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Battling cancer, Philip Berrigan puts his fate in God’s hands


Philip Berrigan has spent more than 10 years of his life serving jail and prison sentences all over the country, stemming from convictions for more than 100 acts of civil resistance to war. Not one to complain, Berrigan, 79, is the first to say his has been a wonderful life.

Yet, when the former Josephite priest was recently asked how he was feeling, Berrigan replied “lousy.” Unlike most of his previous 35 years, Berrigan has not spent one night in jail in 2002. Instead he has had to deal with a string of medical problems that has left the strapping, 6-foot-1-inch World War II veteran in constant pain and in need of a walker to get around.

Berrigan began the year with a bum hip that hobbled him even when he walked a short distance. A fall last April broke his left arm, delaying hip-replacement surgery, which was finally done in July. Last month, when he wasn’t recovering well from the hip surgery, Berrigan went to the doctor. Spots found on his kidney and liver turned out to be cancerous. He is slated to begin chemotherapy this month at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but short of a miracle, doctors have told Berrigan, the father of three grown children, not to expect a cure.

“There’s no talk from the doctors that there’s going to be a magic bullet, and there’s no talk of a cure,” said Berrigan’s son, Jerry Mechtenburg-Berrigan, 27, who recently joined his sisters, Frida, 28, and Kate, 21, for a family gathering at Jonah House, the intentional resistance community in Baltimore that Philip and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, founded in 1973. It was at Jonah House where Berrigan and McAlister raised their family, often taking turns because one or the other was behind bars.

As he did while engaged in acts of resistance over the years, Philip Berrigan says he has placed his fate in God’s hands.

“I’m trying to do my best to place it all in God’s hands, and I’ll do what I can to ward it off and maybe stabilize the cancer,” he said. “But the main element is God. You know, I’m dealing with a life-threatening disease, and I’m not whining about that because I’ve had so much good health in my life. I’m not whining. I’m just reporting on it.”

Like his body, Berrigan says his faith is also weak.

“Like most of us, my faith isn’t that strong,” he said, “but with what grace God can give me I’ll be all right. I have a tremendously strong community supporting me, as my family does and my brothers do.”

Philip Berrigan was the youngest of Thomas and Frida Berrigan’s six sons. During the Vietnam War, brothers Philip and Daniel -- then both priests -- often made daily headlines for their outspoken opposition to the war and their subsequent draft board raids in which they destroyed the records of draft-eligible men. In 1980, the two also founded the Plowshares movement, in which activists would use hammers to bang on weapons, symbolically disarming them, actions that often resulted in the government handing down long prison sentences.

Although he’s been sick, Berrigan has kept up a full slate of activism this past year. In January he was the keynote speaker at an antiwar rally in North Carolina. He also addressed thousands at a massive peace rally in Washington in April. The week the cancer was diagnosed, Berrigan and McAlister followed through with plans and led a retreat at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

Around Jonah House, folks are trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but Philip’s illness is yet another trial for McAlister, who has been Philip’s best friend and loving supporter for close to four decades.

McAlister’s eyes often welled with tears as she received warm hugs and well wishes from friends last month when she was in Washington for the funeral of Jesuit Fr. Richard McSorley, a leader in the peace movement and longtime family friend.

McAlister and the children, all of whom live out of state, are working out a plan for the three of them to spend more time at Jonah House during Philip’s illness. In October, Berrigan and McAlister had a frank discussion with the kids about Philip’s health.

Son Jerry said his father currently gets around with a walker, takes one short walk a day and the rest of the time he reads and writes and rests.

He said his dad’s philosophy of life is “always try to leave things a little better than you found them.” That’s also the political context in which Philip Berrigan has worked over the last 40 years, Mechtenberg-Berrigan said.

“I would say this country is in much worse shape than when he began, but that’s not his fault,” Mechtenberg-Berrigan said. “In our hearts and by his example I would say that we’re all better than when he found us.”

Philip’s brother Jerry is asking friends to direct intercessory prayers for Philip through St. Padre Pio and Dorothy Day “to try to put the brakes on the cancer. I recommend those as intercessors to everybody.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002