Sunday, May 8, 2016

DANIEL BERRIGAN, S. J. A Beatific Poet, Prophet and Peace-Maker

   I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Berrigan twice, and I remember both times as moments of calm, joy and peace.

   The first time was when I went to visit my friend, Bob McGovern, who lived near Philadelphia's St. Charles Seminary, where I was teaching.  Bob himself was an expression of calm, deep joy and peace.  Though paralyzed in both legs at age 16, he forged a successful career as a wood sculptor-artist and teacher.  When he carved wood panels or statues in the round, he held himself up by means of a steel body brace he had put together.  With his wife, Aileen, and his two children, his home was a place of life, joy and peace.

   Berrigan was in the process of translating some of the Psalms into poetic English, and Bob was preparing his strikingly mystical woodcuts to illustrate Dan's book. 

   I can still see Dan's face as he greeted me.  He looked at me with his deep eyes, welcoming me and accepting me in a way that made me feel comfortable and happy to be alive and to be with him.  Without a doubt, I was with someone special, and my evening was a memorable one.

   I closely followed his activism for peace, and was especially impressed by his willingness to take full responsibility for his activities and go to prison for them, using even his arrests and imprisonments as teaching moments for peace.  There was nothing half-way about him.

   At that time, my own life as a Philadelphia priest was about to fall into tumult.  I had come home from Rome with a Doctorate in Spirituality, which included being taught about Teilhard de Chardin in secret by my Jesuit professor, who was afraid the Curia would fire him if they knew what he was doing.  The Curia had already talked Pope John XXIII into firing the two most outstanding Biblical scholars at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, which was just across the street from the Gregorian University where I was studying.  I had also participated in the first session of the Second Vatican Council.  So I had witnessed first hand the fight being fought to bring the Church up to date.  

   Vatican II expected Catholics to put their faith into everyday action, including spiritually challenging our political, economic and cultural structures in order to make them more luminously human.  Dan Berrigan was a man who was living the Council's teachings in a truly prophetic way.

   I was also trying to live the Council's teachings in my own way by speaking on Vatican II and getting deeply involved in ecumenical efforts with Protestants and Jews in the Philadelphia area.  For that, I was isolated, silenced from public speaking and eventually fired from the Seminary faculty.  I also was a member of "Wellsprings," an under-FBI-suspicion group of clergy and laity who wanted to change the structures of our society.  But I never felt called to go as far in my own efforts as Dan was going in his.  And I questioned myself about that.

   One day, in Baltimore, at a conference that included Dan's brother Philip, a resigned priest, and his wife, Elizabeth McAllister, I mentioned my self-questioning to Elizabeth.  She said, "We don't expect everyone to do exactly what we're doing."  (Which for Philip and her included going to prison.)  "We expect everyone to do whatever they are called to do."  I found her answer deeply satisfying.  I said, "You, Philip and Dan are widening the boundaries and thus making room for people like me to do what I'm doing."  She agreed.

   In time, to my great surprise, the church officials apologized to me and put me back on the Seminary faculty.  They explained that I was pushing them to make changes they were not ready to make.  They even made me Chairman of the Department of Theology.  But that was because the Seminary was being accredited that they needed somebody to do the paper work for the Department.  I tried to fit back into the seminary routine but could not.  One day I realized that I had died inside.  I resigned from the clergy and received a dispensation to return to the laity.

   Some years later, my wife and I, seeking spiritual peace, moved to Lancaster County, PA, to live close to the peaceful Amish people.  As it happened, Dan was invited to speak at the Lancaster Theological Seminary.  Mary and I went to his evening talk and marveled at the deep, quiet power of his peaceful soul.  And at his sense of humor.  After he spoke, a lady rose.  Clearly scandalized by Dan's at times illegal activism, she asked him in a very suspicious tone, "Are you still involved in Jesuit affairs?"  He thought for a few seconds, and then with an impish smile replied, "Well, not all of them"  The staid audience laughed out loud.

   The next morning I went to hear him again.  This time I was alone.  Afterwards I remained a while in the hall where he had spoken.  I had been invited to speak there myself about Vatican II.  One clearly puzzled, fundamentalist student rose and asked, "I don't understand what you said about the Church.  Who are members of the Church of Christ?"  I answered, "Everyone who lives a life marked by consistent good will and love."  The student answered, "Sir, you are confused!"

   When I left the hall I went out into a small courtyard.  There standing alone, was Dan.  I went up to him and introduced myself.  Again, I was taken in by his deep, peaceful eyes.  It was so easy to talk with him!  I told him who I was and what I had gone through while in the clergy, ending with my dying spiritually and then resigning. As I spoke, he listened very closely and lovingly.  Then he looked at me with merciful love and said quietly, "What took you so long?"

   His peace stays with me to this day.    



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