A lifelong civil rights activist and anti-war protester, American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan saw Christian life to involve discovering God simultaneously in both the Word and the World. He had a profound interest in scripture, and he was an author, teacher and poet, but his keenest conviction was that the divine encounter with humankind takes place in the very heart of concrete life, in society, culture and politics.
Daniel Berrigan was born in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1921, but his family moved to Syracuse in New York when he was five, where he spent most of his childhood. His father, Thomas Berrigan, was Catholic and this was the faith Daniel and his five brothers were raised in. When he finished high school, Berrigan entered directly into the noviciate for the Society of Jesus, at the age of eighteen.
After his ordination as a priest in 1952, Berrigan spent a year in France where he encountered socialist and radical priests. He had already been considered a radically-minded thinker by many, and when he returned to America and took up a position as teacher this reputation only grew. In 1957 he was appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. While on sabbatical in 1963, he returned to Europe where he encountered French Jesuits who were vocally critical of the conditions in Southeast Asia and of America’s invasion of Vietnam.
This spurred a defiant sense of protest within Berrigan. Back in America he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which organised protest against the Vietnam War, together with his brother Philip, a similarly-minded Josephite priest. In 1968, Berrigan, together with Philip and eight others, burned draft files using homemade napalm in a carpark in Catonsville, Maryland. They became known as the Catonsville Nine and were subsequently tried and imprisoned. Berrigan served two years in jail. This was his most high-profile protest, but in the following decades there were many more protests and more resulting incarceration. Between 1970 and 1995 Berrigan spent nearly seven years in prison.
Though the Vietnam War ended, there was never a shortage of injustices to condemn and bring to the fore. In 1980 Berrigan, along with his brother and six others, trespassed into a nuclear missile facility where they damaged a warhead and poured blood over documents. In 1984 he began working in a hospital in New York City where he ministered to men and women with AIDS. He remained highly vocal at this time on the continuance of American military interventions around the world, particularly on the Gulf War, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Much of his later years were devoted to writing and studying Scripture, though Berrigan never stopped protesting. He was arrested for taking part in a demonstration at a naval museum in New York in 2006, at the age of eighty five. Daniel Berrigan died on the 30th of April 2016.
Photo: Jim Forest [Flickr]