Daniel Berrigan—Jesuit priest, peace activist, poet, author, and inspiration to countless people—died on Saturday. He was 94 years old.
When America magazine asked a then-88-year-old Berrigan if he had any regrets over the course of his long life, he replied, "I could have done sooner the things I did, like Catonsville."
In 1968, Berrigan and eight other Catholic activists, including his brother Philip, a group subsequently known as the Catonsville Nine, took hundreds of draft files and burned them outside a Selective Service office with homemade napalm.
Of the action, Berrigan stated, "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."
According to a historian, it was "the single most powerful anti-war act in American history." Rather than beginning in 1970 his prison time for burning those draft files, Berrigan became "a fugitive from injustice," spending four months—much to the frustration of J. Edgar Hoover—evading FBI agents.
And the Catonsville action was far from his only act of civil disobedience, as decade after decade he continued to work for justice, leading to numerous arrests and jail time.
Berrigan and "other peace activists," as America noted, " hammered on nuclear warhead nose cones at the General Electric nuclear missile facility, a symbolic action reminiscent of Isaiah’s phrase: 'beating swords to plowshares.'"
And along with his late brother Phillip, journalist Deena Guzder wrote of some of the activism that spanned his life, Dan Berrigan "publicly opposed aid to alleged anti-Communist forces in Southeast Asia, the use of American forces in Grenada, the installation of Pershing missiles in West Germany, aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, intervention in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, the Cold War, and the Gulf War. " In 1968 he went with Howard Zinn to North Vietnam to accompany home three American prisoners of war. He lent support to Occupy Wall Street as well.
Ken Butigan, director of Pace e Bene, described his encounter decades ago with Berrigan,writing: "For a couple of hours, he shared with me his vision, which essentially boiled down to this: 'We live in a culture of death — and it is up to us to resist it.'"
Speaking at an event in 2012 honoring her uncle, Frida Berrigan, said, "I stand here on behalf of my family—but really on behalf of all these people who celebrate you Dan—far too many to be in this room. And on behalf of all of them, I say: thank you for leading, thank you for listening, thank you for loving."
Frida and other members of the Berrigan family released a statement following his death, which reads, in part:
We reflect back on his long life and we are in awe of the depth and breadth of his commitment to peace and justice—from the Palestinians’ struggle for land and recognition and justice; to the gay community’s fight for health care, equal rights and humanity; to the fractured and polluted earth that is crying out for nuclear disarmament; to a deep commitment to the imprisoned, the poor, the homeless, the ill and infirm.
We are aware that no one person can pick up this heavy burden, but that there is enough work for each and every one of us. We can all move forward Dan Berrigan’s work for humanity. Dan told an interviewer: “Peacemaking is tough, unfinished, blood-ridden. Everything is worse now than when I started, but I’m at peace. We walk our hope and that’s the only way of keeping it going. We’ve got faith, we’ve got one another, we’ve got religious discipline..." We do have it, all of it, thanks to Dan.
Dan was at peace. He was ready to relinquish his body. His spirit is free, it is alive in the world and it is waiting for you.
To watch Berrigan discuss some of this life, watch his interview with Democracy Now!recorded when he was 85.
To watch the late Howard Zinn honor Berrigan on the occasion of his 85th birthday, see the video below from LEPOCO Peace Center: