Daniel Berrigan was one of the bravest men I ever encountered, which is why I couldn’t believe what he just told me that afternoon in 1976.
At the time, I was a reporter for the Globe and I had just referenced St. Peter’s Prep in downtown Jersey City where, 26 years before, we had converged in a sophomore classroom. He was a 28-year-old Jesuit scholastic and I was a 15-year-old hormone-engulfed brat from the Horseshoe, a tough nearby neighborhood.
He had taken over our Latin class in early 1950 after our regular teacher, Father Vogel, died unexpectedly. Vogel was easygoing and approachable; the young Berrigan anything but. He was nearing the end of the grueling path toward becoming a Jesuit priest — and he wasn’t about to founder in Jersey City.
I, for one, was terrified of him, as were many of my mates, all of us struggling with Caesar’s Gallic War commentaries. Berrigan then was scary brilliant, of course, but cutting. He was on loan from Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school across the Hudson. We had the impression he liked us not that much. He had that Irish wit that too often turns cruel, and a reserve about him that you didn’t want to test. We called him Bunny, of course, after the fabled jazzman. Never ever to his face.
The very mention of that stint in Sophomore B evidently brought back unwelcome memories.
Over the course of a long interview that afternoon, it would be the only time he expressed regret over the way he had behaved.
He apologized for the younger man he was.
The problem was we intimidated him; he was afraid of us. At least that’s what he said. That’s why he was mean. He was afraid we’d show him up.
Had we only known.
The year 1976 was a long time ago. Post-Watergate, pre-Reagan. Kevin White was mayor of Boston. New York City was crime-ridden and fighting insolvency. Jimmy Carter would win the presidency. A lot of religiosity was in the air. The Israeli and Arab world was tense and hostile. Memories of Vietnam were fresh. So were memories of Berrigan’s imprisonment for splashing blood on draft records and vandalizing government property as part of his antiwar protest with his brother Philip.
There would be no more apologies that afternoon. He had exhausted his supply of mea culpas on my schoolmates and me.
Instead, there was a remarkable delineation of the moral universe from a man said to be obsessed by the suffering in the world from the time he was 6 years old.
He was living in a modest apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with three other Jesuits in a community he cherished for its shared values. The priests read, prayed, studied, and contemplated daily, as Jesuits do everywhere. But Berrigan, at 54, had attained celebrity and in addition wrote, lectured, taught, and traveled widely, visiting the Middle East and other troubled areas and examining impoverished places closer to home, including the United States.
Vietnam was over, but the issues symbolized by the struggle remained alive and were gnawing at him. Paramount were what he called the needs of life, and the great moral abyss was the failure of those in power to address them. Instead, they concentrated on building ever more powerful machines of death. He was dismayed at the arms race and the failure of Christian conscience to slow it down, even in the midst of a supposed surge in those seeking redemption.
On this particular day, he was sharply critical of the church and its hierarchy. The church was dead on its feet, he told me, blind to the atrocities so evident in the world.
He was the same spare man of my memory, reflective and precise; he showed no humor that day, none at all.
The church, he said, was like a carriage with live passengers hitched to a team of dead horses. The passengers just sat dumbly and passively waiting for someone to come and rescue them. He suggested it was past time that the passengers climb out of the carriage and walk toward their destination.
I have often thought of that interview and lately have wondered what he made of Pope Francis. I wanted to call him and ask, but I was no longer a reporter, and he was by now an ailing man and so was I.
I think he would been proud of the pope’s focus on the needs of life and the Christian mandate to address them. Berrigan told me that day that he was not optimistic about the future, but he was hopeful. He said he saw something “very beautiful and powerful building” and seeking political expression around the world. “Communities of conscience” he called them, and said they were multiplying. He added that it was not important that they had no honor in the church those days.
They may have more honor now, the hopeful might say.
Ken Hartnett is a retired editor of The Standard-Times in New Bedford.