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May 9, 2006

A Spiritual Lightning Rod Turns 85
by Jon M. Sweeney

He was once a person who inspired strong feelings in almost everyone who knew his name and reputation. If you were at all culturally, spiritually, or politically aware in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, you either loved or hated Daniel Berrigan. The Jesuit priest not only vehemently protested the Vietnam War, but he celebrated his protests in essays, plays, screenplays, and poems.

He was handsome, too. Novelist Mary Gordon once wrote that all of the girls in Catholic high school wanted to seduce him. Today, Daniel Berrigan is largely unknown to any person under the age of forty. He lives quietly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in an apartment where he has been for the last thirty years. The wiry Jesuit—veteran of dozens of arrests and years of incarcerations—is turning 85 today, May 9.

He was born the fourth of six sons to a hardworking couple in the northern Minnesota logging town of Virginia. His younger brother, Philip, also became a Roman Catholic priest, but was excommunicated in 1973 when it was discovered that he had married a nun (Sister Elizabeth McAlister, a fellow activist) three years earlier. Philip died of cancer in 2002.

Berrigan traveled in France as a young man and learned his activism from the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and from the example of France’s priest-worker movement. He was also a student and co-worker of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and often visited Thomas Merton at his monastery in Kentucky. Through these visits, Berrigan drew the Trappist monk more and more into making statements about politics, which led to a censure of Merton by his own abbot.

Daniel Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, earned him the Lamont Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a nomination for the 1957 National Book Award. But it is his poetry about war that has stuck most in the minds of his readers. His collections include titles such as Night Flight to Hanoi (1968) and Prison Poems (1973).

Later in life, he wrote books about the Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah, Daniel, and Job, with whom he had long been compared, and he also wrote a memoir.

Father Berrigan represents a time thirty and forty years ago when the left and right became clearly defined for the first time. He represents the beginning of a divisive period in our history that continues today. The red and blue states, the conservatives and the liberals, and all sorts of labels that are used to define us began in earnest with the radicalizing actions of many in the 1960s and 70s.

Today, it will take activists with a different set of goals to bring the sort of change that our society needs. We need people focused on our commonalities, rather than our differences, those who will work to bridge what divides us. The counter-culturists of today will break down barriers, foster understanding, and turn America away from what it seems to have become: a land of angry factions.

Jon Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood, which was named “Best Book of the Year” in the autobiography category by Spirituality & Health magazine.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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