It was sometime in the mid-to late 1970s that I met up with Fr. Daniel Berrigan at a retreat for a Protestant denomination organized by a journalist friend who wrote for a denominational publication. Berrigan was given the title of chaplain for the weekend. I met him for a walk just as he had finished a long session with a group of ministers. Apparently they had grilled him intensely, some obviously trying to find the flaw, about his theology and life of resistance.
As we set out on our walk he said he felt as if he had “just been picked apart by ducks.”
The image came to mind in recent days with the flood of recollections, stories, testaments and tributes in the aftermath of his death as people deeply affected by the priest, poet, activist, brother, uncle and friend were moved to share. There was so much to the life of this slight and always tousled soul, an impish man with the wry smile and quick wit. So much cramming to do, now that his life had ended, in trying to understand the dimensions of it all. One story seemed always to lead to another, and more people who had similar accounts, similar emotions, similar conversions. A retreat. A prayer. A book. A poem. A conversation.
And so I dare to extend the string a few more lengths.
The first thing I reference is a lovely tribute, Father Berrigan Remembered, on the First Things Web site by William Doino Jr. (http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/05/father-berrigan-remembered). Yes, I know, an unexpected place and an unanticipated connection. Perhaps that is proof of one of the greatest, if largely unrecognized, results of Berrigan’s lifelong ministry – he often bridged otherwise discordant points of view. Doino’s brief encounter with Berrigan was at a poetry reading in 2003, as the controversy over Iraq raged. What he found was profoundly different from what he expected. “Far from being angry or confrontational, Father Berrigan’s reading was instructive and gentle,” Doino writes.
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An audience that wanted more fire and anger pressed him about “why he had spent so much time on spiritual matters, and not more condemning our nation’s leaders, who had just ‘dragged us into an immoral war.’ Father Berrigan answered, simply but powerfully, ‘I am a Catholic priest.’”
Doino’s appreciation – and I recommend looking it up – recognizes a side of Berrigan that often, and understandably, got lost beneath the weight of the headlines that attempted to describe his radical life and often unsettling actions.
My first encounter with Berrigan was in the mid 1970s when he visited the small blue-collar town of Fountain Hill in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. I had little enthusiasm for the event, but was lured along by friends and by the prospect of a liberal Jesuit giving forth in the local Unitarian chapel. I thought I’d be able to write the script in my sleep.
I ended up sitting in the rear of the chapel square at the end of the middle aisle. Berrigan was straight ahead, as I recall, at a microphone and probably a podium. The chapel divided largely into two groups. The main body on the right were UUs, mostly members of the congregation, and on the left was a contingent of Catholics, many of them recent and fervent members of the Catholic charismatic renewal.
I remember being taken in by Berrigan’s talk in a way unexpected. He was, to what should not have been my surprise, speaking from deep reservoirs of spirituality and experience in the Jesuit tradition. This was not the hip irreverence and demagoguery that I had come to regard, after ample exposure, so repulsive in the massive peace demonstrations of the day. His talk was not a one-off on this or that issue, it wasn’t a seminar in how to take down the local selective service office. It was, instead, a turning of the lens to present a different view of the world, a different reality, and that’s what landed in our laps. It was ours to ponder and act on.
But -- the hands on the right went up during the Q&A -- wasn’t the really important part of all this those acts of civil disobedience, the protests, the barricades?
No -- on the left came the questions -- wasn’t it really a matter of prayer and faith, our relationship with God? And on it went, in a back-and-forth I characterize here in shorthand, but an accurate description of the mood in the room. And Berrigan stood in the middle, quiet, a grin now and then, and in his inimitable way, let it be known that he couldn’t make such a separation. It was a moment that opened up so many more for me. It led to days of reading much of his corpus, a retreat and other conversations with him. Along my journalism career his words and his life became a checkpoint on certain matters.
It was evident to me during that brief encounter in Fountain Hill that he spoke as a priest, as a member of a larger band of brothers, some of whom, at times, despised what he was doing and his criticism of the order. Others grew to respect and revere him. It didn’t always go well between him and the Jesuits at large or between him and the church. But he stayed, and there was in that an example of the kind of perseverance he brought to his pursuit of peace and justice.
Not all of his life was lived at the barricades and in civil disobedience. Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, who writes occasionally for NCR, attended his wake and funeral and reported on her conversations with two people who praised Berrigan for a courage rarely spoken about and that got short mention in the ceremonies, obituaries and recollections.
Carl Siciliano, a former Catholic Worker who, years ago lived in a worker house in a Washington DC slum with Claire and her husband, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, spoke about Berrigan’s long time support for the gay community. Siciliano is now executive director of the Ali Forney Center, a shelter network for homeless LGBT youth in New York. Siciliano spoke of Dan’s early attention to gays, a priest who ministered to them at a time when few in the church would. He pointed out the inclusion of former Jesuit John J. McNeill, author of The Church and the Homosexual, in Berrigan’s book, Portraits of Those I Love.
“Dan Berrigan’s portrait of John McNeill was the first LGBT-affirming message I ever heard in the Catholic Church,” Siciliano said. He also noted that Berrigan was among a handful of priests in New York City willing to minister to AIDs patients when few would. “The fact that he was with us, taking care of us, consoling us was such a powerful statement. … The LGBT community was so enraged at the church that they wouldn’t acknowledge what he was doing.”
McNeill was eventually expelled from the Jesuits for his continued work on behalf of the LGBT community. He died in 2015 in Florida, where he lived with Charles Chiarelli, his partner of 46 years.
Berrigan’s work with AIDs patients, said Siciliano, “sent a message about what the Gospel meant in the midst of plague.”
Brendan Fay, a well-known LGBT rights activist and film-maker, noted that Berrigan was the faculty sponsor for a gay group at Cornell University in the late 1960s. Fay viewed that action as indicative “of Dan’s heart and his embrace and his willingness to go beyond the clerical comfort zone and to reach out and say ‘yes’ to a need instinctively.”