Bruce Kent reflects on life of Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ

Fr Daniel Berrigan

Fr Daniel Berrigan

Some younger Catholics may never have heard of Fr Daniel Berrigan who died on 30 April at the age of 94. This news will bring back a flood of memories especially for those who experienced the peace movement of the Vietnam era. Both he and his brother Philip were heroes to many, and well known worldwide as Catholic radicals. In Dan's case also as a university teacher, significant author and poet.

From a family of six brothers, Dan joined the Jesuits and was ordained in 1952. Both he and Phil were vocal and radical opponents of American involvement, government and church, in the Vietnam war. This was a war to which Cardinal Spellman of New York gave his blessing. The brothers came to real fame, or notoriety according to taste, over the burning of draft cards in Catonsville in 1968. This earned them years in prison. Along with similar protests by others on the 'Catholic left', it shocked America and dramatically escalated opposition to the Vietnam war.

Daniel was a good friend both of Fr Thomas Merton the Trappist monk and author, and of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. Neither were uncritical friends. Dorothy herself had been in prison for acts of civil disobedience but did not approve of what she saw as a form of violence.

All three came out of the same stream of Catholic radicalism. All three also had their problems with church authorities. In 1965 Cardinal Spellman had wanted Daniel out of the New York diocese and the Jesuits obliged with a short spell in South America - which deepened rather than changed his radical views.

Berrigan remained a faithful, conscience-pricking peacemaker all his life. In 1980 the brothers were among a group who raided a General Electric nuclear plant in Pennsylvania and beat missile warheads with hammers to disarm them. This pioneering anti-nuclear 'Plowshares' action has been repeated in many places, including the UK, since then.

Dan's unique gift was to combine an understanding of biblical prophecy with the language of a poet, and by word and deed to name evil, expose complicity, and light up truth - often bold, blunt and controversial.

He spent his later years in New York, teaching, writing books, giving retreats and working with Aids sufferers and other marginalised people. In 2012 he visited and intervened in support of young people taking part in the 'Occupy Wall Street' protest.

Berrigan died in the Jesuits' care home, an inspiring but not always an easy man. Prophets rarely are.

See also: ICN 2 May 2016 Peace activist Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ has died

Tags: Bruce Kent, Dorothy Day, Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ, peace, Philip Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Vietnam

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