Apr. 14, 2010
National Catholic Reporter
"Priest, keeper of the Word, risk-embracer"
By Colman McCarthy
I wrote Daniel Berrigan’s obituary the other day. The Jesuit priest, writer, teacher, dramatist, peacemaker, war resister and truth-teller who lives in New York City isn’t dead, of course, nor is he even close to being ill as he nears his 89th birthday this spring. The obituary editor at The
I had time to go back and reread much of the stunningly large amount of ambiguity-free prose that is the Berrigan opus, from the early books such as Night Flight to Hanoi, No Bars to Manhood and False Gods, Real Men, to the later ones: Minor Prophets, Major Themes and To Dwell in Peace, his autobiography. And more poems, essays, journals and plays, early and late.
The richness of it all would stand alone as enduring literature. Yet the beauty of the language -- flexuous metaphors, spare allusions -- goes beyond the pleasures of reading well-crafted prose. Underlying it is the Berrigan conscience that consistently takes brave stands and embraces risks.
The larger forms of this priest’s defiance are well-known to anyone who has stayed even mildly abreast of the American peace movement in the past half-century. Tucked into the folds are the smaller but no less telling run-ins with power, starting with the presidents of Jesuit colleges and universities that sponsor ROTC programs. After teaching for a semester in 1989 at Loyola University in New Orleans, and taking his students on a field trip to learn how to get arrested at an antiwar rally, Berrigan wrote to the president that he wouldn’t be back due to his opposition to Loyola’s ROTC program. As recounted by Robert Ludwig in Apostle of Peace, the university president disagreed, replying that “given the reality of the military, it is better to have officers who have the benefit of a Jesuit education.”
Berrigan wrote back: “I love your logic. It seems to me that, given the reality of abortion, Loyola should sponsor an institute for abortionists, and given the reality of capital punishment, you should sponsor an institute for executioners.”
Equally searing was the Berrigan indictment of Jesuits as “masters of invention. They come out of the culture, they know how to take its pulse, try its winds and trim their sails. We’re not running the Little Brothers of Jesus. We’re not running the Catholic Worker. We’re running
He could have added the Pentagon, now that President Obama’s chief national security advisor is retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a
Presuming he read a recent issue of NCR, what must Daniel Berrigan have thought about a
I first met Berrigan in 1966. He came to
I last saw Dan a few years ago when he officiated at the wedding of Arthur Laffin and Colleen McCarthy, two pacifists who help run the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington. It was a festive event, with Dan at his priestly best and the wedding guests feeling blessed to enjoy the company of a rare keeper of the Word.
Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies in several
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs