A great Jesuit once said of Dorothy Day 1 that she lived “as though the truth were true.” The same could be said of the speaker, Father Daniel Berrigan.
A priest, poet and peace activist, Berrigan died in the Bronx on April 30 at age 94. He was a Jesuit for 76 years and a priest for 63 years.
Dan believed in a consistent ethic of life and opposed every form of violence: war, nuclear weapons, poverty, abortion, racism, and ecological destruction. He took the Gospel seriously and let it shape his life.
When U.S. bombs killed children in Vietnam, and U.S. soldiers returned home in caskets, Dan opposed that war with poetry and daring action. In 1965, he traveled to Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam, to receive the release of three captured American pilots. Later that year, after Dan frustrated church authorities by speaking at a service for a young man who set himself on fire to protest the war, he was effectively exiled to South America.
Undaunted, Dan returned a few months later and continued his resistance to the Vietnam War. He also upped the ante. In May 1968, Dan, his brother Phil and seven other Catholics entered the selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland. They rounded up hundreds of draft files, and burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm. Their goal was to disrupt the machinery of war.
Nearly forty years later, I wrote to Dan as a Jesuit novice. I wanted to know what helped him to persevere in religious life for the long haul, knowing that he experienced many ups and downs, consolations and desolations, and varying degrees of support and resistance from his brother Jesuits. I was delighted to read his response:
As to your question about my staying put in the Society (now for 67 unbored years). Possibly 1965 was a watershed time. I had a clear choice; obey a one-way ticket to L. America, or depart the Jesuits. I chose, amid tears & considerable confusion, to obey. That was primal and strangely empowering. It engendered a firmer ‘yes’; I belong here. If making peace in time of war is a grave default, then in fact the problem is not mine, but that of authorities. I must stand steady, say my prayers and let the chips (or the heavens) fall.
‘65 led by way of Hanoi, to ‘68 and Catonsville. By the time I was captured and jailed, the war was so divisive that my ‘disgrace’ underwent a sea change, & Fr. Arrupe arrived to visit me in prison. 2
Without drama or hoopla, a peacemaking Jesuit must be content to exist in USA as a minority, often lonely, sometimes solitary figure. That takes guts, confidence in the call, and (blessed as I’ve been these many years), a community of ‘friends in the Lord’. John Dear, Steve Kelly and Ben Jimenez touch base periodically with us creative misfits of W. 98 Street. We pray, laugh, show our wounds, lift a glass, and go on, invariably with gratitude.
That was in 2006, when Dan was a spry 84-year-old. Ten years later, I continue the long road of Jesuit formation and now prepare for ordination to the priesthood myself. I find Dan’s words timely and encouraging. I hear him telling me all over again: Stay focused on the Gospel and let the rest take care of itself.
Even amid great turmoil, Dan trusted the vows and chose, “amid tears & considerable confusion,” to obey his superiors. In fact, he found trust in superiors, paradoxically, empowering.
Dan walked the walk, but he did not do it alone. He reminds us that a strong, supportive community is necessary for the hard work of being a Christian. Dan had close Jesuit friends and a large network of friends. He helped found the Kairos Community, where people gathered for serious engagement with Scripture and nonviolent direct action. These friendships and communities enabled Dan to live out the Gospel for 94 blessed years – and he lived them as though the truth were true. Dan’s ‘yes’ reminds me that I, too, belong here.
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This week we lift a glass to Dan. We grieve his loss, celebrate his witness, and try our best at the unbored work of living out the Gospel. Rest in peace, Dan.
Luke Hansen, SJ is a regular writer for America Media, the parent of The Jesuit Post. He will be ordained a Catholic priest in June 2017, in Milwaukee. Luke wrote a longer piece on the life of Dan Berrigan on America’s website.