His hair is white now. The Jesuit often dresses in faded jeans and muted plaids, not the black and white that many of his order wear. He lives in a comfortable apartment on Manhattan’s upper-west side in a community of Jesuits. The walls of his living room are alive with pictures from his friends all over the world. Just outside, New York is bursting with people wandering among the shops on Broadway Avenue.
The setting is the perfect spot for a priest to retire. But Daniel Berrigan, who celebrates his 80th birthday in a few weeks, is not retired, and he’d rather be somewhere else.
“I’d very much like to be in prison with my brother Philip,” Berrigan said and his trademark smile vanished for a moment. “I have to do the lesser things, and it’s kind of humiliating.”
Daniel and Philip Berrigan have been engaging in non-violent action for more than 30 years. In that time, Philip has spent more than 10 years in jail, and Daniel has been arrested so many times that he stopped keeping count more than a decade ago.
“All the paper in the world is not worth the life of one child”
On May 17, 1968, during the height of the Vietnam war, a stunned nation watched in disbelief as newspapers and television stations replayed the image: Two priests throwing matches onto piles of burning paper in a packed-dirt parking lot in the small Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Md.
The priests were already well known at the time. Philip Berrigan, in the Josephite order of priests, had been sentenced to jail for pouring his own blood on draft files to protest the war. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit, had already made headlines for traveling to Vietnam to receive the release of U.S. prisoners there.
The two Berrigans, along with seven other Catholics, had stormed into the Selective Service office on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville. The three employees of the draft office watched in horror as the men and women began removing hundreds of files and dumping them in large, metal garbage baskets. The supervisor, Mary Murphy, cut her finger struggling with the intruders, trying to pry the metal baskets from their hands. Another, unidentified worker, threw a telephone through a glass window attempting to attract attention from the street outside. Berrigan later sent flowers from jail to the women to apologize for scaring them and express that the actions in the draft office were not directed at them.
“The Catonsville Nine,” as they later became known, carried the baskets into the parking lot. With a homemade version of napalm concocted from a recipe in a government training manual, they lit the 378 draft records on fire and prayed as they waited for police.
“We didn’t know if our first action at Catonsville would be our last,” Berrigan said. “You can’t bank on the outcome; you just have to do what’s right.”
All nine were arrested and tried on charges of interfering with Selective Service and destroying government property. Their arrests stunned the nation which, although desensitized to student protests, had never seen priests in handcuffs before. The Cardinal of New York was furious. Many Catholics turned against them. At the same time, however, a new Catholic left began to develop. Actions similar to Catonsville began to happen all over the country. Daniel addressed his critics in a Catonsville Nine statement.
“Our apologies good friends,” he wrote, “for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children … We could not, so help us God, do otherwise… We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if neccessary our lives, the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, the war stops here.”
During the trial, each of the defendants had a different reason for going to the Selective Service office that day. For Daniel Berrigan, the reasoning was simple: he burned the draft files to save lives.
“Better the files than the bodies of children…”
Born in Minnesotta during the Great Depression, Berrigan became concerned with helping the poor.. After a many anti-war activities in the 1960s, at least two immediate factors played into Berrigan’s decision to risk his freedom in an act of civil disobedience at Catonsville. In February, 1968, while on his trip to bring captive soldiers home from Vietnam, Berrigan was caught in the middle of a United States bombing raid in Hanoi.
Berrigan saw first-hand the suffering and destruction caused to civilians by the United States. In his play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Berrigan describes his trip.
“When the burned draft files were brought into court yesterday as evidence, I could not but recall that I had seen in Hanoi evidence of a very different nature,” he wrote. “I saw not boxes of burned papers, I saw parts of human bodies preserved in alcohol, the bodies of children, the hearts and organs and limbs of women, teachers, workers, peasants bombed in fields and churches and schools and hospitals.”
The second event that drove him to Catonsville occurred just after his return to America. A high school student in Syracuse, NY, Berrigan’s home town, walked into a Cathedral there. The student drenched himself in kerosene and set himself on fire to burn in the street. The student was protesting America’s use of napalm against civilians in Vietnam. News outlets had begun running pictures of Vietnamese children horrifically burned in U.S. attacks.
A month later, the boy was still clinging to life in the hospital. Berrigan recalled visiting him in the hospital, the stench of charred flesh hanging in the air. He later learned that the young man had expressed interest in getting to know him. The boy died shortly after Berrigan’s visit.
“I knew I must speak and act, because this boy’s death was being multiplied a thousandfold in the Land of Burning Children,” Berrigan wrote. “I went to Catonsville and burned some papers because the burning of children is inhuman and unbearable.”
“If the law is their cross and the cross is burning”
From the beginning, Berrigan and his fellow defendants freely admitted to burning the draft files. Their defense was based on an attack of the war. During the trial, the government admitted that a reasonable person could find the war in Vietnam illegal and immoral. The defense used this admission to argue that, finding the war illegal, a reasonable person could burn draft files since draft files had no legal right to exist. Furthermore, draft files caused the death of American and Vietnamese citizens.
The judge, Roszel Thomsen, repeatedly interrupted the defense, reminding the jury that the war in Vietnam was not on trial. “The law does not recognize political or religious or moral reasons or some higher law as justification for committing a crime,” Thomsen told the jury just before they began deliberations.
While the jury was deliberating, the sixty-six year old judge allowed the defendants to freely address the court. The defendants and the judge exchanged views on Vietnam. After listening, the judge sighed.
“I would be a funny sort of man if I were not moved by your sincerity,” Thomsen told Berrigan. “We can never accomplish or give a better life to people if we are going to keep on giving so much money to war … but people cannot take the law into their own hands.”
Two hours later, the jury returned their verdict. All of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Berrigan received three years in the Danbury, Conn. federal penitentiary.
“If you want to follow Jesus, you’d better look good on wood.”
Just before the Berrigan brothers were supposed to start their jail sentences, they both decided to flee. They figured that refusing to submit to the government was similar to refusing the draft. Berrigan saw no reason why they should turn themselves in like mice cornered by a cat.
Philip was caught after only ten days, but Daniel managed to elude the FBI for four months.
More than 200 people helped Berrigan stay underground, preparing places for him to stay all around the Northeast. Berrigan popped up frequently to do interviews with reporters. Occasionally, he made public appearances, always disappearing before the FBI could catch him. Publicly embarrassed by a fugitive whom the FBI couldn’t find but every newspaper reporter could, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered illegal, undercover measures taken to keep surveillance on Daniel’s brother in jail.
Eventually, this surveillance led to Daniel’s capture on Block Island, Rhode Island. Berrigan’s friends had warned him not to go to the island, but Daniel risked it anyway. The FBI traced him to the home of his friends, William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne. A coast guard ship blocked the harbor, and 70 agents dressed in orange ponchos stormed the tiny island. Telling the neighbors that they were birdwatchers, the agents surrounded Berrigan’s hideout.
When Berrigan noticed the agents milling around outside he went to greet them at the door. Inviting them in out of the rain, Berrigan donned a poncho of his own and was led out in handcuffs, smiling.
A new circle of Hell
Berrigan spent two years in Danbury. He almost died there, when a dentist injected novicane into an artery instead of the soft tissue. For Berrigan, who had always expressed emotions throgh poetry, prison was intolerable. At first, he found it difficult to write.
“I’m growing content to be silent, pyschologically, to function at some 50 percent of my native strength,” he wrote from Danbury. The experience was difficult for him, but he said it helped him develop compassion for groups to which he had little contact, particularly black, gay inmates.
Sitting in his apartment 30 years after his first trip to prison, Berrigan believes the United States is entering a new dark age in regard to prisons. According to Berrigan, the corporitization of America has extended into jails where prisoners are treated like products.
“People are for sale again,” he said. “When you put prisoners up for sale you are starting a new form of slavery.”
Despite calling prison a “new circle of hell,” Berrigan still wishes he could be there in solidarity with his brother, who is back in prison again for damaging nuclear weapons in protest. Berrigan’s health problems, however, make prison impossible.
By the time he was paroled the first time, Berrigan was a household name. Reporters and camera crews focused on him leaving prison. Georgetown University President, Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., was a member of the Jesuit delegation that met Berrigan as he left Danbury.
“I have admired Dan Berrigan’s passion for justice for decades, after first reading his wonderful book of poems, Time Without Number, when I was a Jesuit novice,” O’Donovan said. “I learned over many years what insight and dedication he brought to the issues of peace and social justice.”
Swords to Plowshares
On September 9, 1980, Berrigan and his brother made headlines again. The brothers named the new action Swords to Plowshares, after a passage in the bible in which the prophet Ishmael entreats nations to give up hostility and beat their “swords into plowshares.”
Together with six others, they walked into a nuclear weapons facility in King of Prussia, Penn. While several of their companions distracted the lone guard, the Berrigans and a few others walked into the storage area. With hammers, they pounded on two Mark 12A missile cones designed to carry 350 kilotons of nuclear explosives. They then poured their own blood over documents laying around and joined hands to pray, waiting for the police to come.
“I was astounded to see that weapons I had imagined to be invulnerable to our little household hammers showed the marks from our blows,” Molly Rush, a member of the group, wrote in a tribute to Berrigan.
At first denied bail, a judge later set bail at $50,000 because of Berrigan’s poor health. For the first time, the Jesuits posted bail for Berrigan.
Sentenced to prison for the Swords to Plowshares action, Berrigan nearly died once again. The Jesuits intervened on his behalf, asking for his early release. The courts agreed. Some have speculated they agreed because they did not want a celebrity to die on their hands.
After being released from prison, Berrigan’s friends felt he should avoid jail because another sentence might kill him. Despite the limits his health imposed, Berrigan has remained active working for justice.
Daniel Berrigan has been a guest professor at colleges around the country. During the height of his popularity, many calls came in offering him money to come speak. Through a special arrangement with the Jesuits, Berrigan was able to keep the money he earned. He used it for his own causes, often providing for the families of friends who went to jail.
Once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Berrigan didn’t win. Despite enormous popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, in recent years, the public eye has retreated from one of the country’s most famous priests.
Some have called him a prophet and an inspiration, but Berrigan says he is just one member of a religious order.
“I take my models from great people,” Berrigan said. “The Jesuits have always had great models; we have a great tradition of not going along with what’s going.”
An end to nuclear armaments has been Berrigan’s main crusade since Swords to Plowshares began, but he spends much of his time now ministering to patients dying of AIDS. He said working with the suffering makes his beliefs more concrete, just like going to jail did. Last Friday, Berrigan was one of eight arressted for trespassing at the USS Intrepid museum in Manhattan. Berrigan took part in the Stations of the Cross, a reflection on the last days of Jesus, which occurred at various spots in the city and ended at the U.S. military museum.
Berrigan had planned the arrest well in advance; he says he always plans his arrests.
A message to the students
Although he is best known for his political action, his writings and talks have been influential as well.
On her most recent album, The Green World, folksinger Dar Williams included a song about Berrigan and the trial of the Catonsville Nine.
“I often think the military-industrial mindset would have us believe that God is a thing of the American economy, a pro-corporate, anti-humanist patriot,” Williams said. “Daniel Berrigan helps me remember that we are actually people of conscience, reflection, humble prayer and humanist action.”
Brian McDermott, S.J., the Rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit Community, said part of Berrigan’s effect is that he invites people to action through his own witness not through guilt.
“Father Berrigan is not focused on the results of his action,” McDermott said, “he does his work because it is good work.”
College campuses have always been on the cutting edge of action, but Berrigan fears colleges are becoming the tools of corporate America. In a push to stay ahead, they take money from sources that corrupt them. He said this is just as true at Jesuit universities as it is anywhere else.
“Everyone of these Jesuits [at Jesuit universities] is complicit with big money,” he said.
Berrigan spoke at Georgetown once, more than a decade ago. He said he felt uncomfortable coming to Georgetown because of its ties to government money.
“I went and got arrested at the Pentagon afterwards to feel better about myself,” he said.
Students have always been particularly receptive to Berrigan’s message, and he said he finds the current climate on college campuses very encouraging.
“My problem is not with the students,” he said. “My problem is with the people running the campuses.”
The recent debate over private prisons, the school of the Americas, sweatshops and the death penalty are all areas Berrigan is glad to see gaining momentum.
“This good work is very encouraging,” he said. “People don’t just say these are good causes, they are taking part in them.”
Everyone working towards social justice is connected, Berrigan said. “If one is doing good work, one is always connected.”