A Man of Peace: Recalling the life and legacy of Daniel Berrigan

Father Dan Berrigan and his clan

Peacemaking With Clarity and Humor

I wish to extend my sympathy on the death of Father Dan Berrigan, S.J., to his family, friends and to the Jesuit Order, through which he gave his life in service of God and humanity. I feel deeply privileged and grateful that I knew Father Dan and had the joy of spending time in his presence, both when I visited him in the United States and when he came to Ireland during the height of “the troubles” to visit the political prisoners and give talks on peacemaking and Gospel nonviolence.

Father Dan was a man of great courage, whose life touched millions, not only through his writings but especially by his actions. His message was delivered with great clarity and based on his passionate belief in the power of the Gospel of Nonviolence and Jesus’s message of no killing and love of enemies. As a young man, he knew the cost of war, when his four brothers left home to join the war.

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They returned having witnessed much horror and suffering and it was out of this experience came the Berrigan Brothers conviction of what Father Dan called “the sin of war” and their lifetime commitment to the abolition of war, nuclear weapons and all forms of violence. Father Dan too worked all his life for the poor and peace. In one of his books he wrote that ‘the world would turn away from war and killing and turn its face towards the stranger, the widow and the orphan.’ He believed passionately in Peace, that people and things can change, and in the possibility of peaceful settling of human differences.

In September, 2005 I visited Father Dan in New York. He had just returned from Holy Cross (four-hour bus journey) after giving a retreat. He told me about his nonviolent protest two weeks previous when he and some peace friends got arrested. He laughed as he recalled how he and his friends had their case thrown out of court as the policeman had not told them to disperse! I marvelled at the joy and youthful enthusiasm exuded by Father Dan (then 85) at the prospect of yet another prison sentence and opportunity to give testimony to Jesus’s nonviolence against the sin of war.

I thought about another gospel Daniel, facing prison (and lions) for the sake of truth, and I marvelled at my friend, Father Dan, no stranger to U.S. courts and prisons for proclaiming truth. During our meeting we talked about the ongoing war policies of his country. Father Dan loved the American people and his country, but he disagreed with its foreign policies and believed passionately in the need for nonviolent civil disobedience to change these policies.

He once said “know where you stand and stand there.” For Father Dan there was no ambiguity when it came to violence. A visionary, a prophet, a man of steadfast courage and perseverance even in the face of great disappointment from other spiritual and political leaders, who continue to support nuclear weapons and war. I asked Father Dan about misguided war policies and politicians, and he answered, “If we don’t tell them violence is wrong, who will?” His parting words to me were “pray and non-violently protest.”

Father Dan was a man fully alive and in spite of his serious testimony, fun to be around. Together with his late brother, Philip Berrigan (and recently deceased brother Gerry, R.I.P.), he spent many years in American Prisons, having been arrested and imprisoned protesting weapons and war. Up to the end of his life by his example, he challenged each of us to be peacemakers and work for disarmament, justice and the poor. He rejected totally the phony Just War theology and gave his life, living Jesus’s Gospel of Nonviolence, which he prayed the Catholic Church would proclaim and which he believed would help save the world from the scourge of war. His message of love of enemies and forgiveness and reconciliation amongst the human family remains as urgent today as when he spoke it, so clearly and loudly, during the Vietnam, Iraq, Afghan, Libya, wars. Let us remember him by working for the fulfilment of his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and war.

Mairead Maguire is a Nobel Peace Laureate and founder of Peace People. She nominated Dan and Phil Berrigan for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

Paying the Price

“Of his many gifts, Dan has a genius for language and for the turn of phrase. (e.g, “If you are a Christian, you had better look good on wood;” “We know the bad news well enough, what’s the Good News?”; “What do our feet rest against? What do our hands grasp? It might be good to begin liturgy with such questions,” etc.) For Dan, though, these phrases were not simply words and were not simply meant to be clever. The meaning behind them animated his entire being. Dan is, and called each of us to be, courageous and creative in our love for one another, “day after Christian day.” Dan lived these words, fully and with complete abandon. He was always willing to pay the price. Daniel Berrigan never gave up on his vow to Christ, never betrayed the marginalized people whom he was called to serve. Dan is a radiant lighthouse, always illuminating in these midnight days and hours. Though he was often a refuge for me, it was only a matter of time, and rightly so, before he sent me back out into the world, saying, “Be daring! Root yourself in Christ and do the work that needs to be done, with love and with grace.”

Anna Brown is an associate professor and chair of the political science department at St. Peter’s University, Jersey City, N.J.

Hope Beyond Reason to Hope

Dan Berrigan: priest, poet, prophet, antiwar activist, disturber of the peace—and giver of retreats. In December 1987, Dan gave a retreat to the community at Andre House in Phoenix. There were 180 people attending four conferences in two days, plus an open mic (his idea) on Saturday evening. The topic: “The Acts of the Apostles and our Acts.”

Some snippets from that weekend:

“The Book of Acts is a family album. The book is not closed. It is possible to live this way. There are people who live this way.” 

“The ultimate anti-Pentecostal feast is the bomb, when we say ‘now we make our own tongues of fire, our own winds.’”

“Gamaliel counsels caution to the Sanhedrin concerning these troublemaking apostles. We should wait and see. We can call him...the liberal.”

In response to a question on the film “The Mission,” in which he had a cameo, and the debate over just-war and pacifism: “The movie leaves the question bloody and open, like life. Is it better to die with a monstrance in your hand? Or with a gun in your hand? The film says, in either case you die. Neither the monstrance nor the gun works any magic. It is another matter, however, what the Gospel urges us to do.”

In the evening session, an elderly nun with a brogue recalled reading Dan’s poem “Air Mail Letter” in Ave Maria magazine as a novice. The poem recounts a vision of 12 nuns in procession, their lives fully spent, offered, and concludes as the vision passes: “These occurred to me/ gentle adherence, love,/ hope beyond reason to hope.”

After reading the poem aloud, she turned to Dan and said simply, “Thank you for that.”

Fitting words of gratitude for that poem, that weekend, all the weekends, all the “acts” of obedience and disobedience, for a life fully spent and offered—giving us hope beyond reason to hope.

Michael Baxter teaches religious studies at Regis University in Denver.

Never Boring

One of my fondest memories of Dan is a note he sent to me on the feast of St. Ignatius 2011, in which he expressed regret for not being able to attend to me in an adequate way during my visit to his community a few months earlier. “I’d just been handed a somber medical report—prostate cancer. I was unfit to play host or to be helpful to a close friend at the door. So I must ask for your generous mood in my favor.”

Dan—the renowned poet, teacher, prophet, nonviolent resister—was also a sensitive and caring friend to many, fully capable of apologizing when he felt it necessary. He was not guilty of overlooking individuals while loving humanity, as is sometimes said of those struggling for a better world.

Twelve years earlier Dan and I were contemplating the skyline of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry and then all of the metropolis from the top of the World Trade Center. I said, “Dan, this is spectacular, but what is your take on it?” He said that he kept coming back to the prophets and their denunciation of the unjust accumulation of wealth in a world of starving people.

A few years later, when I seemed to be angling for some words of wisdom from him about his long life, he was content to say: “At least it has never been boring.” Thanks, Dan, for inviting me to resist the Vietnam war and other atrocities and injustices over the years.

Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J., works in Nicaragua with the Christian base communities. He is the author of The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Celebrating the Anniversaries (Catholic Worker).

Called to Discipleship

Once, 40 years ago, down a long hallway in the basement of Union Seminary in New York, Daniel Berrigan, recently of Danbury prison, called my name and invited me up for a Scotch. I had already been knocked off my horse by the way he read The Book, as though it were a matter of life and death. The invite made me feel like Nathaniel, beckoned to “Come and see.” It was way more than Scotch and talk, more even than weekly appointments of tea and converse over Dorothy Day and Merton—I barely knew what spiritual direction was and this brinked upon it. He was calling me into discipleship and the gospel of non-violent resistance. I owe him my heart, my life and vocation. 

I have seen him do the same with others. “Don’t die,” he told someone withering away in despair, “we need you.” The guy rose and filled with life and poetry. Another friend introduced himself with provoking cynicism: “I’m Mel. I’m dying of cancer.” “Gee, that must be interesting,” Dan provoked wryly back. It was like a zen whack. He too rose and walked—and lived into dying. In a century how many souls on this sweet and beset old planet has Berrigan called to life in the Gospel? How many deeds of resurrection? How many hearts so indebted?

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a United Methodist pastor who serves St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.

His Legacy

There is a line in one of Dan’s poems—“Come, Gospeler, be born.” Before issuing this invitation to all of us, Dan was living these words.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops articulated Dan’s thought in another way, “Action for justice and participation in the transformation of the world—these are, in our judgment, constitutentive dimensions in the preaching of the Gospel.”

I and many, many others were called to conversion by Dan through the testimony of his life. He led the way in challenging the church to bring about true transformation of the world into the image of the reign of God by coupling Gospel words with action.

Bishop Tom Gumbleton is a retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

A Stubborn One

“This passionate one, this meek poet, this exemplary human being, this priest of Christ,” is how Dan’s friend William Stringfellow introduced him in one of Dan’s many books. That is a pretty encapsulating list for the man I came to know as a mentor only in his even meeker, later years, mostly around dinner tables where his voice was often too faint to hear—though the words never stopped being those of a poet.

When I took a shift with Dan by his hospital bed, as he was recovering from a fall in 2014, the nurse who had just had the task of turning him added another item to Stringfellow’s list: “He’s a stubborn one,” she said of the man lying under her, conscious only enough to cry out in pain. I started cataloging reasons for why she didn’t know the half of it—the most-wanted list, prison, the bedsides of people with AIDS—but none of it seemed to surprise her.

Nathan Schneider is a writer and editor based in Denver, Colo., and a regular columnist for America.

Peacemaking Is Hard

Father Daniel Berrigan appeared at our family’s apartment on a hill in Rome on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1963—our introduction during his teaching sabbatical in Paris. He departed on the last bus before midnight, with fireworks exploding everywhere. Every Daniel encounter since, a new direction has emerged. A friend he sent to the Rome apartment got me a job at the University of Hawaii—where my teaching ended with resistance to the Vietnam War, influenced by the example of Dan and the Catonsville Nine. He sent me a book, dedicated to my first wife Sally and me, with his poem for a couple on the rocks, “Peacemaking is hard, hard almost as war....” Like Jesus’ hard sayings and Dan’s consistent life ethic—no to war, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, poverty, racism. Seek first the reign of God. Turn, turn, turn.

Dan came when you called him, or invited you to come be with him. Shelley and I asked him to help us in a trial in Honolulu. He came gladly, and the night before court got me to drink too much and stay up too late, on the way to a spirit-filled testimony.

Decades later, stunned by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, we asked him to lead us in a retreat. He said come to New York. He guided four of us in his apartment on one more prophetic walk through smoke and ashes. He has loved us all dearly, opened our doors to peace and will keep on walking with us. Please pray for us, Daniel.

James W. Douglass is author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (republished by Touchstone, 2010, and Orbis, 2013) and several books on nonviolence. He and his wife, Shelley, are cofounders of Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, Ala.

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