generations of Berrigans. He published several biblical commentaries that blended scholarship with pastoral reflection and poetic wit.
From 1976 to 2012, Fr. Berrigan was a member of the West Side Jesuit Community, later the Thompson Street Jesuit Community, in New York City. During those years, he helped lead the Kairos Community, a group of friends and activists dedicated to Scripture study and nonviolent direct action.
Even as an octogenarian, Fr. Berrigan continued to protest, turning his attention to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prison in Guantánamo Bay and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Friends remember Fr. Berrigan as courageous and creative in love, a person of integrity who was willing to pay the price, a beacon of hope and a sensitive and caring friend.