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Hundreds gather to mourn death of famed war resister


As was often the case during his life, Philip Berrigan in death received a police escort. Berrigan’s wooden coffin, built by his son, Jerry, and adorned with hand-painted roses, was loaded onto the back of a black pickup truck and driven about a mile in a slow funeral procession of friends and family members who gathered on a frigid morning Dec. 9 to celebrate the life of the U.S. church’s best-known war resister.

Berrigan, 79, died Dec. 6 of cancer. More than 500 people attended Berrigan’s wake and funeral at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, where Berrigan once served as a Josephite priest.

The procession, which included banners, placards and cutout doves, began with more than 200 and grew to more than 300 as more mourners joined the solemn line moving from the Jonah House community where Philip and his wife Elizabeth McAlister lived, through inner-city streets and past abandoned tenements, including one that had burned and collapsed just hours earlier.

Chris Barrett of Lynchburg, Va., carried a sign on a stick that stated: “Phil had the strength of 100 men.” Barbara Washington, who was among scores of locals who lined the streets to watch the unusual event, said she hadn’t known of Philip Berrigan until she read about his death. “I’m sure to know him was to love him,” she said.

During a standing-room-only service, Philip’s brother, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, touched on his own pain at the loss of a brother who spent more than 11 years of his life incarcerated for civil resistance to war.

“Philip was diagnosed, and in slightly over two months, died,” Berrigan said. “Cancer pummeled him under like a horsemen of the apocalypse. The speed, the near frenzy of death were terrifying; no slowing it down, no bargaining with it, no give and take.”

Berrigan said his brother, in a “kind of high-wire balancing act of the spirit,” was both patient and impatient.

“From 1967 to the day of his death, Philip learned patience, a harsh, grating, unattractive so-called virtue. He learned patience through bolts and bars, through stopped clocks and time served, at the icy hands of judges and guards and wardens. He learned it through the war-making state and the complicit church, through long sacrifice and small return, through 35 years of American war and scarcely a week of genuine peace. ... Patience was like an iron yoke placed on his shoulder.”

In a tribute to Berrigan, daughters Frida and Kate recalled the many years of jail and prison visits with their father in “dead spaces meant to intimidate, to cow, to beat down,” Kate said, “spaces that repel and resist children, laughter, love and family.”

Even in such places, her father remained free, Kate said. “He was free in prison, and he showed us that freedom doesn’t have anything to do with where your body is or who holds the keys or who makes the rules. It has everything to do with where your heart is.”

Among those in attendance were notables such as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and actor Martin Sheen, but mostly the crowd was composed of individuals who had crossed paths with Berrigan in his work for peace -- Catholic Workers in blue jeans and sweatshirts, elderly nuns, Buddhist monks and scores of people who had ties to Berrigan and McAlister that could be traced to the 1960s antiwar movement.

Said his brother, Daniel: “What we had at the end was a masterwork of grace and human sweetness. We gazed on him with a kind of awe. Dying, Philip won the face he had earned at such cost.”

Patrick O’Neill is a free-lance writer who lives in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002