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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 701

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This is the grave of Daniel Berrigan.

Born in 1921 in Virginia, Minnesota, Berrigan and his siblings, including his little brother Philip, grew up in a strong Catholic and union household. The family moved east to Syracuse in 1926. A physically weak boy who did not learn to walk until he was 4 years old, he avoided the hard manual labor demanded of his brothers by his father. Social justice and Catholicism were both at the heart of Berrigan. He joined the Jesuits when he turned 18 in 1939, but went to college before entering the priesthood. He received a bachelor’s degree from St. Andrew’s on Hudson, a Jesuit seminary, in 1946, then taught at a Jesuit school in New Jersey until 1949. He then went on to get a master’s degree in 1952 from Woodstock College and then joined the priesthood that year.

Very soon after his ordination, Berrigan became known for his anti-poverty work. As a good Jesuit, he was always a teacher. He taught at the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School from 1954-57 and then went to LeMoyne College back in Syracuse. One of his students there became the first American convicted of burning a draft card. He published a book of poems in 1957 as well, while working to fight poverty and build international understanding between American Catholics and people around the world. In 1963, Berrigan went on sabbatical. He decided to go to Paris. There, he met French Jesuits outraged at how the U.S. and France were getting involved in Vietnam. This soon obsessed Berrigan.

He and his brother Phil became dedicated to the cause of fighting American oppression of the Vietnamese. They founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship to create religious-based protests against the war. This was still pretty early in the anti-war movement. Soon, they became leaders of something much larger. Other ecumenical anti-war organizations followed. These included such religious and secular leaders as Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, and William Sloane Coffin. Seen as too radical, Cardinal Francis Spellman, who hated the radical Berrigans, sent Daniel on a pointless fact-finding trip to South America in order to isolate him, but there was such pressure that he was brought back to the U.S. three months later.

In 1968, Berrigan and the great Howard Zinn traveled to North Vietnam to bring home the first released American POWs. Later that year, he appeared in the powerful if inconsistent antiwar documentary Year of the Pig. His brother Phil was if anything even more radical and influenced Daniel to engage in more intense direct action. In May 1968, they and seven other antiwar Catholics became known as the Catonsville Nine when they broke into to draft office in Catonsville, Maryland, pulled over several hundred draft cards, and burned them in the parking lot using homemade napalm. That is bad ass. Moreover, this was a shot at the Catholic Church. The draft board office was rented from the local Knights of Columbus. The statement they issued read, in part:

We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America….We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.

Berrigan was sentenced to three years in prison for this, but rather than serve the time, he went into hiding. The FBI captured him in 1970 while he was hiding on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island (tough place to be in hiding) and he served about 18 months in prison. But it was a price worth paying. The Catonsville Nine inspired many other activists around the nation to up the ante and move more toward direct action that openly broke the law. In all of this activism, Berrigan was an inspirational figure in the New Left, seeing racism, militarism, and capitalism as part of the same unjust system.

What’s kind of amazing is the role he played in American culture. He’s the radical priest referred to in Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” He appeared in Roland Joffe’s excellent film The Mission, about Jesuits in South America and starring Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons, and Liam Neeson back before he did something other than eight-rate action movies.

After the Vietnam War, Berrigan taught at various colleges and continued with his activism. In 1980, he and his brother and six others started the Plowshares movement, the anti-nuclear Christian pacifist movement that attempted to damage weapons and military property in order to bring attention to the horrors of American militarism that threatened to destroy the world. The idea was the classic phrase of beating swords into plowshares. The Plowshares Eight broke into the General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where the Minutemen III missile was made. They took hammers to a few vehicles, poured some blood on stuff, prayed, and otherwise just tried to grab attention around our military-industrial complex. They served some time in prison for this, though between appeals and releases, it wasn’t all that much in the end.

Berrigan was also an important early Catholic figure in fighting for AIDS activism. He stated:

Both the church and the state are finding ways to kill people with AIDS, and one of the ways is ostracism that pushes people between the cracks of respectability or acceptability and leaves them there to make of life what they will or what they cannot.

He maintained his anti-imperialism stance, protesting against Reagan’s war in Central America, the Gulf War, and Bush’s war in Iraq. Unfortunately, he was as strongly anti-abortion as he was anti-imperialist, once stating “a decent society should no more have an abortion clinic than the Pentagon.” It’s all too often even on the Catholic left that misogyny and anti-women politics are prioritized above all other issues and even if Berrigan saw them as evenly important issues, it’s still a sad damnation about his politics that he could not sympathize with the oppression of women like he could on other issues.

In his later life, Berrigan was a supporter of Occupy Wall Street and other economically populist movements. In 2008, he stated in a state of near despair over the Bush wars: “This is the worst time of my long life. I have never had such meager expectations of the system.”

He published a mere 50 books, including 15 books of poetry. He lived in New York City since 1975 at the West Side Jesuit Community and died in 2016 at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. He was 94 years old.

Daniel Berrigan is buried in Jesuit Cemetery, Auriesville, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other anti-Vietnam protestors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Phil Berrigan is in Baltimore and Tom Hayden is in Santa Monica. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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