Father Daniel Berrigan (r) and another member of the Catonsville Nine at the 1968 burning of draft files.
Growing up in suburban Baltimore in the 1970s, I had a fairly predictable group of heroes. Like most of my boyhood friends, I venerated the Orioles’ aging third baseman, Brooks Robinson, and I admired Johnny Unitas, the legendary quarterback of the Colts. I was unusual, however, in that I also revered an iconoclastic Catholic priest named Daniel Berrigan, a man who had in 1968 briefly turned my hometown—Catonsvillle, Maryland—upside down.
Berrigan’s death last week at the age of 94 has affected me—and a great many others—quite deeply. With his passing, we have have lost a singularly courageous and eloquent voice for peace and social justice. His actions in Catonsville, along with his decision to go underground afterward, transcended his religious faith and typified his enduring commitment to challenging the political, social, and cultural institutions that perpetuate oppression and inequality—including, at times, his own church.
In May of 1968, Berrigan and eight other activists seized several hundred military draft records from the Selective Service office in Catonsville and then burned what they had looted in a fire fueled by homemade napalm. As the files went up in flames, the Catonsville Nine, as they became known, made impassioned statements against the war in Vietnam and then recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The Catonsville Nine were not the only group of demonstrators to attack a draft board in the Vietnam era, but they easily were the most celebrated. (A play and film would be based on their subsequent trial.) Their notoriety resulted at least in part from the religious dimension of their witness against the havoc wrought by war and imperialism. They were all Roman Catholics, and two—Dan Berrigan and his brother Philip—were priests. The demonstrators explained that they attacked the draft records because they found it impossible to reconcile the central tenets of their religious faith with their country’s conduct of the war in Southeast Asia.
This kind of fervent dissent by Catholics would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. But the reforms of Vatican II had prompted Catholics to become more directly engaged with the social, political and cultural tumult that was roiling America society in the 1960s. Emboldened by a fresh spirit of openness, a new breed of activist priests and laypeople thrust themselves onto the front lines of myriad protest movements, including the drive to end the war in Vietnam.
My siblings and I attended a Catholic elementary school, St. Mark, located just a short walk from the draft board, and every so often one of the nuns who taught us would darkly allude to the crimes of the Catonsville Nine. I got the impression that they believed the Berrigans in particular symbolized pretty much everything that had gone wrong in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. We were told that the Berrigans had ignored their core duties as priests to become enmeshed in radical political matters that were beyond their purview. They should have been tending to the immediate religious needs of their parishioners, not burning draft records and vilifying the military.
But hearing Dan Berrigan condemned in such dire tones by my teachers served only served to stoke my curiosity about him. Here was a priest—a priest—who had flouted the law in order to follow the dictates of his conscience and then, after his conviction in federal court, had become a fugitive for several months. While underground, he had mercilessly taunted the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. He liked nothing better than prodding such stodgy figures of authority by making provocative calls to action. (To cite but one of many possible examples: addressing a group of college students in the late 1960s, he said, “If you are going to jail, you might as well do something big.”)
I couldn’t help but admire his sheer impudence. Time and again, Dan Berrigan stood up for his core spiritual beliefs without worrying if it would damage his reputation, his status within the Catholic Church, or even his personal freedom. His courage was breathtaking, as was his sincerity. With Dan Berrigan, there never was calculation, or manipulation. He always spoke and acted from his heart.
Berrigan, along with his brother Philip, was sentenced to three years in prison for the Catonsville action, but went underground. He was captured after several months in hiding and then served two years in prison.
After Catonsville, Berrigan continued a commitment to peace and social justice that spanned more than half a century, repeatedly placing himself on the front lines of protests against racial discrimination, income inequality, and war. At age 91 and in failing health, he appeared in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to speak out against Trinity Church, which was backing the criminal prosecution of several protesters who had occupied one of its empty lots. Few public figures in our time—religious or secular—matched either the breadth or the depth of his devotion to such causes.
This dedication often put the tireless Berrigan at odds with all manner of local, state, and federal legal authorities. His protest activities resulted in numerous arrests and several stints in prison. He was called a “holy outlaw,” and not without reason. Whenever the letter or spirit of secular laws or public policies conflicted with his understanding of the Christian scriptures, he held true to his religious principles – often at enormous personal cost.
I was so fascinated by Berrigan that I wrote a book on the Catonsville Nine. While I was working on it, he sent me a hand-printed copy of his poem “Words, Deeds: The Penitent Speaks.” The speaker in the poem mentions his love of words but admits that they amount to little more than the shadows of actions.
Dan Berrigan was a man of action, and he will be missed.