Forty years ago this month, Father Daniel Berrigan walked into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, with eight other activists, including his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, and removed draft files of young men who were about to be sent to Vietnam. The group carted the files outside and burned them in two garbage cans with homemade napalm. Father Berrigan was tried, found guilty, spent four months as a fugitive from the FBI, was apprehended and sent to prison for eighteen months.
Father Berrigan, unbowed at 87, sat primly in a straight-backed wooden chair as the afternoon light slanted in from the windows, illuminating the collection of watercolors and religious icons on the walls of his small apartment in upper Manhattan. Time and age have not blunted this Jesuit priest’s fierce critique of the American empire or his radical interpretation of the Gospels. There would be many more “actions” and jail time after his release from prison, including a sentence for his illegal entry into a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on September 9, 1980, with seven other activists, where they poured blood and hammered on Mark 12A warheads.
“This is the worst time of my long life,” he said with a sigh. “I have never had such meager expectations of the system. I find those expectations verified in the paucity and shallowness every day I live.”
The trial of the Catonsville Nine altered resistance to the Vietnam War, moving activists from street protests to repeated acts of civil disobedience, including the burning of draft cards. It also signaled a seismic shift within the Catholic Church, propelling radical priests and nuns led by the Berrigans, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to the center of a religiously inspired social movement that challenged not only church and state authority but the myths Americans used to define themselves.
“Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” he says of the founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in, the equation of human misery and poverty and warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”
Berrigan’s relationship with Day led to a close friendship with the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton’s “great contribution to the religious left,” he says, “was to gather us for days of prayer and discussion of the sacramental life. He told us, ‘Stay with these, stay with these, these are your tools and discipline and these are your strengths.'”
“He could be very tough,” Berrigan says of Merton. “He said you are not going to survive America unless you are faithful to your discipline and tradition.”