Philip Berrigan, apostle of peace, dies at age 79

Josephite father called protests `prophetic acts'

December 07, 2002|By Jacques Kelly and Carl Schoettler | Jacques Kelly and Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Philip Berrigan, the patriarch of the Roman Catholic anti-war movement whose conscience collided with national policy for more than three decades, died last night of liver and kidney cancer. He was 79 and had lived at Jonah House on the grounds of a West Baltimore cemetery for much of the past decade.

He led the Catonsville Nine, who staged one of the most dramatic protests of the 1960s. They doused homemade napalm on a small bonfire of draft records in a Catonsville parking lot and ignited a generation of anti-war dissent. More recently he helped found the Plowshares movement, whose members have attacked federal military property in anti-war and anti-nuclear protests and were then often imprisoned.

Mr. Berrigan died at 9:30 p.m. at the Jonah House, a communal living facility of war resisters.

In a final statement released by his family, he said, "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."

Though Mr. Berrigan was an Army veteran - he was a second lieutenant in the infantry - who fought across Western Europe in World War II, he persistently and publicly criticized the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He first gained national attention during part of the 14-year period during which he wore the Roman collar and clerical garb of a Josephite priest.

He eventually served some 11 years in jail and prison for his actions challenging public authority and repeated bashing of the military budget.

Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University who maintained a friendship with Mr. Berrigan through the years because they had similar views, called him "one of the great Americans of our time."

"He believed war didn't solve anything," Mr. Zinn said. "He went to prison again and again and again for his beliefs. I admired him for the sacrifices he made. He was an inspiration to a large number of people."

Mr. Berrigan saw his protests as "prophetic acts" based on the Biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares, and that included the "symbolic" destruction of Selective Service records in raids on draft board offices in the Baltimore Customs House in 1967 and in Catonsville in 1968. He was also convicted of smuggling letters in and out of the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., while an inmate there in 1970, though the conviction was later thrown out. The end of the Vietnam War failed to silence him; he continued his missions of dissent until the end of his life.

In his most recent clash in December 1999, Mr. Berrigan and others banged on A-10 Warthog warplanes in an anti-war protest at the Middle River Air National Guard base. He was convicted of malicious destruction of property and sentenced to 30 months. He was released Dec. 14 last year.

Mr. Berrigan's brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest and poet who participated in the 1968 Catonsville protest, later wrote the play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which ran on Broadway for 29 performances in 1971 and was made into a movie a year later. It recounted verbatim episodes from the trial and the moral dilemmas of the Vietnam War era.

"We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes," said a statement Philip Berrigan and his eight fellow protestors issued that day in Catonsville. "We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war and is hostile to the poor."

He expanded those views to include opposition to almost any form of established government that would wage war, deploy nuclear weapons or even use nuclear power. Neither he nor any member of the Jonah House community had voted for years because of their dismissal of government.

"We don't know whether we're qualified to vote because we're all felons," he said recently. "But we intend to pursue it for the elections in 2004 because it's pretty important to get Bush out of there."

Philip Francis Berrigan was born Oct. 5, 1923, in Two Harbors, Minn., then a thriving mining town on the Mesabi Iron Range.

According to a 1976 Current Biography profile, Mr. Berrigan stressed the influence of his father, Thomas, a trade unionist turned Socialist who lost his job as a railroad engineer. Mr. Berrigan later characterized his father as a "tyrannical" man. He said he father's treatment left him apt to "bristle against authority."

"Our mother (Frida) was a mild woman, dedicated to her six sons and to her religion," said his brother, Jim Berrigan, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Salisbury.

After graduating from high school in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Berrigan cleaned New York Central Railroad locomotives. A good athlete, he was a first baseman who played with a local semi-professional team. He also enjoyed golf and basketball in college.

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