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Daniel Berrigan: Jesuit Priest, Anti-war Activist (1921-2016)

4th May 2016

On April 30th, 2016, the world lost a bright and shining light.  Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. passed away at age 94 at Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit Residence located at Fordham University.   He was best known for his passionate acts of civil disobedience, particularly against the Vietnam War and the use of nuclear weapons.  He was a strong, Christian pacifist who, alongside his brother Philip, spoke out and protested against the draft during the Vietnam War by burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President of Fordham University, recently spoke about how important Fr. Berrigan was to society at large.  He said:

[Dan Berrigan] belongs not just to the Jesuits, but to a significant period in American history. His activism came from a poet’s heart—and indeed he was always a highly accomplished poet, a poet who drew his inspiration from the Prophets and the Gospel.

Fr. Berrigan also allowed Catholics to begin to think about the war and terrorism that the United States was dealing with at the time in a new light.  James Carroll of The New Yorker writes:

For many, many American Catholics, what it meant to be American and what it meant to be Catholic was radically altered by the witness of Daniel Berrigan. He and his brother, long after the war in Vietnam had ended, continued to insist that U.S. militarism, and the nuclear monstrosity underlying it, was a moral catastrophe. 

While Fr. Berrigan had a dramatic influence on the world and the people around him, that does not mean that he himself was not influenced by prominent pacifists of his time.  Luke Hansen, S.J. of America Magazine writes that Dan Berrigan was strongly influenced by The Catholic Worker‘s Dorothy Day.  In America‘s article about the late poet and activist, Hansen includes a quote by Fr. Berrigan about Day’s influence in his own life.  He says:

[Dorothy Day] awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.

It is plain to see how extraordinary and unique Fr. Dan Berrigan was to promote what he believed was right and just, even if it meant defying the law.  While some people may not agree with his methods, Fr. Berrigan has had an immense impact on people’s opinions towards war and everyone’s right to human dignity.

To read more about Fr. Berrigan’s protests and pacifism, you can check out his books, And the Risen Bread: Selected and New Poems 1957-97, and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.  You can also read Faith, Resistance, and the Future: Daniel Berrigan’s Challenge to Catholic Social Thought, edited by James L. Marsh, and Anna J. Brown.  Fr. Dan Berrigan may be gone, but his memory will live on for years to come.