When Prophets Die: Daniel Berrigan RIP


A brief and very personal reflection.

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest whose anti-Vietnam-War protests shaped and challenged many an American, like me, starting in the 1960s, died on Saturday in the Bronx, New York. He was 94.

As Daniel Lewis observed in his New York Times Article on April, 30th: “The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an intellectual star of the Roman Catholic ‘new left,’ articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism, and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.”

On May 17, 1968, just six weeks after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and race riots in dozens of U.S. cities, nine Catholic protesters, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered the local draft board offices in Catonsville, Maryland and seized hundreds of draft records. They carried them to a parking lot and set them on fire. It was an American Catholic prophetic turning point. A prophetic turning point in my life. 

The statement, that had been given to reporters ahead of time, read: “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.” Berrigan landed in prison. That would happen many times over the next decades.

Thank you Father Berrigan……..At the time you burned draft records in Maryland, I was an “ex-seminarian” emerging from being a politically conservative and pious, fundamentalist Roman Catholic young man. Yes I do understand fundamentalism. Your prophetic gestures alarmed me at first; and then they helped me to realize that asking questions was neither anti-Christian nor anti-American. A revelation. Perhaps I was simply a slow learner.
Over the years, I have tried to pass on to my students not just packets of information but the skills for critical thinking. That is real education — especially when students can now find all kinds of information data on the Internet.

May you rest in peace. May we continue to learn from your example.

4 thoughts on “When Prophets Die: Daniel Berrigan RIP

  1. Daniel Berrigan was living quietly in Ithaca, NY, a year or two before I came to Ithaca as a campus minister. One of my students ran into him at a grocery store near Cornell University and expressed surprise that Fr. Berrigan was out in public. And he learned that Fr Berrigan had no intention of skulking in the shadows. Even when he was being sought by police, he lived his life with dignity.

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