The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the antiwar activist and Catholic priest whose acts of civil disobedience with his late brother Philip made headlines during the 1960s and ’70s, died April 30 at a Jesuit residence at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. He was 94.
The cause of death was a cardiovascular ailment, said the Rev. James Yannarell, a priest affiliated with the Fordham Jesuit community.
The author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton once described Father Berrigan as “a man full of fire, the right kind. . . . He is alive and full of spirit and truth. I think he will do much for the Church in America.”
The Berrigan brothers were two of the most celebrated opponents of the Vietnam War. Their names became as much a part of the political lexicon of the time as “Chicago Seven” or “Black Panthers.”
The much-publicized activities of the Berrigans had an appreciable effect. The burning of draft records, which they led at a Selective Service center in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, was said to have inspired 100 similar protests elsewhere.
More generally, their political activity was widely seen as a touchstone of the era’s turbulence, an indication its effects extended even to so tradition-bound an institution as the Catholic Church.
“There was a very marked disapproval all over the Catholic community” of their actions, Father Berrigan recalled in a 1998 Baltimore Sun interview. The Berrigans were seen as “priests who were stepping out of line, who were joining the crazies,” he said.
Some of the uncomfortableness with the Berrigans owed as much to the brothers’ attitude as their actions. “You cannot set up a court in the Kingdom of the Blind, to condemn those who see,” Father Berrigan declared at his trial for the Catonsville protest, and the line between righteousness and self-righteousness in his politics was not always clear.
Father Berrigan “chooses the role of grand simplifier, seeing the world as Good and Evil, with very little of the former,” wrote the conservative philosopher Michael Novak in a review of Father Berrigan’s 1987 autobiography, “To Dwell in Peace.”
Father Berrigan, a Jesuit, had the higher public profile of the two, although Philip (a Josephite priest who later left the clergy) was the more radicalized. Philip Berrigan died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 79.
The author of some 50 books, Father Berrigan was an award-winning poet whose arresting personal presence contributed to his celebrity status. He served as a consultant and acted in the 1986 film “The Mission.” He appeared in an ad for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in 1994 (receiving as payment a lifetime supply of the company’s flavors).
Father Berrigan not only lived the part of radical priest, he looked it. His fondness for turtlenecks and medallions led a fellow priest to remark after Father Berrigan delivered the commencement address at the College of the Holy Cross in 1973, “I’m with him on Vietnam, on the blacks, on poverty, but why can’t he dress more properly?”
Further enhancing Father Berrigan’s charisma were his strikingly handsome features and what one friend jokingly called his “Joan of Arc haircut.”
The son of Thomas William Berrigan and Frida (Fromhart) Berrigan, Daniel Joseph Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minn., and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. He was the fifth of sixth sons (Philip was the youngest). A frail boy, he didn’t start to walk until 4.
Thomas Berrigan was an electrical worker and farmer. His wife was a homemaker. Their devoutly Catholic household was politically active. The elder Berrigan was a union organizer and socialist who subscribed to The Catholic Worker, the publication of the political movement of the same name, which was committed to social and economic justice. Both the movement and its founder, Dorothy Day, would strongly influence Daniel Berrigan.
“From the age of 6, Daniel was obsessed by the suffering of the world,” his mother once recalled. Father Berrigan entered the Jesuit novitiate at 18. Ordained in 1952, he spent a year of study and ministry in France, where he was much impressed by the radical worker-priest movement. Already he was demonstrating his distrust of authority, referring to Pius XII as “our icebox Pope.”
Father Berrigan taught for three years at Brooklyn Preparatory School, in New York. He won the 1957 Lamont Prize for his first book of poems, “Time Without Number.” From 1957 to 1963, he taught New Testament studies at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse. After a year’s sabbatical in Europe, he became active in the early opposition to the Vietnam War.
He helped found an interdenominational group, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. He became a chaplain at Cornell University, in 1967. That winter, he went to Hanoi to accept the release of three captured US pilots.
The action at Catonsville took place on May 17, 1968. Joined by seven others, the Berrigans burned 378 draft files with homemade napalm (the recipe came from a Special Forces handbook). “The act was pitiful,” he wrote in his autobiography, “a tiny flare amid the consuming fires of war. But Catonsville was like a firebreak, a small fire lit to contain and conquer the greater.”
Father Berrigan was sentenced to three years in federal prison for conspiracy and destruction of government property. He chronicled the court proceedings in a play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” which was later made into a film. Rather than surrendering to authorities, he went underground, giving interviews and making surprise appearances until finally being taken into custody four months later.
Father Berrigan’s involvement with politics did not end with his release from prison. He drew widespread criticism for a 1973 speech denouncing Israel. He continued to participate in peace demonstrations. In 1993, the Los Angeles Times dubbed him “the somber chaplain of the nuclear Death Row.” His activism was not restricted to the antiwar movement. He was arrested on a charge of trying to block the entrance to a Rochester, N.Y., Planned Parenthood office in 1992.
Father Berrigan spent much of the ’80s and ’90s working with AIDS patients in New York. “My deepest belief is that results are not important,” he said in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview. “If you want to profess your faith, you have to seek consonance with Christ and let the chips fall. And they often fall in legal jeopardy and public disgrace and things like that.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.