Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. died April 30 at 94 years of age. He was a peacemaker, a peace teacher, a peace activist and a prolific peace writer for the past 60 years. His death made the front page of the New York Times and will be in every Catholic paper around the world. The obituaries give many of the details of this faithful priest’s long and impressive life. I would like in this paper to write an open letter to a man whom I consider a mentor and a friend.
I hope one of the first things you say to God face to face, now that the thin veil of earthly life has been lifted, is to thank God for giving you to us all these years. Like so many others, I would not be who I am today without you. A generation younger than you, I belonged to the age of those who were being drafted for the Vietnam War, one of the many wars that took part of the soul of our country with it. It was our brothers and cousins, our friends and colleagues who lived under the threat of the draft, who went to Vietnam and some who died there or came back wounded in body, mind and spirit.
You showed us how to stand for the truth we believed. Ever a gentle spirit, you led us through nonviolent protest to enduring commitment to the nonviolent Jesus. Your activism captured us but your faith kept us searching and walking all these many years.
In the beginning I read your poetry, followed your movements and heard you preach many times. I still pray often your words from “Uncommon Prayer,” “Unmuddle me, Lord.” I remember standing outside the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution praying for you when word got out that you were ill in the midst of serving your time for a protest. It was cold and rainy that night, our vigil lights struggled to keep lit, our prayers were carried away in the gale wind. Yet, because you had taught us to pray and to stay, we did. We had already learned that activism is rooted and sustained by adoration. We had already learned that the darkness cannot hide the light of Christ. You taught us to keep on going despite the muddled emotions flooding us and the rain seeping into our shoes.
One of the details I remember from your description of prison after your release was the small 2” pencil that was the only instrument you were allowed to use to write your poetry. I have just such a pencil in my desk to remind me that more is not better when it comes to reflections on life and truth. Simplicity feeds truth.
Over the years, you endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and persecution from both state and Church. You kept on walking. You kept on writing. You kept on praying. The wars changed but the commitment and fidelity to Jesus in his total nonviolence remained steady.
Over the years, we met here and there whenever there was peace work to be done. You came to my religious community to help us be faithful to Christ’s message of peace. We crossed paths at protests. I remember one particular protest at the Nevada Site where they store and test nuclear weapons. It was below zero and we were praying and crossing the line in the sand at dawn to protest the use of such weapons of mass destruction. The police put us in an outdoor holding pen until we were processed, booked, given a court date and released. There were only eight of us and we were there for hours freezing. When they finally began booking us, you insisted that I go first to get out of the cold. I was decades younger than you and most of the others with whom we were arrested. I was the only woman. You got Bishop Buswell on your side and so I was the first to be arrested in order to get out of the cold. It was a kindness for which I am still grateful all these years later.
One of my treasures from you are the words you wrote that were published on the back cover of one of my books. It says more about you than me. Thank you for that support.
You taught us the strength of the prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Jeremiah. You led us into the way of standing against lawless laws. You helped us discern right from wrong, to think with the poor and to act accordingly. You said, “The most important thing Christianity has given me is my inability to conform to the injustice and pain of those who suffer.” When they speak of your influence on generations of Catholics who follow you, I hope they don’t forget the hidden unseen acts of mercy to all the poor in the hospitals in which you served, your fidelity to community all your life and your extraordinary obedience to God through the Society of Jesus.
Finally, dear Friend, remember us now that you are in the Kingdom. Pray for us and for our own fidelity to the nonviolent way of Jesus.
Gratefully, Patricia McCarthy, CND
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.