Excerpts from an obituary that appeared in the December 20, 2002 National Catholic Reporter.
by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Renowned antiwar activist Philip Francis Berrigan, who died of cancer December 6, was a red-blooded American turned prophet, a good kid turned Christian revolutionary.
"If enough Christians follow the gospel," he once wrote, " they can bring any state to its knees."
The young Berrigan, a talented athlete and enthusiastic World War II combat soldier, became a priest who railed against economic injustice, marched against racism and burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. The last three and a half decades of his life were defined by a fierce and relentless opposition to nuclear weapons, " the taproot," as he put it, of all American violence.
Berrigan's religious education was utterly Catholic, his heritage undeniably American and his life an intertwining of the two. He took his definition of citizenship from papal encyclicals and the scriptures. He was the first Catholic priest to join the Freedom Riders in their efforts to desegregate the South, the first Catholic priest in the history of the United States known to serve a sentence as a political prisoner.
His most famous antiwar act occurred on May 17, 1968, when he and his brother Daniel, Jesuit priest and poet, and seven other Catholics burned draft files with homemade napalm in Catonsville, Maryland, to protest the Vietnam War. The group became known as the Catonsville Nine. The action established the Berrigan brothers as national figures, and they became known as the shock troops of the Peace Movement, the high priests of the new Catholic left.
A militant pacifist, he and his brother Daniel are among a small cadre of American Catholic radicals credited with moving their church from a position of chauvinistic nationalism to a more critical view of the state...
...In 1970, he married Elizabeth McAlister, an activist and a religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. They are parents of three children, Frida, Jerry and Katie. The public announcement of his marriage in 1973 resulted in his excommunication, which has since been lifted. That same year, the couple founded Jonah House, a Christian community located in inner-city Baltimore. The community's primary mission is nuclear disarmament through nonviolent resistance. On September 9, 1980, Berrigan and seven other activists entered a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and poured blood and hammered on Mark 12A warheads. The action known as the Plowshares Eight launched the international Plowshares movement, which takes its mandate from the prophet Isaiah's call to beat swords into plowshares. To date, more than 70 plowshares actions have occurred on several continents. Berrigan participated in six of them, resulting in seven years of imprisonment...
...Among the last words said by the dying Berrigan were: "I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and the earth itself."
IN MEMORIAM SERVICE FOR PHILIP BERRIGAN
Statement from the Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares, read at Regis College, Denver, December 9, 2002. Written at the Clear Creek County Jail.
Our spiritual presence at Regis to join this "In Memoriam Service" for our brother and Jonah House Community member, Philip Berrigan, is a blessing. Thank you. And gratitude to students, teachers, friends, who witnessed in our names at the gates of Ft. Benning.
The Spirit of God led us to the Minuteman III missile silos in a symbolic disarmament action the day after Phil's 79th birthday, the day before the first anniversary of the illegal bombing of Afghanistan.
We have been pondering the question - What would Phil Berrigan want us to remember? What would he want us to think and pray about in a re-membering service?
We believe he would teach and preach his familiar messages:
1. Become communities of resistance.
2. Study the Scriptures and the signs of the times. (Phil read and re-read John 8:44-47 citing that lying and murdering go together, that the first casualty of war is truth.) Be vigilant.
3. Practice nonviolence as your way in life. Do nonviolent direct action to the systemic violences of intervention and war, nuclearism and the military industrial complex. These are the taproot of all violences.
4. Live in the Kindom God intends, recognizing that a simple life style is essential so all in the global village may live. (Since his release from prison last December, Phil began floating the idea and organizing a national strike to highlight the connection between consumerism and corporate greed with war.)
5. He would remind us that he is an ordinary person, no hero, not deserving of special awards, but ordinary (like all of us), mandated to be compassionate toward God's-people-made-poor by our culture of excesses.
6. He would encourage us to live our humanness to its fullest in the work for justice and for peace as our basic mission, walking in the footsteps of the nonviolent Jesus.
7. Phil would interpret the "washing of the feet" as Jesus' way of preparing disciples for martyrdom, and share the news that the journey is one of carrying the cross. Phil would say, "discipleship will merit heavy consequences, misjudgment by many, and persecution. Know that God's grace is sufficient."
8. When you enter into the weapon sites to enflesh the prophesies of Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3, "they shall hammer swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift sword against another nation, nor shall they train for was anymore" " be not afraid, I am with you."
9. Be grateful! Be filled with gratitude to God for each other, for creation, for community, for grace, for understanding, for courage, for the endless gifts.
Yes, Phil was a man of total gratitude.
PHIL BERRIGAN. PRESENTE!
[signed] Carol Gilbert, Jackie Hudson, Ardeth Platte
MEMORIAL PEACE ACTION IN DULUTH
To honor Philip Berrigan, who "would be most in favor of action rather than words," Duluth Catholic Workers blockaded the local Army recruiting station on December 20 with a shrine of rubble and ash, photos of Iraqi victims, mostly children, and rocks from Lake Superior, painted with messages of peace. Asked to remove the rubble, Michele Naar-Obed replied that she would gladly do so after the U.S. cleans up the rubble in Iraq. She and Joel Kilgour were charged and convicted of littering. At sentencing on April 23, both refused to pay a fine, and were sent to jail for 30 days.
For more information, contact the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker, 1712 Jefferson St., Duluth, MN 55812.
Joel Kilgour begins serving his sentence May 12, and can receive letters of support thereafter at St. Louis County Jail, 4334 Haines Road, Duluth, MN 55811. Michele Naar-Obed will begin her sentence on June 9.