A Radical Priest, R.I.P.

With declining church attendance, fewer of us are aware of the differences between the various Christian churches, especially the various branches of the Catholic church. When I was researching the history of South America, I became fascinated by the Jesuits, who founded missions there t protect the native peoples from slavery. Their group was founded by a soldier, Ignatius Loyola, and they were the toughest to join and produced some of the most fierce, intelligent and revolutionary priests. They promoted education, with many Protestants in Northern Europe being educated by them, and their processions and plays pioneered modern stagecraft. They were described as the Janissaries of the Catholic church, and some writers believe that if not for them, the Catholic church would have died.

In modern times, they have had bad press for their mistreatment of children, but some of our greatest talents have emerged from their schools, such as Anthony Burgess and Alfred Hitchcock. The current pope is also one of them.

Last week one of America’s greatest radicals, the Jesuit priest Rev Daniel Kerrigan (born 1921) died. This is from the i paper:

His defiant protests helped shape americans’ opposition to the Vietnam War. And they landed the Rev Daniel Berrigan behind bars.

The priest, writer and poet, who became a household name in the US in the 1960s after being imprisoned for burning draft files in a protest against the war, died on Saturday. He was 94.

Kerrigan and his younger brother, the Rev Philip Berrigan, emerged as leaders of the radical anti-war movement n the 1960s. The Berrigan brothers entered a draft board in Catonsville,Maryland, on 17 May 1968, with 7 other activists and removed records of young men about to be shipped off to Vietnam. the group took the files outside and burnt them. The Catonsville Nine, as they came to be known, were convicted on federal charges accusing the of destroying US property and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967. All were jailed on 9 November 1968 to between two and three and a half years.

Kerrigan wrote about the courtroom experience in a one-act play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was later made into a film. The asked in 2009 by America, a national Catholic magazine, whether he had any regrets, he replied, “I could have done sooner the things I did., like Catonsville.”

Kerrigan grew up in Syracuse, New York, with his parents and 5 brothers. He Joined the Jesuit order after high school and taught preparatory school in New Jersey before being ordained a priest in 1952. He began writing poetry as a seminarian.

His work captured the attention of an editor at Macmillan who referred the material to the poet Marianne Moore. Her endorsement led to the publication of Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957.

Berrigan credited Dorothy Day, a social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper with introducing him to the pacifist movement and influencing his thinking about war. Much later, while visiting Paris in 1963 on a teaching sabbatical from Le Moyne College, Berrigan met French Jesuits who spoke of the dire situation in what was then Indochina. Soon after that, he and his brother founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which helped to organise protests against US involvement in Vietnam.

In an interview with The Nation magazine on the 40th anniversary of he Catonsville demonstration Kerrigan lamented that the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s evaporated with the passage of time. “the short fuse of the american left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life,” he said. “It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognisable form without a spiritual base.”

Berrigan’s writings include Prison Poems, published in 1973; We Die Before We Live: Talking with the Very Ill, a 1980 book based on his experience working in a cancer ward; and his autobiography To Dwell in Peace, published in 1987.

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