Daniel Berrigan, radical priest & Range native

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Daniel Berrigan after being arrested in 1968.

On Saturday, April 30, peace activist and Jesuit Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan died at the age of 94. Berrigan was probably best known for his high profile protests of the Vietnam War, including multiple arrests for anti-war demonstrations. Most notably, Berrigan and fellow protesters seized draft records from an office in Maryland and burned them in the parking lot.

Berrigan was the “radical priest” memorialized in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Colum McCann based the priest character of Father Corrigan in one of my favorite books, “Let the Great World Spin,” on Berrigan.

Put simply, Berrigan believed that true faith in Christ did not allow wars of global domination like Vietnam. He put his anti-war beliefs alongside all of his other Catholic tenets, like the sanctity of life and the duty to serve the sick and the poor. He was also a steely-eyed bad ass, who was not afraid to break the law or go to jail to make his point. Obviously, this makes him a divisive figure in the Vietnam Era.

As a post Vietnam baby I knew little of Berrigan until today, however. He and his brother Philip were well known during the civil strife of the 1960s and ’70s, but eluded my awareness until Daniel Berrigan’s death on Saturday.

Here’s Bob Collins from MPR’s NewsCut:

The way history is taught in many public schools, kids will never learn about the Vietnam War, which is a shame because they’ll never learn about people like Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who was the face of opposition to a war that killed more than 50,000 Americans.

How true. My high school American history classes in the 1990s never quite reached the Vietnam War. They always faded into a vague mist around Korea. History teachers talked about Vietnam the way nervous health teachers talked about sex ed, or controversy-averse biology teachers talked about evolution.

Popular culture gave me perspective. But there was a big disparity between the movies “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “Apocalypse Now” which I rented with my pizza delivery money, and John Wayne’s “The Green Berets,” which is the one I watched with my grandpa.

Actually, the most I ever heard about the Vietnam War in college was my freshman year down in Dubuque, Iowa. My world history professor and I would take smoke breaks after class. She’d tell me about her brother who died in the war. It occurred to me that I interacted every day with middle aged people whose siblings were frozen in time at the age of 18, 19 or 20 — the same age I was then.

Of course, as some may know, Berrigan was born in Virginia, Minn., and his brothers were born in various towns along the Iron Range and North Shore. Their father Thomas Berrigan was a railroad engineer and labor leader.

In the last few days I’ve seen a few folks ascribe to the notion that it was his father’s Iron Range labor activism that set Berrigan on his path toward life as a radical peacemaker before the family moved to upstate New York. I’d argue it seems a lot more complicated than that.

In his 1987 autobiography, Daniel Berrigan talked about his Irish Catholic father as a violent, angry man whose rage ruled the household. His German-American mother kept the peace for her six sons and lived a life of quiet rebellion against her husband’s anger. Berrigan’s activism seemed more based on his desire to break free of the yolk of violence and authoritarianism.

“Early on,” he wrote, “we grew inured, as the price of survival, to violence as a norm of existence. I remember, my eyes open to the lives of neighbors, my astonishment at seeing that wives and husbands were not natural enemies.”

Berrigan would speak fondly of the Iron Range community as he remembered it. It would have been one place of solace in a difficult upbringing. But the 1920s Iron Range was a place of good and evil, too. Each household had its struggles. Each household still does.

Peace or war. We make this choice every day.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the May 8, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Ted Weir says

    Memories of both Daniel and Philip. Only from books, but referenced them in my theology papers in college. Also, stories when I moved to Bemidji. I think they appeared as 4th of July (?) Peace paraders. Have to check this more closely. Thanks for your always great up north coverage.

  2. Hibbing, MN Newspaper Obit By Millennial Who Grapples With Never Hearing of Fr Daniel Berrigan,Laments Not Even Vietnam on High School Curriculum
    Father Berrigan being handcuffed in 2001 after he and others blocked an entrance to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan.CreditRichard Drew/Associated Press

    “When a network television reporter noted in 1981 that he was not getting as much attention as he once had, Father Berrigan replied, “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord.”
    Remembering Daniel Berrigan: A Penniless, Powerful Voice for Peace
    (Front Page NY TIMES by Jim Dwyer May 6, 2016)

    Father Berrigan, whose funeral will be held on Friday in New York, opposed war, bigotry and abortion with a dist…
    Daniel Berrigan: Peace or war
    (Hibbing Daily Tribune by Aaron Brown May 8, 2016)
    On Saturday, April 30, peace activist and Jesuit Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan died at the age of 94. Berrigan…

    Interesting that the Berrigan family came from the Mesabi Iron Range
    in Minnesota, same region that gave us Dylan as Bobby Zimmerman…

    Iron-y in that the only songs that reference the ‘Berrigan Boys’
    was a single out-of-context throwaway line in Paul Simon’s first solo album of ’71
    “Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”

    During the napalming & Agent Orange carpet-bombing of agrarian Vietnam
    with no air force of their own, Simon & Garfunkel had a number of songs that
    took on the military-industrial complex, especially wishy-washy liberal Democrats
    as in “I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission”.

    Yet by the time Paul Simon went solo and his U.S. pop audience turned him into a rock star he was
    hanging out with Kissinger & Associates, and bemoaning the naivete of his fellow rock stars who apparently didn’t share Serial Killer Hank’s take on realpolitik or Cold War concepts such as the DOMINO THEORY .

    I found a song Dar Williams wrote about a decade and a half ago that actually focuses on
    a Berrigan Peace Action.

    Otherwise, a search of Playlists for singer-songwriter or folk music shows
    this past week turns up very little. I can’t think of any time since Vietnam
    when the military-industrial complex has gotten such a pass as today.
    Trump is sold as both an “Isolationist” and a bomb-dropping, boot deploying
    demagogue. No journalist ever teases out the contradictions in Trump so we
    with no access to inherited oligarchs don’t get to figure that failed businessman out.

    I’m not sure the radical Left will do much with Berrigan’s legacy either since he was
    consistent enough in his Catholicism to be pro all life, including no capital punishment
    but also he preached against women choosing abortion (rather than against the state taking
    away a woman’s right to choose). Some artist with greater knowledge of Berrigan during those times
    ought to tease out some of how he reconciled Church Hierarchy and Berrigan’s defense then
    embodiment of liberation theology.

    Irish-American novelist Colum McCann did base his Father Corrigan character on
    Daniel Berrigan in his historical fiction set in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks on NYC
    (thanks Mare! A Wonderful gift years back after 9-11-01 an author that I knew nothing about)

    However, that was a work of fiction based around
    NYC downtown neighborhoods and across the rivers in the wake of the attacks.

    Berrigan did maintain and often state publicly: “….”If enough Christians follow the gospel, you can bring the state to its knees.”

    Which for me, being a Hebe long isolated from most American Jewish institutions that allow AIPAC to speak on behalf of some tiny minority of American Jews, Berrigan’s being written out of secular U.S. history is akin to Yeshayahu Leibowitz being written out of secular and religious Israeli history and expunged from being referenced as both a Peace advocate and modern Orthodox Jewish sage on Scripture and exegesis. In both cases I see the two countries born out of commitment to separating State from Religion poisoning both State and Religion.

    Yeesh’s pre-Shabbat broadcast drash on IDF radio was the conscience of Israel, until institutional
    corruption and the human nature tendency to stifle cognitive dissonance and smother that conscience allowing the worst tendencies of human nature to triumph over the best, ultimately weakening first the community of faith, then the national social fabric.

    Daniel Berrigan: A Radical Priest Neuhaus Called “Remarkable”. Homily for May 1, 2016
    Back in 1972, the poet laureate of Forest Hills, Paul Simon, wrote a song about two young guys who got into trou…

    “But even his critics admired his fervor. Twenty years ago, Fr. J. Richard Neuhaus—a former liberal Lutheran who became a leading voice of conservative Catholics—described him in an interview as “remarkable… a most devout person and a devoted priest.”

    “On top of all this, it’s worth noting that Fr. Berrigan was also vigorously pro-life, in the best sense — anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia and anti-war.
    He believed, as he put it, “If enough Christians follow the gospel, you can bring the state to its knees.”

    “When asked, he once said that his epitaph should read: “It was never dull. Alleluia.”
    Whether you loved him or hated him, it could not be denied that Daniel Berrigan walked the walk.

    “Dorothy Day wrote to him in 1972: “Thank God, you are truly bearing the Cross, giving your life for others…”
    He bore the cross, and stood up again and again for what he believed in, for a simple reason: because he cared deeply about the words of today’s gospel:
    “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…”

    “For Berrigan, it all came down to peace, and he made clear: he followed the Prince of Peace.
    This speech of Jesus in the gospel reinforces the first word Jesus spoke to his followers after the Resurrection in the Upper Room:

    “Peace is Christ’s gift, his benediction. It is almost a prerequisite for being his follower. It is so important, in fact, we will share a sign of that gift with one another just before we receive Christ in communion.

    “Today in this same passage, Jesus reminds his followers: “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”
    It is a measure of how much Daniel Berrigan loved Christ that he fought so hard to keep that word, and to spread it.
    He surrendered much for the cause of peace, for the cause of justice, for the cause of life.

    “For all his strengths and weaknesses—and they were considerable—I think we need men like Fr. Berrigan to challenge our thinking and remind us of this unshakable fact:
    “Being a Christian, in fact, is radical.
    “In a world consumed with death, we believe in defending life.
    In a world obsessed with wealth, we believe in embracing the poor.
    In a world that is often merciless, we believe in mercy.
    In a world that seems intent on perpetually waging war, we believe in peace.
    And we believe in a God who told us peacemakers are blessed.
    But we also believe that Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable.
    It was something Daniel Berrigan understood. And he reminded people that following Christ comes with a cost.

    “If you want to follow Jesus,” he once said, “you better look good on wood.”

    “It’s a radical thought from the man Paul Simon called a “radical priest,” but maybe it’s one we need to remember, especially in these final days of the Easter season.

    “While we celebrate new life and hope and the Resurrection, we cannot forget that our faith is rooted in wood, and nails, and thorns. It demands sacrifice.
    Our call as Catholic Christians is to live as radical people by doing this radical act: living the Gospel—and carrying its message into the world.
    Daniel Berrigan did that in an extreme, even explosive way.
    But then again, so did Jesus Christ.
    Periodically, I think, we need to be jolted by people like Daniel Berrigan and ask ourselves:
    Do we have the courage of our convictions?
    How far are we willing to go for the Gospel?
    How far are we willing to go for Christ?
    – See more at: Daniel Berrigan: A Radical Priest Neuhaus Called “Remarkable”. Homily for May 1, 2016
    Remembering Father Dan Berrigan, a Prophet of Peace


    Father Daniel Berrigan, Anti-War Activist & Poet, Dies at 94
    “The legendary anti-war priest Father Daniel Berrigan died today at 94. He was poet, pacifist, educator, social a…

    Daniel J. Berrigan, Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism, Dies at 94
    By Daniel Lewis
    Father Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet, defiantly protested the Vietnam War and served time for his acts of c…

    Z”L Fr Daniel Berrigan, Alav Ha’Shalom
    (c) Mitch Ritter
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