Living the beatitudes

Daniel Berrigan was a great witness to peace and justice, writes Fr Joe McVeigh

Daniel Berrigan

When I arrived in New York City in 1980 on study leave from my diocese in Ireland I was a lost soul in a big city. I knew a few people but I had no contacts in the Catholic Church until I met the Jesuit priest Fr Daniel Berrigan. 

That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Fr Dan and many of his dear friends including his brother Philip and Liz McAllister, William Stringfellow, Dorothee Soelle, Brendan Walsh of the Baltimore Catholic Worker, Fr Michael Doyle of Camden NJ and many others. I had often heard of Dan Berrigan when I was a student in Maynooth in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, Dan and his brothers and friends had made a name campaigning against the US involvement in Vietnam. He protested loudly and dramatically. He was arrested and put in prison many times for civil disobedience. He wrote about his experiences and wrote a play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about how he and eight other activists were arrested for burning draft cards in a place called Catonsville near Washington DC.

When I met Dan for the first time, it was during the first Provisional IRA hunger strike in November 1980 and he was anxious to hear about the Irish Republican prisoners and their families. Dan was always a loyal friend of the downtrodden throughout the world and especially here in the North of Ireland during the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes in Long Kesh near Belfast. 

He was very disturbed by the suffering of prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh jails. He travelled over to Belfast with some friends in 1981 to show his solidarity with the prisoners. This brought him hostility in some quarters but that did not deter him. He was well used to that. 

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With his profile and contacts he was able to get some publicity for the hunger strikers in the US much to the annoyance of the British representatives there. He managed to get an opinion article about the prison protest in Long Kesh in The New York Times. 

It was well-nigh impossible for anybody with any sympathy for the plight of Irish prisoners to get publicity in the USA. Having spent many years in prison himself for civil disobedience Dan empathised with prisoners everywhere.

Even though Dan was a complete pacifist and always confronted violence he did not condemn those who felt it necessary to resort to arms. He argued against it but never in an arrogant way. He told me that he could not judge people who took up arms after they had been subjected to brutal oppression. He would rather they chose a different path but he respected their decision. 

Throughout his life his main focus was the US government’s policy of building more and more nuclear weapons which as well as endangering the planet, deprived the poor and the hungry of necessary resources. I joined him in 1982 on one of the many protests he carried out at a nuclear research station in New York city. We got arrested and hauled before the court. 

After a number of appearances in court we were discharged and bound to good behaviour for a period of time. That did not stop Dan. He went on to be arrested on a number of occasions afterwards.

I kept in touch with Dan after I returned to Ireland in 1983 and I used to visit him and his brother Phil who lived in Baltimore whenever I was in the US. I was always sure of a warm welcome and an invitation to evening tea in the Jesuit community refectory and some refreshments afterwards in his small apartment. 

He was always eager to hear about the situation in the North and about the friends he had made here including Bernadette McAliskey and Fr Des Wilson. I had the privilege of hosting him on a number of visits he made to Ireland during the 1980s. 

In recent years he introduced me to another Jesuit priest John Dear who was following in his footsteps and who wanted to spend a year in Belfast. He also introduced me to a poet friend of his, Baron James Ashanti, from Harlem in New York.

Almost two years ago, I visited Dan in the Jesuit nursing home in the Bronx. He was very frail and barely able to speak. I was so glad to see him again. He thanked me for coming to see him but spoke very little on that occasion. I had heard some weeks ago that his health was failing. He was 94 years of age and his body was worn out from living a full life in the service of the poor and downtrodden of the Earth. 

Dan Berrigan has fought the good fight with courage and determination. His life was a great witness to peace and justice. Daniel Berrigan not only preached the Gospel Beatitudes, he lived them courageously and fearlessly. 

He now shares fully with all his beloved family and friends in the new life promised by the Risen Christ. I am sure he will continue to inspire women and men to oppose weapons of mass destruction and those who prepare for war.

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