How Friends and Family Remember Daniel Berrigan
Like countless others, including all those whose stories follow, Dan Berrigan had a profound impact on my life. I grew up in a conservative Catholic family and community, and was on the fast track to a very different life as a defender of the status quo. During a college class on nonviolence that I took while interning in the world of private intelligence, I read Dan’s beautiful letter to Ernesto Cardenal — a priest who supported the Sandinista’s armed resistance in Nicaragua. I didn’t yet know who the author was or the bold way that he had lived out his beliefs, but I couldn’t deny the power of his words, or how faithful they were to the Gospels. It was one of the first arguments for nonviolence, grounded in faith, that broke through my shell and challenged my support for war to the core. By the end of that fateful course, I decided to give my life to working for peace, not knowing what shape or form it would take.
Years later, by some lucky chance of fate, I found myself living with Dan and the Jesuit community that he was a part of in New York. While I was thrilled by the opportunity, I was at first intimidated and in awe of the man sitting across the dinner table from me. But those feelings quickly melted from his warmth and wonderful sense of humor. He suggested we get a bite to eat and take a walk through Central Park the following weekend, which became a cherished weekly routine. The conversations we had — about the sorry state of the world, life, faith and our families — had no bounds, and were some of the most meaningful moments of my life.
What impressed me most about Dan was his kindness, his support for the journey I was on, his unwavering reliance on God, and how even at that late stage in life he continued his lifelong mission for peace, never losing his sharp edge. This often came out in memorable one-liners. When I broke the hard news, for instance, that the bishop in my hometown would not let Dan speak with me at a church event, he lightheartedly quipped, “If that wouldn’t have happened, I would have worried that I had sold out.”
While the media have published many thorough obituaries on Dan since he died last weekend, most stuck to a straightforward recounting of the well-documented highlights of his remarkable life. In the interest of giving at least a small glimpse of this inspiring human being — when the cameras weren’t on — we have collected memories and anecdotes that speak to Dan’s character, conviction and wit, from some of the family and friends who knew him best.
“The world is full of evil geniuses. But there are some good ones too. When I used to see my dear friend Dan, I would kiss his check and ask him how he was doing. He’d laugh like my existence was a joy worth a reaction. His most common response to asking how he was doing was one of my favorite gems: ‘Better for the sight of you,’ he’d say. In one brief phrase he offered such a precise and precious idea – I make the world around me better. In just his greeting, I was already healing, I was already more powerful. Genius. Good genius.
– Luke Nephew is a co-founder of The Peace Poets, a trainer with The Wildfire Project and an artist for Liberation.
“I met Dan Berrigan in 1995 at a Pentagon protest. He asked me to walk him to the bathroom. We went into the Pentagon and used the facilities. As we stood there, Dan said “In the 1940s, some suggested they should turn this place into a hospital after the war.” A few seconds later, he added, “In a way they did. It is the largest insane asylum in the world.”
– Jeremy Scahill, a founding editor of The Intercept. He is an investigative reporter, war correspondent, and author of “Dirty Wars” and “Blackwater.”
One special memory I have is from 1972 when I was 13 and opened the door of the Danbury State Prison to free my uncle Dan after he had completed his prison sentence from Catonsville. As the door opened, we were mobbed by friends and reporters, and I remember feeling overwhelmed. I was always in awe of how Dan would keep calm and stoic with the media frenzy that tended to follow him. We ended the night having dinner, and sleeping in wicker ‘cat beds’ at Leonard Bernstein’s house in New York City.
Growing up, it was always a lot of anticipation and excitement when my uncles would come to visit Syracuse. It’s hard to grasp the depth and intensity of the brother’s lives, because growing up it was the norm. It was normal for me to spend weekends visiting my uncle in jail, having many people in and out of the house, to have reporters and police calling the house and sitting outside the house trying to get information. My fondest memories of my uncle include sitting around the living room with a couple of drinks, joking and telling the stories of their childhood days. He and his brothers would sit around for hours. He was an uncle who always showed up and was around for many big moments in my life.
– Philip Daniel Berrigan, nephew
“I first met Father Berrigan in the hall of Lincoln Center at Fordham. He was teaching a class called ‘Poems by Poets in Torment’ that semester and I was determined to get a seat. Fordham did not allow freshmen to take classes at different campuses, so I was unable to register for the class. A senior who was registered for the class suggested I get a physical add/drop slip, see if Dan would sign it, and then turn it into the dean. The school might enter it into the system and once it was in they’d be unable to change it from their end.
So after the first day of class, I approached Dan in the hall and explained the situation. I wanted to be upfront, so I explained everything to him as clearly as I could. He stared at the slip for a few moments and then looked at me and said, ‘So, we’ll be breaking the rules?’ I replied, ‘Yes…’ He took out a pen, and while scribbling his initials on the slip, said, ‘Good! I hope it will be the first of many times.’ He loved to make mischief, and I will forever love him for it.
– Patrick Stanley lives in Athens, Georgia with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He spends his time repairing books and bicycles.
“A few months after I had been with Witness For Peace in northern Nicaragua, I mentioned the experience to Dan and he responded, ‘Why don’t we go down there again?’ He made the connection with our mutual friend, Gene Palumbo, a Catholic Worker living and working as a journalist in El Salvador, and in June of 1983 we were off. The trip prompted Dan’s book ‘The Steadfastness of the Saints.’ For me it sealed my decision to spend some time in Central America.
Dan’s intellect, humor and groundedness were always inspirations for me. But where our spiritual paths had a special affinity was in the value he placed on art. He voiced his concerns movingly in poetry; I was more interested in the formal issues of order and chaos in painting and sculpture. Dan’s apartment in New York was filled with pictures and sculptures. Most were figurative and peace-related; a few of mine found a place there, but I doubted that Dan would have much to say about my major interest in metal sculpture with no narrative content.
In the mid-90s, while back from Guatemala for a few weeks, I was visiting Dan, and he suddenly suggested that we tape a conversation about my sculpture. I had some images from a calendar printed that year by the Jesuit university in Guatemala. A sculpture for each month was the focus, but like any good conversation, the focus was a catalyst for musings about poetry, art and social change. Dan’s comments were as clear and impassioned as any I had heard from artists.
He entered my world, as he did so many others, with interest, curiosity, wit and intelligence. At the close of our conversation Dan commented, ‘I don’t know, I can’t give thanks loud enough.’ That mirrors perfectly my own feelings, and makes his parting a bit more bearable.
– Dennis Leder, S.J. is a Jesuit priest and artist, who lives in Guatemala.
“We knew Father Dan for the last 10 years of his life, and he was one of our favorite people: warm, engaging and very funny. We had him over to our New York apartment many times for an evening of food, drink and great conversation. He particularly enjoyed coming in a blue windbreaker with the words ‘Weapons Inspector’ emblazoned on the back (but crossed out in black marker). The topics of conversation ranged widely, including our recent theater projects. One of our favorite quotes came as we were discussing the state of the world and the wars raging during the second term of the second President Bush. He summed it all up when he said, shaking his head in dismay, ‘If you think you’ve reached bottom, look down.’”
– Mark E. Lang and Alison J. Murphy are a New York-based actor couple. Their current project is a biographical play about the actor couple Lunt and Fontanne.
It was in 1999 that I first met Dan, and began a friendship that will remain one of the most important of my life. Dan had led a retreat that I attended, and when he needed a ride to the train station after the retreat ended, I jumped at the opportunity to spend an hour in the car with this person who had become a mythic figure, a hero in my life. I’m fairly certain that I spoke at breakneck speed for the first 45 minutes of the ride — me going through my list of questions and Dan patiently listening. Then finally and mercifully, he stopped me. With that mischievous smile and twinkle in his eye that I would be fortunate to see so many times over the coming years, Dan said that he had one answer to every question I had asked.
The answer, Dan said, to all of your questions, is one word: community. He explained that it was both ridiculous and futile to try and answer any of these questions alone. That only in community could we not only discern better the question, but then live the answers.
Dan was known to occasionally make up words sometimes. With the gift of his words, his wit, his friendship, and his example of living the answers, I wish I had the ability to create a word to encompass what this priest, and poet, and prophet meant and continues to mean to me. I feel like an anchor, a touchstone, is now gone. And yet, what an incredible thing to have shared some time on this earth with Dan Berrigan. Of all the times to live, and people to live with — I can’t think of any better. And now. What an incredible responsibility we all have. A gift really. To carry Dan’s spirit, and his work forth in community. Dan Berrigan. Rest in the peace you fought so hard for.”
– Matt Daloisio is a member of Witness Against Torture and the New York Catholic Worker. He is also on the board of the War Resisters League.
“In 2007, while I was on a 3,300-mile walk across the United States for genocide awareness (the Journey for Humanity), I recall talking on the phone with friends from Kairos, the peace community Dan helped found. Having discussed the media outreach work we were doing with mixed results, Bud Courtney reminded me that Dan taught us to ‘do good for the sake of good itself,’ so it’s sometimes important not to fixate our minds on ‘results’ or ‘success’ per se. That’s what I needed then, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Years later, at a Kairos meeting with Dan, I learned about a certain medical doctor who treated him for a small cyst in a New York hospital. It turned out that this doctor wanted to thank Dan because his was one of the draft cards burned in Catonsville, Maryland. ‘That action spared my life,’ he said, ‘and I used it to get a medical degree. Now I’m here to take care of you, Fr. Dan.’ Had Dan and the rest of the Catonsville Nine been seeking proof of results, they may not have simply acted in protest of that war and its draft. And yet, by the witness of Dan’s long and beautiful life, the truth is affirmed that results can come in the most unpredictable of ways — if only we do good for the sake of good itself in the present moment.”
– Ed Majian, president and founder of Sartonk, a student of Zen and philosophy, and a magician with an emphasis on the spirit of social justice.
Dan Berrigan will always be associated with his daring and courageous public resistance to war: Catonsville, going underground and eluding the FBI, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and hammering on nuclear weapons. But I remember him most as a brother Jesuit who patiently listened to my questions, fears and hopes. For the quality of his presence. For his generosity in responding to letters. For his deference to the experience and wisdom of other people in the room. And for his often small and subtle but always poetic and prophetic challenges to our common ways of thinking and acting.
One night at the dinner table, people were taking turns complaining about this-or-that policy of the U.S. government. Dan simply listened and, after it went on for a while, gently intervened. He said, ‘Sure, we can complain about the state all night, but what about our own church? Where do we stand?’ Silence. He didn’t need to say much to catch the attention and conscience of others in the room. He had a gift for inviting others into the heart of the matter.
Dan didn’t want people to follow him. He wanted people to follow the Gospel. He repeatedly encouraged me, ‘Stay focused on the Gospel and let the rest take care of itself.’ He wrote to our young resistance community in Chicago: ‘The formula has been deceptively simple; open the Bible together as a discipline of holy literacy, be attentive to the spirit of the words, see where they lead.’
Dan has challenged and inspired so many young Jesuits who are involved in the peace and ecological movements, anti-racism work, and the accompaniment of migrants. The work continues. Dan paved the way for us and helped us to imagine that protest and resistance and even civil disobedience are not only possible for Jesuits but essential to our vocation as human beings and as followers of the crucified and risen Christ.
– Luke Hansen, S.J., a former associate editor of the Jesuit journal America, is a student at the Jesuit School of Theology, a graduate school of Santa Clara University, in Berkeley, California.
I believe it was 1968 that Philadelphia Quakers’ largest gathering, the Yearly Meeting, invited Daniel Berrigan to be the keynote speaker. The weighty Friend Lyle Tatum was chosen to introduce him. In Lyle’s introduction he said that, several centuries ago, Quakers Ann Austin and Mary Fisher had walked from Northwest England to Rome to try, as Lyle said, “to convert the Pope to Christianity.” At that, Dan laughed as heartily as the rest of us. When he stepped to the microphone to speak, his first words were, “I hope you’ll keep trying.” For me, Daniel Berrigan was a model of how to focus on a point of passionate conviction and at the same time keep the broad perspective that supports a sense of humor.
– George Lakey is a columnist with Waging Nonviolence and co-founder of the Earth Quaker Action Group.
“It was the first day of a class called ‘Revelation: The Nightmare of God.’ Father Dan explained the mark of the beast. The Roman empire used to tattoo DC on people, which stood for Divine Caesar. It meant that you were recognizing Caesar as holy and you were declaring that you would worship the empire. At the end of class, he said ‘Alright, for our next class, don’t show up here.’ The class murmurs a general huh? ‘We’ll meet at Bryant Park and 42nd Street. From there we will march to the U.S. Military Recruiting Station because that is where they put the mark of Caesar on people today.’ My classmates and I looked at each other with eyebrows raised.
Two days later, our class marched through the busy chaos of 42nd Street. We walked slowly and in silence, carrying cardboard coffins. The pictures some of the people carried showed people shredded by bombs and women wailing at the sky. When we arrived, our teacher and about 12 others locked arms and stood in front of the door of the recruiting station. Inside, the military men looked confused and tried to open the door, but the group refused to move. Class had turned into a march, and it was now turning into direct action. Our teacher was teaching by example. Within 10 minutes the little triangle in the middle of Times Square was covered with NYPD, who were ordering the protesters to leave. Instead of obeying the police orders, they were singing.
My classmates and I watched in awe as they made a final order for them to leave and their only response was a beautiful rebellious version of ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Somewhere deep in my heart I wanted so bad to believe. Minutes later, our teacher and his fellow peacemakers were being tossed in the back of the paddy wagon. The salty water of profound sadness in his eyes, our teacher gave us a solemn nod as if to say, ‘This is the bare minimum of what is necessary.’ The truth appeared stark and brutal. Our family is murdering our family and the rest of this city is rushing off to work — too exhausted to notice or too complicit to dare acknowledge these wars.
This is a funeral procession. It is not just symbolic when there were people being murdered by war yesterday and today. These people getting arrested are refusing to let that happen without an act of resistance. The paddy wagon shut its doors. The police ordered the crowd to disperse. The blue and red lights flashed across the scene and our teacher was driven deeper into the belly of the beast. Class dismissed. Education commenced.”
– Luke Nephew is a co-founder of The Peace Poets, a trainer with The Wildfire Project and an artist for Liberation.
“In 2004, I asked Dan if I could interview him for the New York Catholic Worker paper and he declined. But we struck up a correspondence anyway. My son had entered the military in May of that year and I was despondent. My son was at Fort Benning, Georgia where my brother had trained nearly 40 years prior, and Granny had visited him there. My brother was sent to Vietnam.
Dan helped bring me back into my Catholic faith through his gentle love and support. He was still grieving his brother Phil’s death two years prior and so we shared our grief through letters, not really knowing each other personally. I met him in person (other than seeing him when I was a child) in 2006, at his 85th birthday celebration. The moment he saw my face he turned away. He loved [my grandmother] Dorothy so much. We will miss him sorely just as we miss Dorothy. But we still have each other and the Eucharist, as Dan has said. Beloved community.”
– Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, divides her time between family in Vermont and volunteering at Maryhouse Catholic Worker.
“I was fortunate enough to have made a visit to Dan on April 22, Earth Day, and only a couple days before he became gravely ill. I arrived just as Dan was coming from chapel and midday mass. I joined him in the dining room for lunch. He was especially expressive that day, asking questions and commenting on various things. He pointed out the beauty of the planters in the solarium and made sure I saw them. When I offered him his coffee cup, he raised it to me and so we toasted. After a bit more back and forth, Margaret wheeled him to his room where he admired the bright, pink daisy I had put in his room. We chatted a bit longer and then I began to sense he was running out of steam. I asked if I could do anything for him before I left. He asked that I lower his blinds. I did that, then kissed him goodbye. I took his hand and he gave me a little reassuring squeeze. I said ‘peace’ to him and he replied ‘peace.’”
– Mary Berrigan, niece
“In 1981 I traveled from California to the East Coast to visit a number of foreign policy think tanks as part of my research for a book project on the consequences of the nuclear arms race. No one I spoke with could envision a world free of atomic weapons. At most, they thought we might be able to cut back on nuclear weapons by dramatically increasing conventional ones. Each appointment left me more and more depressed, and finally, when I arrived in New York, I suddenly thought to call Dan. I was in need of some pastoral counseling on the matter of nuclear weapons, and who better to see? We had never met, but he graciously welcomed me to his quarters.
For several hours, he shared with me his vision, which essentially boiled down to this: ‘We live in a culture of death — and it is up to us to resist it.’ There was a lifetime of experience behind these words and I felt the weight of them. Then, as we were coming to the end of our time, I said, ‘Dan, I’m going back to the West Coast. What can I do for you?’ He then delivered a point-blank missive: ‘Don’t do anything for me. Find some people you can pray with and march with.’ This handful of syllables hit their mark all those years ago, and I have done my best to practice them. Following his plain and provocative order, I did as he asked — and my life took an unexpected detour onto a road of nonviolent transformation that I am still, in fits and starts, traveling. Dan, I am grateful for your mighty journey — and the one it inspired in me and countless others.”
– Ken Butigan is director of Pace e Bene, a nonprofit organization fostering nonviolent change through education, community and action.
“Early on in his priesthood, Dan would say mass for a nunnery in Brooklyn that my aunt, Sr. Rene Donovan, belonged to. When I was a young man protesting the war (in 1970-71) my aunt shared a story about Fr. Berrigan. She said she liked him but many of the nuns did not. Why? Because most of them had to shove off to jobs, and needed to grab a quick breakfast, get up and out. She said Dan would say each mass, each word, with such feeling and pause after many lines in contemplation. He was feeling the words, and reliving the experience of the cross when he said each mass. She said many of the sisters would be looking at their watches, sighing, and relieved if they got a priest who would just zip through mass without any pausing.”
– Anthony Donovan, hospice nurse and filmmaker. His latest documentary is “Good Thinking,” about those who tried to halt nuclear weapons.
My uncle Dan stood up against injustices in the world because it was the right thing to do. He saw changes that needed to be made and took action to make said changes. He became the voice for people whose voices couldn’t be heard. To me, he will always be my uncle Dan with the sparkly blue eyes, bright smile and an affinity for sweets. A man who loved a good laugh and reminiscing on the past. His impact on others has been profound and he continues to inspire me to be determined, passionate in my beliefs, teach others and continue to make a difference every day.
– Jenn Berrigan, grandniece