I recently attended the memorial service for Fr. Dan Berrigan SJ. I’d never met the man but he was an inspiration.
A familiar figure at anti-war protests he had the look of the true believer – someone who had come to terms with his mission in life and intended to prosecute it to the fullest.
His brother, Fr. Philip Berrigan SSJ, was no less committed, and yet he had the eyes of a boxer, always alert for the jab or hook that would soon be coming.
I remember an activist friend from Baltimore saying: “I always felt safer when Phil was at a protest for he was a formidable man if things got ugly. Dan was a quieter presence but equally fearless.”
Things often got ugly for the Berrigan Brothers and the militant pacifists around them. They believed that war was immoral and that those who promoted it should be called to account.
St. Francis Xavier Church was jam-packed despite a deluge of rain. Many familiar activist faces were sprinkled throughout the congregation.
Father Dan had obviously touched everyone attending the service. The heartfelt grief was curried by a feeling that if things had not gotten worse, they had hardly improved much either.
Dan Berrigan himself was no pie in the sky optimist; he was of the opinion that a dogged evil still held sway in worldly affairs – and yet, if good people stood up and did the right thing, that evil could be held at bay, if not defeated.
Standing amidst the crowd of mourners at the back of the church, I idly wondered what this pacifist priest had thought of the upcoming presidential contenders – one a know-nothing, aggressive nationalist, the other a hawk whenever the chips are down, as they so often are in the US.
One of the speakers stated that Dan would not wish to be placed upon a pedestal – for that merely allows the rest of us to shirk our social, moral, and political responsibilities.
Dan Berrigan believed in building and fostering community through individual testament, and his contrarian spirit suffused the ornate church on that wet Friday morning.
The service pulsed with commitment as speaker after speaker recalled the Berrigans and their shock tactics that included pouring blood on draft records or burning them with homemade napalm.
They and their comrades were no turn-your-cheek Christians but, for the most part, outraged Irish-American Catholics who took hammers to warships and missiles, and accused US presidents of war crimes.
They went to the wall for their beliefs and as Dan wrote for the Catonsville Nine Statement in 1968 – “The suppression of truth stops here. This war stops here!”
The question posed to us at the service was the unlikely, “Are we prepared to wake from our day-to-day slumbers and confront the evils of poverty and militarism in these United States of Amnesia?”
The Berrigan Brothers were not popular with many Irish-Americans for they repeatedly questioned US foreign policy. But time has proved them right about Vietnam, Iraq and the many other wars of choice.
And yet they were grudgingly respected for they didn’t gloat, much less rest - there was always a battle to be fought - if not against militarism, then against the degradations of poverty in this land of plenty.
Dan Berrigan practiced what he preached. Midway through the service the children present were asked to gather around a well-used cardboard box.
It contained Father Dan’s prize possessions: some well-worn books, photos, a banner or two, a worn shirt and a Ben & Jerry wool hat that he wore frequently. Each child brought a piece of the material side of this deeply spiritual, man up to the altar.
Despite all his principles and commitment, Dan Berrigan was deeply human, as a relative recounted. Inevitably at family gatherings one of the brothers would say “We’ve been good long enough;” whereupon a bottle of whiskey would be produced and the joking and laughter would continue late into the night.
Father Dan’s message remains – look around you and witness the defects in society, then go beyond yourself and don’t rest until you make the situation better.
Irish-America should be proud of those Berrigan boys. They called it as they saw it and made a difference.