Saturday 18 November 2017

The late Daniel Berrigan, radical US Jesuit priest

Born: May 9, 1921 Died: April 30, 2016

Daniel Berrigan
Daniel Berrigan

The Rev Daniel Berrigan, who has died aged 94, was an American priest, poet and anti-war activist, a troublesome but devoted son of the Church, best known for his protests against the Vietnam War.

Berrigan had frequent brushes with authority during his half-century of civil disobedience, but attracted international attention in 1968 when he and his brother, Philip Berrigan, were arrested for seizing and destroying draft records of troops about to be deployed in the Vietnam War.

The pair were convicted of destroying US government property and went into hiding before being captured by FBI agents and imprisoned in 1970.

Daniel Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, the fifth of six sons of Thomas and Frieda Berrigan. Thomas Berrigan was a railway worker and ardent socialist.

The family moved to upstate New York when Daniel was a boy.

The father's radicalism was passed on to his sons. Berrigan later described him in his memoirs as "an incendiary without a cause".

The religious faith in which the sons were brought up was also deeply ingrained. Philip Berrigan became a radical priest, and another brother, Gerry, was a left-wing political activist.

Berrigan studied at the Jesuit seminary in St Andrew-on-Hudson, New York, and was ordained in 1952.

He then taught English in Catholic high schools and colleges and wrote poetry; his second volume, Time Without Number, won the Lamont Prize in 1957.

Highly sensitive to the needs of others (even as a child he was, his mother recalled, "obsessed by the suffering in the world") Berrigan became increasingly attracted to the peace movement and civil rights during his time as a professor of New Testament Studies at the Jesuit Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

His superiors in the Jesuit order and the New York Archdiocese were not always happy about his politics but through his poetry, his teaching, his association with the Catholic philosopher Thomas Merton, and his undoubted charisma, he became a star of the New Left.

Following a year's sabbatical in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, in early 1968 Berrigan travelled to Hanoi during the Tet Offensive to facilitate a POW exchange with the North Vietnamese.

Upon his return to America he joined a group led by Philip Berrigan and seven other radical Catholic priests and laymen.

They seized the records of the local draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. Berrigan made a batch of napalm and the group poured it over the draft records and set them alight.

Television crews had been alerted to the action and a statement calling on churches and synagogues to end their silence about the war was distributed.

The Catonsville Nine, as they were later called, were subsequently arrested, tried and convicted. For a brief time, Berrigan, went underground to avoid going to prison. He went on to serve two years in a federal jail.

The Berrigans' arrest and trial brought them much media attention. Daniel Berrigan wrote a verse play about his experiences which was filmed by Gregory Peck.

The brothers appeared on the cover of Time magazine. "How shall we educate men to goodness," Berrigan said at the time, "to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time?"

His spell in prison did not, however, cool his ardour for radical actions or for using his gift with words to support radicals.

In 1980, Daniel and Philip led another group protest. They were arrested outside a GE missile plant in King of Prussia, a suburb of Philadelphia.

That same year Daniel travelled to Northern Ireland to highlight the blanket protests of IRA prisoners in the Maze prison.

After visiting the Maze, where he spent some time living with prisoner families, he wrote an article for The New York Times: "The tangle of Ulster, like a great barbed tumbleweed, wounds, captures as it rolls, winding more and more victims in its coils."

He prophesied, correctly as it turned out with the Good Friday Agreement, that there would be no peace until the fate of prisoners from all sides was dealt with.

Berrigan also continued to write - he published more than 50 books - and engaged in anti-war activism throughout his life.

Successive American governments gave him plenty of conflicts against which to protest, from Central America to the Balkans and, ultimately, to his great despair, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2008 he told The Nation magazine: "This is the worst time of my long life. I have never had such meagre expectations of the system."

Father Berrigan remained true to his principles to the end.

In his nineties he could be found in New York's Zuccotti Park at the Occupy Wall Street movement encampment.

© Daily Telegraph

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