The funeral for Father Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit poet and peace activist, was held at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan last week, where he was praised as a hero, a holy man, even a saint, by speakers and mourners.
Berrigan was the rogue priest who, along with his brother Philip, became a symbol of the anti-Vietnam War and Catholic peace movement. He later protested nuclear weapons, the Iraq War and the detention of “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay.
He spent years in federal prison for his actions, which included damaging nuclear warheads and lighting draft cards on fire with homemade napalm.
He clashed with the church — and there was a certain irony in this radical peace activist, who was a member of the militant Jesuit order, being eulogized in a Jesuit church that also plays host to military regimental ceremonies.
But such are the contradictions inherent in eulogizing an activist, controversial in life but praised after his or her work is done.
Making of an activist
Pete Swanson said he had been Berrigan’s student years ago.
As a newly ordained priest teaching at Brooklyn Preparatory School during the 1950s, Berrigan was “electric even then,” Swanson, 77, says. “He had an aura about him. He was on a different plane.”
But the teacher and pupil soon moved in different directions.
Berrigan left the school and moved on to activist work. Swanson ended up getting drafted in 1960, mistakenly, he says. He has been afflicted with Retinitis pigmentosa since birth, he says, a degenerative disorder of the eyes that eventually results in severe vision impairment. But the doctor refused to grant a medical deferment. Even in basic training, he says he was night-blind.
“Father Berrigan was against the war, I got caught up in it by mistake,” Swanson says. While Berrigan was dodging the FBI and protesting, Swanson says he had friends “getting blown up” in Vietnam.
Asking questions that are easy to ignore
Swanson’s feelings are conflicted, even paradoxical. Nuclear disarmament is very important to him, he says. But it was activists like Berrigan who pushed disarmament to a political reality.
“In hindsight, Berrigan did what he had to do.”
Swanson’s reaction to Berrigan is indicative of the way activists are treated in their own time. Some of Berrigan’s tactics might still be controversial, but his vision seems less so today.
In a note to the Xavier community after Berrigan's death, Xavier's high school president Jack Raslowsky wrote of what some have said is the strength of a Jesuit education: being made to feel "uncomfortable."
"Dan Berrigan was uncomfortable, and he made others uncomfortable. He was a consistent, prophetic witness for peace and often asked questions that were easier for most to ignore."
Will we feel the same about those who continue Berrigan's legacy in 50 years? The climate change partisans who chain themselves to each other in oil company lobbies. The Occupiers at Zuccotti Park (who Berrigan visited, in fact, at the end of his life). The Black Lives Matter protesters who were once joined by throngs of supporters, but now often continue their protests and actions alone.
Berrigan’s legacy urges us to minister to the helpless and downtrodden, to those in the jails, the war zones, the sick, the homeless, the poor. And to minister to everyone else by pushing relentlessly for a better world.
If anything, Berrigan would likely suggest that we do not protest enough — that insufficient questions are raised about drones and endless states of low-level, far-away warfare.
The questions might annoy, or disrupt, but someday we’ll say they were good.
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