© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Jesuit Priest And Anti-War Activist Daniel Berrigan


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of my interview with Daniel Berrigan. He died Sunday at the age of 94. He was Jesuit priest, political activist and a leading figure in the Catholic left. He and his brother Philip Berrigan were the first Roman Catholic priests to receive federal sentences in America for antiwar activism. That was during the war in Vietnam, when the Berrigans committed an act of civil disobedience - burning Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, Md., with a group of protesters who became known as the Catonsville Nine. The Berrigans briefly went underground, then served time in prison.

They remained activists. In 1980, the Berrigans were part of The Plowshares Eight, a group which committed civil disobedience by entering a General Electric missile plant in Pennsylvania, where they hammered on nose cones of nuclear warheads and poured blood on documents.

Although Daniel Berrigan was considered a renegade within the church, he remained a Jesuit and lived in a small Jesuit community in Manhattan. I spoke with him in 1988.


GROSS: What were your early protests like in 1965 and before?

DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, I joined Catholic Workers here in New York at a vigil and the blockage of the U.S. mission to the U.N. Someone called me and said that the police were brutalizing people who were sitting in there in front of the entrance in objection to the war. And I went down and indeed found that they were doing that. They were stepping on people very deliberately.

There was a lot of official malice in the air. I went down there in my clerical outfit and dog collar, and the whole thing stopped when they saw a priest. They stepped gingerly aside and didn't want to be found in that position before their church. That was a very interesting lesson.

GROSS: Let's get back to the Catonsville Nine, which is an action that you and your brother both participated in. Would you describe what the action was?

BERRIGAN: Well, we went into a draft board in Catonsville, Md., in May of 1968. And we took the files - the A1 files, which were the files most endangered of the young people. They would be drafted first. And we took them out of the building very carefully because we didn't want to do a fire in a building, and we burned them in trash baskets in a parking lot outside with homemade napalm, which was our symbol of the napalm being used on children and all sorts of people in Vietnam.

GROSS: For your actions in the Catonsville Nine, you were given a three-year jail sentence. But you went underground, as did I think most of the other members of that group. Why did you choose to go underground?

BERRIGAN: Well, it was a terrible time. You probably recall the spring of '70. Nixon had invaded Cambodia. There were these days of rage all over the country. Kent State had occurred. There were killings of black students at Jackson State. The whole place was in great turmoil, including Cornell, where I was teaching.

And it just made no sense to me. We used the analogy at the time of somebody submitting to the jail as submitting before the draft. It was bowing before a totally illegitimate authority and giving up what you had first resisted. So we felt there was a certain moral continuity required here. Some of us felt that.

GROSS: When you went underground, in a way every time you stayed at somebody's house along the way, you were jeopardizing them because they could have come up under criminal charges for harboring you.

BERRIGAN: Well, some did, some did.

GROSS: How did that make you feel knowing that for the actions that you had taken, you're jeopardizing people who were close to you...


GROSS: ...And strangers who were willing to help you?

BERRIGAN: It just seemed to me that the war was not my question. It was our question and that I hadn't created the question. I was trying to respond to it and that what was required here was not some individual, you know, wondering around. What was required was a community of resistance, and I was helping to build that through these fine people. And that was important for them as well as for me because the legal jeopardy should - in the nature of conscience should have been shared.

GROSS: How long were you underground?

BERRIGAN: I think it went as far, as far I recall, from May until August of '70.

GROSS: Did you realize eventually you'd be caught?

BERRIGAN: Oh sure because I had many opportunities to simply leave the country and wash my hands of the whole thing, and that was not the point of this. The point was to extend one's escape knowing it was temporary and meantime raising the bloody question of the war in ways that you couldn't have from jail.

GROSS: Now, you were captured by two FBI agents?

BERRIGAN: Well, there was a whole coven of them disguised - if you can imagine it - as birdwatchers on Block Island. The whole thing was so absurd. I mean, they're not really very smart, these people.

They were in the midst of a nor'easter, a real gale there in late August. And there they were in their slickers watching birds. There wasn't a bird for a hundred miles, you know?

GROSS: So you knew who they were, you figured it out?

BERRIGAN: Oh, right away, sure.

GROSS: Even when you were in jail after you were captured, you were very visible within the peace movement. You wrote letters from jail and I believe poems from jail that ended up getting published. So...


GROSS: ...You still had an important voice in the movement, even though physically you were...


GROSS: ...Behind bars. In many ways, you really became one of the stars of the peace movement. Now, what I'd like to know from you is what do you think are the pros and cons of having almost celebrities within a political movement?

BERRIGAN: It's been a very difficult question personally and one that has always made me sort of, you know, run for the woods, this whole business of transforming a kind of moral voice or ethical voice or peaceable voice into this pumped-up absurdity called celebrity. And I think I've been able to sort of, you know, run around it or run through it or run by it pretty well.

But on the other hand, one can't simply renounce one's - I don't know what - one's voice or one's talent maybe for helping people interpret the truth or turn a corner so that it's a very thin line that I walk, you know?

And I'm very glad for my family and for my community of Jesuits in helping me keep a - kind of a human size in all of this, you know?

GROSS: Daniel Berrigan recorded in 1988. He died Saturday at the age of 94.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll be joined by writer-director John Carney, whose films include "Once" and "Begin Again." He'll tell us about his new film "Sing Street." And I'll talk with Maria Toorpakay, who grew up in the tribal areas of Pakistan and had to dress as a boy in order to become an athlete. She now lives in Canada and is the only female in international squash competition ranked in the top 50. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.