Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Right to Exist: New Biography of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrimn Outlines His Activism, Exile

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Right to Exist: New Biography of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrimn Outlines His Activism, Exile

Article excerpt

"[Dan] will do much for the Church in America and so will his brother Phil.... They will have a hard time, though, and will have to pay for every step forward with their blood."

--Thomas Merton

I was struck deeply, while reading Jim Forest's recent, well-written and insightful biography of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, At Play in the Lions' Den, by one specific incident. After he was released from prison in February 1972, Dan moved into a Jesuit residence at Fordham University Shortly thereafter, he returned from a lecture trip "to find the building locked, the lock changed, and his meager possessions in several boxes outside the entrance." He was understandably hurt and upset. He called his Jesuit provincial who told him to find himself an apartment in Manhattan and send him the bill.

Locked out seems like a good way to describe Dan's initial status in the Jesuits, one of whom claimed that Dan, as he wrote in his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, was "in the order but not of it."

In the fall of 1957, he was appointed associate professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. After six years, Dan, who had been saying Mass in English facing the people years before the Second Vatican Council and had been doing inner-city activism in Syracuse and working for integration in the South, was given a yearlong sabbatical in France. He would never again hold a permanent or semipermanent position on the faculty of a Jesuit institution.

"The satisfaction, achievement, devotion to study, the communality of faith with the young, these were gone," he wrote in his autobiography "I lost my aura; more grievously, I lost a home. Henceforth I would be a wanderer on the earth, here and there, an overnight dwelling."

In November 1965, just eight months after we officially put ground troops in Vietnam, Roger LaPorte, a Catholic Worker, immolated himself in front of the United Nations Building. Dan's provincial, John McGinty, told him not to make any public statement about LaPorte's "suicide." Dan did speak positively about LaPorte, but at a private memorial service for the Catholic Worker community. There he argued that, whereas suicide proceeds from despair and loss of hope, LaPorte had died in another spirit where death is conceived of as a gift of life. However misguided the act, it was seen by Dan as an offering of self so that others might live. This thinly veiled reference to Christ's death infuriated his superiors. Berrigan was ostracized and quickly shipped out to Latin America by his Jesuit order.

After four months in Latin America, Dan returned to New York on March 8, 1966, now more determined than ever to do everything possible to end the war in Vietnam. In 1967, he and his brother Philip, a Josephite, became the first Catholic priests to be arrested for opposing the war.

Then, on May 17, 1968, in an act that would change the nature of Christian nonviolent resistance forever, with eight others, Dan entered Local Draft Board No. 33 in Catonsville, Maryland. The participants seized Selective Service records (378 individual 1-A classification folders) and burned them outside the building with homemade napalm to make people understand "that killing others'was repugnant to the letter and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount," he wrote. The trial of the Catonsville Nine, held in Baltimore Oct. 5-9, 1968, became a cause celebre. Hundreds of people gathered at the courthouse every day of the trial.

Although Dan's fellow peace activists worked together for a common goal, not all agreed with the Berrigans' methods. Activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did not practice civil disobedience and thought that going to jail was a waste of time. Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day was a purely nonviolent protester who did not approve of the destruction of property. Although she acknowledged the disproportion between burning paper and burning children with napalm, she nonetheless maintained that "these actions are not ours. …

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