Daniel Berrigan arrested for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in 2006. RNS Photo/Thomas Altfather Good

‘Radical priest” Fr. Daniel Berrigan dead at 94

By  David Gibson, Religion News Service
  • May 2, 2016

NEW YORK – Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and herald of the Catholic social justice movement whose name — along with his late brother, Philip, also a priest — became synonymous with anti-war activism in the Vietnam era, has died.

He was 94 when he passed away April 30 and had been living at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx.

“Berrigan undoubtedly stands among the most influential American Jesuits of the past century, joining the likes of John Courtney Murray and Avery Dulles,” Fr. Luke Hansen wrote in the Jesuit magazine America, which first reported Berrigan’s death.

Yet while Murray was an intellectual renowned for pushing Catholicism to embrace religious liberty, and Dulles was famous for his theological insights, Fr. Berrigan became a prophetic activist who challenged his country to live up to a radical Gospel vision of justice — a vision that challenged his own Church at times.

“For me, Fr. Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet,” the author Kurt Vonnegut, cited in the America obituary, once wrote. “If this be heresy, make the most of it.”

Fr. Berrigan certainly did make the most of it. In May 1968, at the height of social tumult in the United States over civil rights and Vietnam, and shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fr. Berrigan gained worldwide attention when he, his younger brother Philip, who was a Josephite priest, and seven other Catholics seized draft records from a Selective Service Office in Catonsville, Maryland.

The group doused the files with homemade napalm in a parking lot outside the draft office and torched them while joining hands in prayer. “It was Philip who came up with the idea,” Daniel Berrigan told America in 2009.

The protesters issued a statement to the media that 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.” It added, “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.”

The Berrigan brothers were convicted in a federal trial and released on their own recognizance in 1970. They then went into hiding and refused to show up for jail.

Fr. Berrigan was eventually arrested by the FBI and sent to federal prison. He was released in 1972.

After the Vietnam War ended the Berrigans continued their protests, breaking into a General Electric nuclear missile site in Pennsylvania in 1980 and damaging warhead nose cones and pouring blood onto documents and files.

Fr. Berrigan also protested subsequent U.S. military involvement overseas, and later ministered to AIDS patients and brought attention to their cause. He stood against abortion and capital punishment, though such issues were not the focus of his mission.

Philip Berrigan died in 2002 but Daniel carried on their work. At 92, he took part in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Daniel Berrigan was born in 1921 into a German-Irish Catholic family in Minnesota, the fifth of six boys. and grew up on a farm near Syracuse, N.Y. He joined the Jesuit order in 1939 and was ordained a priest in 1952. He was the author of more than 50 books and 15 volumes of poetry and became known as much for his writings and spirituality as his activism.

He was the inspiration for the “radical priest” in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and had a small role as a priest in the 1989 movie, The Mission, about Jesuit missionaries in South America.

He was also friends with Catholic icons like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, who he credited for inspiring much of his work. In later life he wrote biblical commentaries, especially on the prophets, and he served as a mentor to younger Jesuits and activists, and led retreats.

Asked in the interview with America magazine for an inscription for his gravestone, Fr. Berrigan said: “It was never dull. Alleluia.”

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