The divisive life of a pacifist priest



Although I met him only once, Fr Dan Berrigan SJ was a significant figure in my boyhood and early Jesuit years.

Daniel BerriganA New Yorker active in protest movements over his life time, Berrigan anticipated, in a more Augustinian form, the movement across boundaries to vulnerable people we now associate with Pope Francis.

Berrigan wrote beautifully and was at once attractive and challenging in his way of life. As a schoolboy I had followed with dismay the siege and surrender of the French troops at Dien Bien Phu. I saw it as a defeat for Christendom, a view confirmed by the exodus of Vietnamese Catholics from the north of the country. 

The Russian invasion of Hungary followed two years later. So it was natural to see this as the falling of dominoes, to fear for the future of South Vietnam and to welcome the US and Australian intervention there. We were the good guys, deserving the support of our citizens and the Catholic Church.

My first hint at the ethical corruption that war brings to all touched by it came with the US sanctioned assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and its aftermath.

It was then that I first heard of the young US Jesuit priest and poet who had been jailed for protesting against the US involvement in Vietnam. My colleague, Peter Steele, had written to him in prison and received a warm reply. Berrigan had made it his business to expose the ethical corruption that afflicts societies that wage war and the human cost to the people whom war supposedly helps.

In a United States that saw itself having a providential mission to right wrongs, and believed that the end of making peace justifies all means, the symbolic actions taken by Berrigan and others, such as illegally entering military facilities, pouring blood on draft cards and assaulting nuclear weapons by tapping them on the nose with a little hammer, were bitterly divisive.

They were also followed by criminal charges and jail sentences. Berrigan and others who went to North Vietnam were seen by many as traitors.


"I found a way of addressing the question Berrigan posed through my association with the victims of the Indochinese war and its aftermath in refugee camps and Australia."


By many United States Jesuits including military chaplains, Berrigan was seen as a divisive figure. I also found his actions challenging. I was still to move from my concentration on the goals of military action to focus on what happens to people who make war and have it made on them. Berrigan and others helped me to see the dishonesty in the conduct of the Vietnam war, the cost to Vietnamese civilians and to soldiers on both sides, and the corruption of ethical sensitivity in both societies.

At a personal level I also found his actions both attractive and challenging. He displayed great integrity in his readiness to suffer imprisonment and abuse for his symbolic protests against the war that expressed his rejection on ethical and Christian grounds of the war. I found attractive his peaceful protest and his acceptance of prison as acts of solidarity with the victims of war.

He also provoked me to ask what and who I cared enough for to be ready to act and suffer as he did. This question broadened my focus from the internal life of the church to the world beyond it. Perhaps ironically I found a way of addressing the question Berrigan posed through my association with the victims of the Indochinese war and its aftermath in refugee camps and Australia.

Berrigan continued this mission afterwards, turning his attention to nuclear weapons and to the links between corporations and defence projects. His protest against a society built around a large military budget and the readiness to launch military campaigns in distant nations with reckless disregard for the people affected by war and the longer term consequences of its actions seems all the more pertinent today. He was always alive, and believed in the seamless robe of life, engaging in campaigns to preserve life, whether threatened by war, capital punishment or abortion.

I met Dan Berrigan some years ago when he made a short trip to Australia. He visited a fellow New York novice, Fr Joe Johnston, who had come to Australia after many years in the Philippines. He now ran theology seminars for a very intelligent group of young people. We were interested to hear how the meeting went — Joe's support for the Vietnam war and his hostility to illegal protest had not changed over the years. Nor had his affection for Dan. He said Dan was crazed, but a real good guy.

In the event Joe was delighted to be visited, all differences left aside. This happy result was emblematic of Daniel Berrigan's lifetime insistence that people mattered more than ideologies.

Daniel Joseph Berrigan SJ (9 May 1921–30 April 2016), was an American Jesuit priest, anti-war activist, and poet. He was a member of the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. In 1980, he founded the Plowshares Movement anti-nuclear protest group.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Daniel Berrigan, Vietnam War



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Existing comments

Daniel Berrigan would have to have weighed up very carefully all aspects of every situation in regard to his many protests against war and nuclear weapons. As a Catholic priest and educator, who was a role model for young people, he would need to be extra-cautious. He would know that he would be called upon to answer for these actions before a higher authority after he died. I would imagine that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Bayers Naude and many other clergy would have had to go through a similar process regarding their acts of civil disobedience against their respective governments. It is impossible, I think, to 'judge' Berrigan and his actions. That is now up to the Almighty. The only 'test' we have is time. Time usually shows what actions are beneficial or not to humanity as a whole.
Edward Fido | 03 May 2016

I met him once, too! RIP.
Alison | 04 May 2016

Thanks for a great tribute to a great man Andy. I had the delightful experience of hearing Dan B & Peter Steele sharing poetry one memorable afternoon.
M. Confoy | 04 May 2016

"This happy result was emblematic of Daniel Berrigan's lifetime insistence that people mattered more than ideologies". A good obit and one of a number in the media over the last few days. For conservatives he was also anti abortion in the USA. Whether we agreed with him or not, sadly a good man has gone. We pray for him.
Michael Head | 04 May 2016

All people who take positions of public disobedience are considered to be divisive by more conservative elements in society. The great thing about Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Philip, is that their actions caused people who were ignorant about the history of Indochina, to do some study and adopt a more humane and caring position. This would obviously have confronted those who were chaplains in the military. I also thought that the naughty North Vietnamese were unjustly invading the state of South Vietnam until a friend suggested I read some history about Vietnam. When I did, I realised that South Vietnam was only founded by the US and its brutal and corrupt leaders had very little support from the majority of Vietnamese who lived in areas under their control. Understanding this fact of history and realising the way the US Military Industrial Complex was behaving on the world scene, I joined the peace movement. I never met Daniel Berrigan, but I am very grateful for people like them because they play an important role in making the world a fairer and more peaceful place. Daniel Berrigan RIP.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 May 2016

I attended and enjoyed Fr Joe Johnston Seminar and he undoubtedly applauded Fr Berrigan's anti abortion stands-Fr Dan, concerned not merely for war in Vietnam but for massive USA abortocausts of antepartum prisoners. He was also known for public stands against disregard of elderly in their need of care.-all life was important not just politically correct! He was given a nice obit in Vatican L'Osservatore Romano
Father John George | 04 May 2016

Thank you. Beautiful piece about a very spiritual man.
Eugene | 04 May 2016

Even in faraway Ireland, we heard of the Berrigan brothers and loved their stand - they were the Catholic (and hence our) reaction to Vietnam and other things. I never met him or heard him speak. He brought credit to the Catholic church and to his order. I searched the Fairfax sites in vain for any mention of his death. Contrast with that singer last week - I think I'm getting old.
Frank | 04 May 2016

During question-time at a reading of his poetry that I attended at Boston College, Daniel was challenged by one attendee who asked him how long he was going to continue the pretence of being both a Catholic priest and a Jesuit. Unfazed he replied (I quote from memory), ‘I take it from your question that you consider me to have serious disqualifications of behaviour. May I entertain the hope that, when you pray for people under the rubric of sinner, I will be the first whom you include.’ A true prophet, he knew (in Blessed Robert Southwell’s words) that the following of Christ is a rough profession.
Br Brian Grenier | 04 May 2016

The word for Dan Berrigan that comes to my mind is 'prophet', a person who sees more clearly and further than most of us, is prepared to speak truth to power and by so doing helps us to be deeper. Berrigan inspired many in different ways. I recall Bob Santamaria condemning Fr Mark Raper SJ as an Australian Berrigan in News Weekly because in 1975 he spoke up for the right of the East Timorese to self-determination, thereby challenging Australia's political establishment of the day. Mark was right.
Pat Walsh | 04 May 2016

I'm sure Daniel Berrigan would be proud of the refugee advocates in the LOVE MAKES A WAY movement, and in those involved in the CHURCH SANCTUARY movement for asylum seekers. I think he would be aghast that Australia has sunk so morally low as to intern people on off-shore 'hell holes', as both our Coalition and Labor politicians are hell bent on doing. Instead of spending billions on submarines, I think he would much prefer us to be making wind turbines and solar panels, and trying to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. We urgently need more modern day prophets in the mould of Daniel Berrigan. I do find prophets in the Australian Greens, and some, but not near enough, in our Christian churches.
Grant Allen | 04 May 2016

Neat piece, Andy. And an inspiring constructive example of change of heart and views. Cultural archeology is so fraught. It is almost impossible to understand one age through the prism of another. I too had an ideological journey like yours, Andrew. The culture in which we exist has so much influence on our ideas that it is frightening. The paid and owned media is much more sophisticated than they were in Dan's days. Vietnam was our challenge today it is the plight of refugees and climate change. Our words and writing achieve little. Would that I had the balls to be as creatively civilly disobedient as Dan Berrigan.
Michael D. Breen | 04 May 2016

In “A Dark Word”, Fr Daniel Berrigan wrote: “The poem called death Is unwritten yet. Some day will show The violent last line, The shadow rise, A bird of omen Snatch me for its ghost. And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s Close like two eyes, this book.”
Barry Breen | 04 May 2016

A fine and fitting tribute to a saintly, heroic person. Like many others, I suspect, my learning curve parallels Andrew Hamilton's - concern about the "gallant" French at Dien Bien Phu finally jolted into sense as the truth of the war that then escalated became transparent. Why was the obvious so hard for people to see? Sad. What did they think the Berrigan brothers and comrades were on about. The mood of Australia was an ugly one and parish churches were often Sunday right-wing fortresses. The story that had Cardinal Spellman of New York blessing the war weapons as they left for Vietnam may have been apocryphal, but not so the role of senior clerics and that of Bob Santamaria's deadening hand - as Pat Walsh recalls. Parishioners of my generation for whom the Berrigans were an inspiration suffered deliberate exclusion, contempt and other social and personal punishments for their beliefs. I think the role of prophet fits Daniel Berrigan very aptly.
Brian Davies | 04 May 2016

Vietnam has suffered under the Communists who acted with ruthless cruelty during the war. I urge everyone to speak to Vietnamese Australians who arrived here as refugees.
james grover | 04 May 2016

If it is possible to blush in Heaven I think Daniel Berrigan would now be blushing at the more fulsome tributes being lavished upon him which I think he would regard unnecessary hagiographies. Why? Because, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Bayers Naude and Trevor Huddleston, all also immensely laudable, he would see himself as a humble follower in the footsteps of Christ.
Edward Fido | 05 May 2016

Thanks for this tribute to a great person. There have also been similar tributes on 'Democracy Now' and in the National Catholic Reporter magazine. I first became aware of Fr. Dan Berrigan with his articles in the National Catholic Reporter in the 1960's when my parents subscribed to this journal. People such as Fr. Dan and the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, whose reporting of the Vietnamese war in the newspaper 'Nation Review' provided the truth of the genocide committed on the Vietnamese people by the foreign armies of America and Australia. A good understanding of this genocide can be gained by visiting the American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the My Lai Massacre museum in My Lai. Another place to visit is a craft factory near Ha Noi where the employees have disabilities caused by the chemical warfare of the American and Australian armies. The American and Australian government had no right to interfere in the Vietnamese civil war. I remember the excellent comment by Daniel Elsberg in the excellent film documentary, 'Hearts and Minds', when he reported that people in the American Pentagon Defence Department started to ask the question, 'Were we on the right side?'. Elsberg's comment was that we were the wrong side.
Mark Doyle | 05 May 2016

Thank you, Andrew Hamilton, for the article about Dan Berrigan, one of my heroes. I receive your writings in a roundabout way - Gillian Bouras sends them to me in England. Blessings. Meriel
Merie; Wilmot-Wright | 05 May 2016


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