Fr. Daniel J. Berrigan (1921-2016) : ‘A Priest of Uncommon Conscience’
by Rose Marie Berger
Daniel J. Berrigan–priest, prophet, poet–died today in New York City. He was 94.
In the coming days there will be joyful celebrations of Fr. Dan and gatherings to tell his mighty story. He was one of the great Christian witnesses of our time; a giant of the 20th century in America, along with Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin King, Fannie Lour Hamer, and Cesar Chavez.
He leaves an extended family of Berrigans, O’Gradys, and McAlisters, and an even larger community who called him “Uncle Dan.” But now, at last, he is pain-free and dancing with the angels and his beloved co-conspirator, brother Phil, who preceded him in death in 2002.
For me, I will remember a few small things: First, that my father kept above his desk a photo of Dan Berrigan’s arrest in 1968 at a Catonsville (Md) army draft board and recruitment center, where Dan and 8 others poured their own blood and homemade napalm on 378 draft files and burned them in the parking lot. Years later, Dan told me that he’d once been flying on a commercial airline and the pilot overheard his name from the ticket desk. The pilot walked up to Dan and asked if he could shake his hand. “You don’t know me,” he said, “but I owe you my life. My draft record was one of the one’s you burned that day. Because of all the mix up, I was never called up. Thank you for saving my life.”
Second, that I was able to study Isaiah with him on a Sojourners community retreat in the early 1990s (see photo at right I took on that retreat in rural Maryland). And I heard him read his Advent poetry one year–wild, frightening, unpredictable, incarnate–when he was visiting Dorothy Day house in Washington, D.C. (I also asked him to dance once at his 75th birthday celebration, but his back pained him too much to accept.)
Third, I was able to spend a time at Dan Berrigan’s summer house on Block Island, Rhode Island, given over to him by the radical Episcopalian lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow and his partner Methodist poet Anthony Towne. The tiny house teeters on an eroding cliff over the Atlantic. It’s a place where the primal forces of God are not obscured by human hubris. But it was here that Bill and Anthony “harbored” Dan there when he was a fugitive from the FBI after being convicted of felonies “by reason of the illegal activation of their opposition to the Vietnam war,” said the trial document. Framed on the wall of the house is a calligraphy with an excerpt of Bill and Anthony’s letter in defense of their actions of “harboring a fugitive.”
A Christian does what he must do as a Christian
Daniel Berrigan is our FRIEND
And is always welcome
in our home
any visit from him is an
honor for us
because he is a priest of
he his a citizen of
urgent moral purpose
and he is a human being of
exemplary courage ….
Dan always was one to turn questions upside down. On his own death I suspect his mischievous grin has finally returned: “Death? What death? I’m only just getting started.”
Here’s an excerpt from one of the tributes in Sojourners magazine to Dan Berrigan from the 1990s. It’s taken from a court case:
Judge: “Father Berrigan, regardless of the outcome of these hearings, will you promise the court that you will refrain from such acts in the future?”
Dan: “Your honor, it seems to me that you are asking the wrong question.”
Judge: “OK, Father Berrigan, what do you think is the proper question?”Dan: “Well, your honor, it appears to me that you should ask President Bush if he’ll stop making missiles; and, if he’ll stop making them, then I’ll stop banging on them and you and I can go fishing.”
-From testimony at the Plowshares Eight resentencing, 1990.
For more about Fr. Berrigan, read Looking Back in Gratitude and his own autobiography To Dwell in Peace (1988). And every American should read The Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan. It is a classic of American resistance literature.