Bearing the Cross (On the Life and Death of Daniel Berrigan)
NEW YORK—I arrived early Friday morning, after walking through the rain, at the St. Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village for the funeral of the Rev. Daniel Berrigan. I stood, the church nearly empty, at the front of the sanctuary with my hand on the top of Dan’s rosewood casket. It was adorned with a single red carnation and a small plaque that read: “Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan. Born May 9, 1921. Entered S.J. August 14, 1939. Ordained June 21, 1952. Died April 30, 2016.”
The walls of the Romanesque basilica had large murals, by German artist William Lamprecht, of the stations of the cross—Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Jesus collapsing under the weight of the cross, Jesus nailed to the cross and crucified. Lamprecht had muted the colors so each successive scene was darker and more ominous than the previous one. A Tiffany stained-glass window, with its glints of light, portrayed the Madonna and child. Over the large sanctuary, with its rows of wooden pews, hung soft, milky-white, bulbous lamps. The blue-veined marble altar, the graceful arches, the Carrera marble floor and the towering organ with its 3,323 pipes gave the moment solemnity and grandeur, although Dan relentlessly challenged the pomp and power of all institutions, including the church.
Dan, like his brother, Philip Berrigan, and his close friends Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker Movement and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led a life defined by the Christian call to bear the cross. This is the central call of the Christian life. It is one few Christians achieve. The bearing of the cross, in Christian theology, is counterintuitive. It says that the “the last shall be first, and the first last.” It demands nonviolence. It holds fast to justice. It stands with the oppressed, those who Dan’s friend, the Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria, who was murdered by the death squads in El Salvador, called “the crucified people of history.” It binds adherents to moral law. It calls on them to defy through acts of civil disobedience and noncompliance with state laws, when these laws, as they often do, conflict with God’s law.
If you bear the cross, you often go to jail or, in Dan’s case, federal prison for 18 months, after he, his brother and seven other religious activists in 1968 burned 378 draft files of young men—most of them African-American—about to be sent to Vietnam. The activists had manufactured homemade napalm to set the documents on fire in garbage cans in the parking lot outside the building from which they took the files.
In her eulogy, Elizabeth McAllister, Dan’s sister-in-law, read the statement Dan wrote for the group, known as the Catonsville Nine:
Our apologies good friends
for the fracture of good order the burning of paper
instead of children the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel house
We could not so help us God do otherwise
For we are sick at heart
Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children …
We say: Killing is disorder
life and gentleness and community and unselfishness
is the only order we recognize …
How long must the world’s resources
be raped in the service of legalized murder?
When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of the truth stops here
this war stops here …
The 2,000 mourners erupted in a prolonged standing ovation.
Dan—whose 50 books of poetry, essays and Scripture commentaries, as well as his play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” are as important a contribution as his activism—was the bête noire of senior church officials, including the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who loathed the peace activists, fabricated a case accusing the Berrigan brothers of conspiring to blow up tunnels under federal buildings in Washington, D.C., and kidnap Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
Dan, who took part in the Freedom Rides and civil rights marches in the South, was in and out of jail all his life. With seven other activists, he illegally entered a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pa., in 1980. They poured blood and hammered the fragile cones of Mark-12A warheads. He had been, by the time he died a few days short of his 95th birthday, arrested hundreds of times. This, he said, was the cost of discipleship.
“But what of the price of peace?” he asked in his book “No Bars to Manhood.”
I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm ... in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans—that five-year plan of studies, that ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise. “Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs—at all costs—our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost—because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war—at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.
Bearing the cross is not about the pursuit of happiness. It does not embrace the illusion of inevitable human progress. It is not about achieving wealth, celebrity or power. It entails sacrifice. It is about our neighbor. The organs of state security—in Dan’s case, the FBI—monitor and harass you. They amass huge files on your activities. They disrupt your life. And in Friday’s homily, the Rev. Stephen Kelly, evoking laughter, welcomed the FBI agents who had been “assigned here today to validate that it is Daniel Berrigan’s funeral mass so they can complete and perhaps close their files.”
“Daniel and Phil exposed the historical alliance of religious leaders who colluded with structures of domination,” said Kelly, who has spent more than a decade in prison for acts of nonviolent protest.
“The imperial power of Pax Romana ran aground on the shoals of Christian steadfastness,” he went on. “But through the centuries the circle of outcasts and martyrs dissembled. They gained ascendancy to the power they were meant to resist. Daniel and Phil untied, illegally, those held in power’s captivity. They risked retaliation. They touched the idol of the state.”
Dan, who went underground for four months after burning the draft files, was on the FBI’s most-wanted list—the first Catholic priest in the country to hold that distinction. But he and his small circle of activists pushed the clergy—including my father—out of their pulpits and into the streets to denounce the Vietnam War, especially after Dan founded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam in 1965 with Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn in 1968 on a peace mission and returned home with three U.S. Air Force personnel who had been held prisoner. He and Zinn made the men promise they would no longer take part in the war. Dan spent time with church communities working with the poor in Latin America. He visited, unnoticed, the activists at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street movement and walked through the crowd, giving his silent blessing.
“This is the worst time of my long life,” he said when I interviewed him for The Nation magazine a few years ago. “I have never had such meager expectations of the system. I find those expectations verified in the paucity and shallowness every day I live.”
Yet he refused to despair. The cross, he knew, is carried even in the face of inevitable failure. This is the absurdity of faith. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly made reference to this reality of Christian life, saying, “When I took up the cross I recognized it’s meaning … The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately you die on.”
Dan’s worldly possessions, including his small collection of threadbare clothes, could barely fill two suitcases. He was as opposed to abortion as he was to the death penalty, a stance that did not always endear him to many left-wing activists. He denounced the violence employed by the left during the Vietnam War, especially the Weather Underground, writing, “No principle is worth the sacrificing of a single human being.” He knew the poison of violence. He saw no hope in the farce of managed electoral politics, quoting Emma Goldman, who said, “If voting was that effective it would be illegal.” He feared dark and disastrous times, especially as we savaged the environment, and he told me that all we may have left is the “Eucharist and each other.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian whose words are misinterpreted and misused by conservatives and the powerful, including Barack Obama, wrote about the importance of being a “Christian realist.” No one defined this concept more than Dan. He saw the world for what it was. He had no illusions about it. He understood the power of evil. He knew how seductive it was. As a solitary individual, he could accomplish nothing without community. His duty was to bear the cross, even if it did not make sense, even if it did not seem to make a difference. He was sustained by others and majestically sustained those around him.
Dan provided, for me, the most cogent definition of religious faith.
“The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere,” he told me. “I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanely and carefully and nonviolently and let it go.”
A bagpiper played as Dan’s casket was loaded into the back of a silver and black hearse outside the basilica. Hundreds of mourners, their cheeks streaked by rain and tears, filled the street. I stood on the steps.
It was a few blocks from here, at the shrine of the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, that Dan baptized my youngest daughter five years ago. He cradled her in his arms and spoke of faith as resistance. He reminisced about marching in Selma with Dr. King. He asked us to each say out loud what qualities we hoped my daughter would possess. Dan said he wished for “a sense of humor.”
The hearse moved slowly down the vacant street. A man held his fist in the air. Some in the crowd sang a hymn. When the hearse reached the end of the street, its luminous red tail light began to blink on and off in the drizzle, signaling a right turn. Then it was gone.
A change is coming. I can feel it.