The community’s consistent support for his varied activities over three decades is something else for which Father Berrigan is especially grateful. With considerable understatement, he suggested that the inscription over his grave might read: “It was never dull. Alleluia.”
Another reason for an “Alleluia” is the scheduled fall publication of Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, edited by John Dear, S.J.
Looking Back In Gratitude A conversation with Daniel Berrigan
George Anderson, SJ
What are you most grateful for as you look back over your long life?” I asked Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who is 88. We were sitting last December in his light-filled living room at the Jesuit residence in Manhattan where he has lived since 1975. He answered immediately: “My Jesuit vocation.” Any regrets? I asked. “I could have done sooner the things I did, like Catonsville,” he replied. That historic act of burning draft files took place in the parking lot of a U.S. Selective Service Office in Catonsville, outside Baltimore, Md., on May 17, 1968. It was one of the earliest and most dramatic of several demonstrations for peace in which Berrigan took part over the years. With him on that day were eight other people, including his brother, Philip, who was a veteran and a Josephite priest; they stood trial that October, the group known as the Catonsville Nine. While free on bail awaiting trial, the two Berrigans spoke at St. Ignatius Church near the Baltimore jail. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa., that year, and the novice master drove down with me to hear their powerful presentation.
In burning the draft files, the Catonsville Nine used napalm, the gelatinous flammable substance that was then burning the flesh of Vietnamese women, men and children during the Vietnam War. “It was Philip who came up with the idea,” Berrigan said. “In the military section of the Georgetown University library, a friend found a copy of the Green Beret manual with instructions for making napalm from soap chips and kerosene.” Before the stunned eyes of Selective Service employees, several of the group lifted the files from their drawer marked A1 and carried them out to the parking lot, because, said Berrigan, “we didn’t want to endanger anyone in the office.”
An Emerging Poet
Nothing in Dan Berrigan’s early life suggested the dramatic turn his life would take in later years. Thoughts of a religious vocation came early as he grew up in New York State. He mentioned his fascination with a four-volume set of his father’s books called Pioneer Priests of North America that included accounts of Jesuit missionaries like St. Isaac Jogues. As his senior year in high school approached, a close childhood friend, Jack St. George, who had already decided on religious life, asked him, “When are you going to make up your mind?” They made a bargain: each would write to four religious congregations for information. “Some replied with nice brochures that showed tennis courts and swimming pools,” Berrigan said, “but the Jesuits sent an unattractive leaflet, no pictures and no come-on language, just a brief description of the training, called ‘The Making of a Jesuit.’” Both applied to the Jesuits and entered the novitiate on the same day, Aug. 14, 1939. Jack went on to a career at Vatican Radio, and Dan eventually began teaching in Jesuit high schools.
Writing also became an important and continuing part of Berrigan’s work. His activity as a poet is less well known than his work as a peace activist, yet poetry has played a distinctive part in his life. His first poem appeared in America in the early 1940s, while Berrigan was a college student at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, the Jesuit seminary near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I was very proud of that,” he told me.
On my return to America House after the interview, I looked up the poem in the June 13, 1942, issue; it is called “Storm-Song,” an ode to the Virgin Mary. A decade or so later, an editor at Macmillan who had heard about Berrigan’s poetry asked him for a collection of his poems. He told Berrigan that he would give it to the “toughest reader” at Macmillan; and if the report was good, “we’ll publish it.” That reader turned out to be Marianne Moore, a highly regarded poet, who gave the manuscript a glowing report. It led to the publication in 1953 of Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957.
A photograph from that period shows Dan Berrigan as a young priest with members of the Catholic Poetry Society. It was taken at the Lotos Club in Manhattan, when Sister Mary Madaleva, a popular educator and poet at St. Mary’s College inIndiana, received an award from Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. Since then, Berrigan observed, some form of writing has been part of his life. “It’s a daily exercise,” he said, often in diary form. For the last three decades, he has studied and written about the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament); Eerdmans has published several of the resulting works.
Berrigan wrote a more autobiographical book, Lights on in the House of the Dead (1974), while in federal prison in Danbury, Conn. for his part in the Catonsville Nine action. He smuggled his handwritten pages out of the prison sheet by sheet. By then, Berrigan was a figure well known to the press; consequently the prison officials were “very chary about anything I might be writing,” he explained. “I had to write very small and then wait for a visitor who could smuggle the pages out.” When visitors came, he was allowed to embrace them, which made it possible for him to press a few pages into their hands unobserved. They passed the pages on to Jesuit friends, who sent them to Doubleday, his publisher.
Berrigan had been writing even as F.B.I. agents pursued him, after he went underground in 1970 and before his eventual capture and subsequent incarceration at Danbury. “I knew I would be apprehended eventually, but I wanted to draw attention for as long as possible to the Vietnam War, and to Nixon’s ordering military action in Cambodia,” said Berrigan. For several months Robert Coles, a Harvard professor and personal friend, put Berrigan up in his home. Together they wrote The Dark Night of Resistance. Two F.B.I. agents attempting to disguise themselves as birders finally caught up with Berrigan, however, when he was staying in the home on Block Island, R.I., of the social activist and lay theologian William Stringfellow. “One day, Bill looked out the window and saw two men with binoculars acting as if they were bird watchers,” said Berrigan, “but since the weather was stormy, that seemed strange. ‘I think something’s up,’ Bill said, and sure enough they knocked on the door.” They took Berrigan back to Providence by ferry; the media, already alerted, were waiting at the pier. Berrigan showed me a poster in his apartment made from a photo taken at that moment. Smiling broadly, he was in handcuffs between two burly F.B.I. agents as they escorted him off the ferry. A reminder of Block Island lies on his living room floor: a dozen curiously shaped stones from the beach there.
For the entire article please click...Looking Back In Gratitude A conversation with Daniel Berrigan. If it's subscription please shoot me an e-mail.
Dan Berrigan, SJ with Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement
/ Fr. Philip Berrigan, SSJ with Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ. For more information click The Catonsville Nine File
After Graham tells quotes his son as saying about Nixon, “You’re the greatest president we’ve ever had in the history of America,” Graham says, “And I believe it. I believe it. I believe the Lord is with you, I really do.” The two men move on to discussing Israel and Middle East politics, as well as a rabbi who has criticized a new ecumenical movement among Christian churches. Nixon then makes his now well-known comments about anti-Semitism, which had been picked up widely last week. What has gone unnoticed is the latter part of this conversation, in which Nixon and Graham turn their thoughts to the Catholic church. Graham broaches the topic of organizing on a “world scale” a counterpart to the World Council of Churches, to take place in Lausanne, Switzerland, for those churches who are “sick and tired” of the World Council, which Graham surmises will include “at least half” of the Anglican world. “And we’ll be better financed,” says Graham. Nixon wonders if the Catholics will be joining up. Below is my transcription of what follows. (Thanks to Joseph Cleary, an eagle-eared listener for identifying the words "Krol of Philadelphia," which even for this Philadelphian confirmed by the man, were hard to decipher.) Krol is one of two "good guys" in the church, according to Nixon.
President Nixon: Now what about the Catholics?
Graham: So far, they would not be able to participate, and uh, you know the Southern Baptist and other groups wouldn’t um…
Nixon: Yeah…the trouble is…Graham: They couldn’t anyway.
Nixon: Yeah. The difficulty too is that the Catholics aren’t [in better shape] with that too. They’re going be losing their stroke, because…
Graham: They’re…they’re…that is the problem.
Graham: I think quite a bit, by the way, of that fellow you’ve got working with you—[John] McLaughlin [SJ, who would soon leave the Jesuits].Nixon. Oh yeah [laughter] the priest, yeah. You know, he’s good, and he’s sort of a convert to our side. He came in a total, all-out peacenik and then went to Vietnam and changed his mind.
Graham: I never met him, until I was over at a prayer breakfast over at the White House about a month ago. He invited me up to his office, and I went over and spent about an hour with him.
Nixon: He's a very capable fellow, bright as a tack.