Jesuit priest, activist, and writer Father Daniel Berrigan died in New York City on April 30. He was 94.
Berrigan was perhaps best known for taking draft files from a U.S. Selective Service Office in Catonsville, Maryland, with eight other Catholic activists in 1968. The group, which became known as the “Catonsville Nine,” then burned the paperwork with homemade napalm to protest the Vietnam War. Berrigan was later sentenced to three years in federal prison for the act.
In recent years, Berrigan protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and joined Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. In 2001, Berrigan said he’d stop protesting “the day after I’m embalmed,” the New York Times reported.
Berrigan was named Fordham University’s Poet in Residence in 2000 and held that title until his death, the university said in a statement. Berrigan’s wake is set for Thursday and his funeral on Friday at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier on 46 W. 16th Street in New York.
Below, Tricycle Features Editor Andrew Cooper recalls shepherding Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh—who were friends and co-authored The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist-Christian Awareness—around New York City.
My parents were dubious, when I was in my 20s and 30s, about my career as a professional Buddhist. Still, they were good sports during my annual visits when I brought to their apartment on the Upper East Side the occasional roshi or bhikkhu—and even one radical-pacifist Catholic priest—in need of respite from New York City busyness.
In 1983 I accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh for six weeks as he visited a number of North American Buddhist centers and gave a series of public talks along the way. The final event on the trip’s schedule was a talk somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, at which he was to be introduced by Father Daniel Berrigan. Thich Nhat Hanh and I made the long drive down from a Zen center in upstate New York and, before going to the venue, we stayed at my folks’ place for a couple of hours. As arranged, Father Berrigan joined us there. The two peace activists had not seen each other in a long time, but it was immediately apparent the bond between them was still strong.
Based on Father Berrigan’s famous and dramatic anti-war actions, I somehow expected a correspondingly larger-than-life personality, maybe even something of a firebrand. Here, though, he was most soft-spoken, gentle, and very, very kind. Kind of like Thich Nhat Hanh. In fact, there was something twin-like about them—both of them poets, activists, intellectuals, and religious contemplatives steeped in their traditions even as they endeavored to reform them. It was as though each was the Buddhist or Catholic version of the other. They spoke not of matters large or deep; rather, they asked after each other and shared news, of a personal sort, of old friends. I suppose you could call it small talk, but there was something terribly moving about it as well. Maybe it was that very smallness that made it so.
We eventually headed out for the talk and I hailed a cab in front of the apartment building near East 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The driver grew visibly impatient as I tried to round up my drifting cargo of bodhisattvas and get them into the taxi. A car behind us honked loudly. I was about to follow them into the cab when I looked up and happened to see a large man standing about 20 feet away, looking on with a wide and delightful smile. He looked familiar, and after a moment, I realized it was the actor Peter Boyle. I gestured with my thumb back to Thich Nhat Hanh and Father Berrigan, now, finally, seated in the cab, and then, as New Yorkers do, I threw my arms up in the air and let them flop down to my thighs in the instantly recognizable gesture of “Whaddayagonnado?” Mr. Boyle nodded in understanding, and I smiled and nodded back. Later, as the talk was about to begin, I noticed him sitting in the audience, way in the back, not wishing to draw attention but only there to listen and see.
People who spend a lot of time in the public eye often get in the habit of filling up the space in the room, but that was not Father Daniel Berrigan at all. But of course he was as fearless and determined and, in his way, as dynamic as they come. He never gave up on us. He really did help us to be better people.