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The life of an inside agitator


Renowned antiwar activist Philip Francis Berrigan, who died of cancer Dec. 6, was a red-blooded American turned prophet, a good kid turned Christian revolutionary.

“If enough Christians follow the gospel,” he once wrote, “they can bring any state to its knees.”

The young Berrigan, a talented athlete and enthusiastic World War II combat soldier, became a priest who railed against economic injustice, marched against racism and burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. The last three and a half decades of his life were defined by a fierce and relentless opposition to nuclear weapons, “the taproot,” as he put it, of all American violence.

Berrigan’s religious education was utterly Catholic, his heritage undeniably American and his life an intertwining of the two. He took his definition of citizenship from papal encyclicals and the scriptures. He was the first Catholic priest to join the Freedom Riders in their efforts to desegregate the South, the first Catholic priest in the history of the United States known to serve a sentence as a political prisoner.

His most famous antiwar act occurred on May 17, 1968, when he and his brother Daniel, Jesuit priest and poet, and seven other Catholics burned draft files with homemade napalm in Catonsville, Md., to protest the Vietnam War. The group became known as the Catonsville Nine. The action established the Berrigan brothers as national figures, and they became known as the shock troops of the Peace Movement, the high priests of the new Catholic left.

A militant pacifist, he and his brother Daniel are among a small cadre of American Catholic radicals credited with moving their church from a position of chauvinistic nationalism to a more critical view of the state.

Hardscrabble childhood

Born Oct. 5, 1923, in Two Harbors, Minn., Philip Berrigan was the sixth and youngest son of Tom and Frida Berrigan. In 1926, financial hardship forced the family to move to Liverpool, a township north of Syracuse, N.Y., where Philip grew up. His hardscrabble childhood, defined by the poverty of the Depression, was also traditionally Catholic.

Tom Berrigan, a progressive Irish-American whose life passions were labor and poetry, was a tyrannical and erratic father. But Philip described his mother Frida, a pious German-American, as the one who taught her sons life’s important lessons -- compassion for the poor, the meaning of courage, how to handle fear.

Both parents instilled in their children a love of reading and from childhood on Berrigan lived a print-rich life. In the mid-’60s, he subscribed to 12 periodicals and regularly studied The Wall Street Journal and Business Week to keep abreast of American economics. In her book Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, biographer Francine du Plessix Gray described his diatribes against the war in Southeast Asia as “powerfully documented. Very few priests in the United States in 1965 knew the chronology of the Vietnam conflict as well as Philip Berrigan.”

In 1943, at age 19, Berrigan, who was playing semi-pro baseball and attending St. Michael’s College in Toronto, was drafted.

In his autobiography, Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire, Berrigan described himself as a “willing warrior,” someone who could not yet see the contradiction between killing a person and the lessons he had learned in the Catholic church and parochial schools: “that God created man in his own image and that all human beings carry the divine within us.”

Berrigan was a good soldier, distinguishing himself as a skilled marksman. He went overseas as a noncommissioned officer in an artillery battalion that started in Normandy and Brittany and crossed France into Belgium and the Netherlands. During the last year of the war, he was sent to infantry Officer Candidate School in Fontainbleau, France, and upon graduation, was assigned to the Eighth Infantry Division where “life in combat before being hit or killed was something under two minutes,” he said.

When the European war ended, Berrigan was assigned to be part of the ground invasion of Japan, but the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki curtailed that mission. In August 1945, a jubilant and patriotic Officer Berrigan rejoiced in the use of a weapon he would later abhor.

In 1955, he joined the Josephites, an order dedicated to African-Americans, and threw himself into combating racism. He became a member of numerous civil rights groups, went to Selma, Ala., to march with Dr. Martin Luther King and innovated neighborhood organizing within the black parishes that he served.

Berrigan said his exposure to the suffering of black people gave him an energizing rage, “a deep fire” that motivated him for years. The nonviolence of the civil rights movement gave him a method.

A man of enormous energy, he carried out his civil rights work while fulfilling his assigned duties as a Josephite priest. He was teaching at St. Augustine’s, an all-black high school in New Orleans, when the Cuban missile crisis erupted in October of 1962.

“New Orleans became paralyzed. Florida began to be evacuated and people were pouring up through Georgia and the Carolinas,” he said. Berrigan spent most of his time listening to back-to-back confessions because “people sensed that they were going to die.” He then realized that something was “very, very wrong” in the political order. Two men, Kennedy and Kruschev, were debating the fate of millions of people. “These guys are playing God,” he thought.

The totality of nuclear war pushed Berrigan into a pacifist position. War, he believed was obsolete. Humanity couldn’t afford it. As early as 1963, he was citing statements from a French cardinal and bishops condemning modern warfare and nuclear weapons.

What to do with him

According to biographer du Plessix Gray, the Josephites didn’t exactly know what to do with their outspoken priest. After six controversial years in New Orleans, he was sent to teach English at the Josephite Seminary in Newburgh, N.Y., but was transferred to Baltimore three years later. His public lecture about the inextricable connection between the evil of the Vietnam War and the race problem at home proved too much for Newburgh’s conservative Catholic community, which was willing to consider the plight of American blacks but not the brutality of U.S. foreign policy.

“Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?” he asked.

Berrigan’s antiwar work merely intensified in Baltimore where he was assigned to be associate pastor of St. Peter Claver, an inner-city parish serving 6,000 black people. He founded the city’s first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. In October 1967, he joined three others in pouring blood on Selective Service files in Baltimore. Eight months later, the Catonsville Nine action took place. A statement delivered to the press on the day of the action read:

“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. … 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 six years immediately following the Catonsville action were the most public and tumultuous period of his life. At his Catonsville trial, Berrigan was sentenced to three and a half years to be served concurrently with a six-year term for the Baltimore protest. The defendants appealed their conviction, lost, and the Berrigan brothers briefly went underground.

In 1970, he married Elizabeth McAlister, an activist and a religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. They are parents of three children, Frida, Jerry and Katie. The public announcement of his marriage in 1973 resulted in his excommunication, which has since been lifted. That same year, the couple founded Jonah House, a Christian community located in inner-city Baltimore. The community’s primary mission is nuclear disarmament through nonviolent resistance.

On Sept. 9, 1980, Berrigan and seven other activists entered a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., and poured blood and hammered on Mark 12A warheads. The action known as the Plowshares Eight launched the international Plowshares movement, which takes its mandate from the prophet Isaiah’s call to beat swords into plowshares. To date, more than 70 plowshares actions have occurred on several continents. Berrigan participated in six of them, resulting in seven years of imprisonment.

Student of his world

Philip Berrigan allowed the events of his time to shape the way he lived. In a 1963 lecture on peace, Berrigan, summarizing the sentiment of Pope John XXIII’s peace encyclical Pacem in Terris, said, “Society must be known, man must become a student of his world -- otherwise, he cannot judge it and act upon it.” Berrigan clearly was a student of the world, always analyzing the events of his time in the context of his faith.

He was ultimately an inside agitator. After his excommunication in 1973, Berrigan said “several other Christian bodies” invited him to become a minister. He never seriously considered their offers.

At 73 he wrote, “I cling to my Catholic roots because the church has given me far more than I’ve given the church: the sacraments and the scripture. It taught me when I was young, was faithful to me during dimwitted and rather retarded periods in my life. It has stayed with me and I will stay with the church as long as I live, will be a witness for, and sometimes against, the church.”

In 1966, during a visit to Saigon, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, arguably the most powerful U.S. churchman at the time, was asked by a reporter: “What do you think of our policy in Vietnam?” The cardinal responded, “Right or wrong, my country.” Five years later, the U.S. bishops condemned the war. While their statement was too late and too modest for Berrigan, it was, said David O’Brien, professor of history at Holy Cross College, “the first time ever in modern history that a body of bishops called the actions of their nation unjust.” The 1971 episcopate’s statement on Vietnam and the 1983 peace pastoral owe much of their inspiration to Berrigan’s ceaselessly battering away at the unholy collusion of church and state.

A theologian commenting on Berrigan’s death acknowledged that he at times found him hard to deal with but he believed Berrigan helped prevent the church “from becoming entirely a non-prophet organization.”

Among the last words said by the dying Berrigan were: “I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and the earth itself.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a free-lance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002