When Daniel Berrigan died recently at the age of 94, obituaries throughout the world described the legendary Jesuit as a defiant pacifist, who will be remembered most for his political protests, legal trials, and time in prison. But there was also a more contemplative side—one that reveals his profound spirituality, love for the sacraments and Holy Scripture, and focus on eternal life.
The title of one of his best books, We Die Before We Live, underscores this, as do the testimonies of those inspired by Father Berrigan’s remarkable life.
My own encounter with Father Berrigan was brief but memorable. In early 2003, right after the start of the Iraq War, my local library sponsored a poetry reading by the then 81 year-old Jesuit. Although I’m not a pacifist and have defended the Church’s just war teachings (which many cited as reasons to oppose the Iraq War) I wanted to hear Father Berrigan speak, if only because of his reputation. Given the controversy then raging over Iraq, his presentation wasn’t what I expected.
Far from being angry or confrontational, Father Berrigan’s reading was instructive and gentle. He read from his award-winning poetry, interspersed with commentary about his activist-brother, Phillip (who had died the year before), his counsel to conscientious objectors, and the importance of bearing Christian witness.
When he finished, a member of the audience—perhaps fearing that Fr. Berrigan was mellowing with age—asked him why he had spent so much time on spiritual matters, and not more condemning our nation’s leaders, who had just “dragged us into an immoral war.” Father Berrigan answered, simply but powerfully, “I am a Catholic priest.”
It was the perfect response, but the questioner didn’t appreciate it. He kept badgering Father Berrigan to say more about the world situation, to issue a series of fiery political declarations, like he had in years past. But not on this occasion.
Other questioners followed suit, evidently bothered by Father’s Biblical references and recommendations of prayer. They wanted, almost demanded, their pound of flesh, but Father Berrigan wouldn’t give it to them. Watching this, I remember thinking how patient he was in answering all their contentious questions, refusing to give in to the spirit of vengeance and the palpable anger in the air. His charity, discipline, and intelligence as a Jesuit priest were on full display.
Of course, Fr. Berrigan didn’t need to say anything more. His poetry and comments had made his opposition to war abundantly clear—and his whole life bore witness to that fact— but he kept bringing the discussion back to God and the supernatural, and this is what was so striking. Some of his secular anti-war allies seemed surprised and even disenchanted that he didn’t play by their rules.
That was one of Father Berrigan’s greatest virtues: he not only challenged his critics, but also his friends. He decried conservatives who downplay racism and inequality, but just as sharply denounced liberals who sanction abortion and euthanasia. He spent many hours caring for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, but also encouraged those who were suffering to draw closer to God. He passionately protested the Vietnam War, but also signed open letters condemning human rights violations in Communist lands. He often clashed with his superiors, but when he died, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, made it a point to pay Fr. Berrigan homage.
His admirers always saw him as a prophet, and there is truth in that. War—even when many consider it just, necessary, and a last resort—has always involved the tragic loss of human life. Far too many have been inclined to celebrate it. And now that hostility to religious freedom is growing more intense, Father Berrigan’s warnings about secularism and nationalism don’t seem as radical to those affected by this alarming trend.
Still, many people could not understand why Father Berrigan felt compelled to engage in civil disobedience, and spend years in jail for his moral convictions. But in an essay on his participation in the Ploughshares movement, which engaged in illegal acts of protest to symbolize the danger of nuclear weapons, he responded:
I hate jail. I don’t do well there physically. But I cannot not go on, because I have learned we must not kill if we are Christians. I have learned that children, above all, are threatened by these weapons. I have read that Christ Our Lord underwent death rather than inflict it. And I am supposed to be a disciple…The push, the push of conscience is a terrible thing. So at some point your cowardly bones get moving, and you say, “Here it goes again,” and you do it, and you have a certain peace because you did it.
Father Berrigan always drew strength from divine revelation. In a series of remarkable books on the Old Testament prophets, he drew parallels between Biblical times and our own, comparing destructive empires, then and now, and calling upon people of faith and good will to resist them. These books fortify his many writings on Christ. As Professor Daniel Cosacchi wrote in a thoughtful article on Father Berrigan’s faith: “There is very rich theological fare in Berrigan’s writings,” and the “focus is unrelenting: it is all about Jesus. The life of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is so much a part of Berrigan’s writing that it would be impossible to mention Berrigan without mentioning Jesus.”
Because of that—and despite significant disagreements with some of his political statements and acts— many people could not help but admire him. His courage, unyielding commitment, and selfless life are a dramatic illustration of what’s possible for individual Christians, and an urgent call to take the Gospel more seriously. Father Berrigan lived what he believed, and few people can honestly say as much at the end of their lives.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.