Father Daniel Berrigan, advocate for justice, peace, poor, dies at 94

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NEW YORK (CNS) — Jesuit Father
Daniel Berrigan, an early critic of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam who for
years challenged the country’s reliance on military might, died April 30. He
was 94.

The author of several books of
poetry and one of the first Catholic priests to receive a federal sentence for
peace activism, Father Berrigan protested government policies in word and in
deeds, which garnered several stays in jail and in federal prison.

Father Berrigan died in the
company of family. In a statement issued shortly after the priest’s death, the
family said, “It was a sacrament to be with Dan and feel his spirit move
out of his body and into each of us and in the world.”

“Dan taught us that every
person is a miracle, every person has a story, every person is worthy of
respect,” the statement said. “And we are so aware of all he did and
all he was and all he created in almost 95 years of life lived with enthusiasm,
commitment, seriousness and almost holy humor.”

The “heavy burden” of peacemaking
will continue among many people, the family added, saying, “We can all
move forward Dan Berrigan’s work for humanity.”

A funeral Mass was planned for
May 6 at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Family members and others were
to gather prior to the Mass for a peace witness followed by a march to the

A poet whose works inspired
people reflect and act on behalf of justice and peace, Father Berrigan began speaking
against U.S. military involvement in February 1965 at a rally in a Protestant
church in New York City.

“To men of conscience, such
works cry out to heaven for redress. They also sow into man’s future a poison
which the unborn will be condemned to breathe — hatreds, divisions, world
poverty, hopelessness. In such an atmosphere, the world comes ever closer to the
actuality of hell,” Father Berrigan told the crowd.

He told various groups and retreats
he led over the years that Catholics are called to live a life of nonviolence
as expressed in the Gospel and to protest injustices when they are encountered.

Father Berrigan, with others,
gave birth to the Plowshares movement to oppose nuclear weapons. On Sept.9,
1980, Father Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six other demonstrators were
arrested after entering the General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia,
Pennsylvania, and battering intercontinental ballistic missile nose cones with
hammers and pouring blood over classified defense plans.

Calling themselves the “Plowshares
Eight” from the biblical passage, “And they shall beat their swords
into plowshares,” the eight defendants were tried in the Montgomery County
Common Pleas court, where the presiding judge rejected the use of international
law theories of justification for an illegal act. They were found guilty of
burglary, criminal mischief and criminal conspiracy and sentenced in July 1981.
The Berrigan brothers, Oblate Father Carl Kabat and Baltimore lawyer John
Schuchardt received the stiffest sentences, three to 10 years in prison.

The protest was the second major
action for which he was arrested. On May 17, 1968, Father Berrigan and eight
others entered the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, a Baltimore
suburb, removed 378 files and burned them in an adjacent parking lot with what
they called “homemade napalm.”

The “Catonsville Nine,”
as they called themselves, were tried for conspiracy and destruction of
government property in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in October 1968. Father
Berrigan testified that he participated in the burning because he had come to
realize that “one simply cannot announce the Gospel from his pedestal …
when he was not down there sharing the risks and burdens and the anguish of his

While the presiding judge told
the defendants he was moved by their views and was anxious to terminate the
war. “But people can’t take the law into their own hands,” he said
before finding the defendants guilty. They were given sentences ranging from
two to three and a half years in jail. Sentenced to three years, Father
Berrigan was ordered to surrender to federal authorities and begin serving his
sentence on April 10, 1970. Instead, he went underground, evading federal
agents for four months.

The Jesuit surfaced occasionally
during those months. In addition to a handful of public appearances at churches
and schools, he published articles in several magazines.

FBI agents eventually arrested
Father Berrigan on Block Island in Long Island Sound and he was sent to the
federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut. In January 1972, the Federal
Parole Board granted Father Berrigan parole for “reasons of health”
and he left prison Feb.24.

Father Berrigan’s views at times
led him into conflict with other opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and
even raised the ire of some leaders in the Catholic Church.

Daniel Berrigan was born in
Virginia, Minnesota, May 9, 1921, the fifth of six sons of Thomas Berrigan, a
second?generation Irish?American who was working there as a railroad engineer,
and Frieda (Fromhart) Berrigan, who was of German descent. Fired for militant
Socialist Party activity, the father moved the family to his birthplace,
Syracuse, New York, where they lived on a 10?acre farm.

Because he was frail and had
weak ankles, Daniel was assigned to do household chores while his brothers
tilled the soil under the supervision of their father. Mrs. Berrigan was a
devout, generous woman, always ready to feed and house the needy. “From
the age of 6, Daniel was obsessed by the suffering in the world,” she
later recalled.

Attracted to the priesthood from
his earliest years, he sent inquiries to religious orders when he was a senior
in high school. He finally applied to the Jesuits, because their response was
the lowest?keyed of those he received. In 1939, he began the Jesuit training

After his novitiate, he studied
philosophy at Woodstock College in Maryland, taught French, English and Latin
for four years at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, studied theology
for three years at Weston College in Massachusetts, and was ordained on June 19,

In July 1953, Father Berrigan
was sent to France for a year of study and ministerial work in a small town
near Lyons. In France, he met some worker?priests who gave him, he later said,
“a practical vision of the church as she should be.”

He said there was a “retardation”
of his development when, for two months in 1954, he served as a military
chaplain in Germany.

Returning to New York in the
fall of 1954, he taught French and theology at Brooklyn Prep and led teams of
students working in poverty areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

From 1957 to 1963, he was
professor of New Testament studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, where he was
the most popular and controversial teacher on campus. He worked his students
hard and outside of class formed an elite group of followers dedicated to
pacifism, civil rights and radical social work.

Older faculty members frowned on
“unprofessional” relationship to students and daring liturgical
innovations. At the end of the 1962?63 school year, his superiors sent him to
Europe for a year. Traveling in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union,
he found that “Christians under Marxism have returned to their pre?Constantinian
situation of being poor, pure and persecuted.”

Returning to New York in the
fall of 1964, he began involvement in protest against the war in Vietnam. He
helped to found the controversial Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam.

In November 1965, the Jesuit
superiors sent him to Latin America in what was described as a reporting
assignment for Jesuit Missions magazine. His supporters interpreted the
assignment as an attempt by the New York Archdiocese to silence him.

In March 1966, Father Berrigan
returned to New York and anti?war activities. He was the author of more than 16
books of poetry and essays.

Later in life, his work focused
ministering to people with AIDS in New York City. He also visited Zuccotti Park
in New York to support the brief Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012.

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