By Ryan Di Corpo
The Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., 94, passed away on April 30, 2016 at Murray-Weigel Hall. Much has been written of the cultural and religious significance of Fr. Berrigan’s tireless efforts for peace and justice. And since his death, much has been written in regards to his legacy as a social activist, a man of conscience, a servant of God and as a constant embodiment of the Gospel of Christ. Personally, I possess no great insights into Father’s activism — the napalm-blaze of draft files and the blood stains on nuclear missile documents. I am not amongst the truly notable persons — such as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Thích Nhất Hạnh — who befriended Fr. Berrigan. What I do possess, however, is a unique perspective on what I now know to have been the final months of Father’s life. Therefore, I present the following reflections on my interactions with “Fr. Dan” (as he was known to Dorothy Day) in memory of he who lived life not for himself, but for others. In memory of a saint who lived for you and for me.
One autumn day 2015 in Murray-Weigel Hall, Fr. Dan sat in the solarium, silently observing the beauty of the day. The day, to most, was not beautiful: the wind cold and collecting dew against the solarium glass, the clouds dark and sputtering droplets of rain; the sky a muted grey, obscuring all traces of sunlight. But the day, to Dan, was as beautiful and as vibrant as the crimson flamingo flowers against the dampened windowpanes. Fr. Dan came to echo a similar sentiment while sitting in the University Church during Fordham’s annual Christmastime Festival of Lessons and Carols. At some point during the evening of the Festival, around the singing of “The First Noel,” Fr. Dan began to weep.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he repeated throughout the concert.
Perhaps he was informed by the words of his friend Dorothy Day, who quotes Dostoevsky thusly: “Beauty will save the world.”
My first meeting with Fr. Dan was the only occasion where we spoke of his activism, his relationships with other significant Catholic social justice leaders and his past works for peace. In our other times together, Fr. Dan rarely referred to the “radical” actions which fashioned him both a polarizing and an iconic figure in the public eye. However, the key word here is “rarely.” In one of our earliest times spent together, Dan pointed to a picture high above his desk, a desk located in an adequately-sized room cluttered with books, letters, gifts from devoted followers, miscellaneous religious objects and remembrances of family members since passed. The picture which Dan pointed to depicts him tossing a match into a flaming pile of draft files in a Catonsville, Maryland parking lot in May 1968. Dan referenced the picture:
“Illegal activity,” he laughed.
“Yeah, and how’d that go for you, Dan?” I asked knowingly.
Father laughed only the more.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair when I first met him, Fr. Dan maintained that sacral desire aflame to go out and cause some good trouble in the name of God. When I first shook Father’s hand, I was struck by its heat. The day was cold and raw, and Dan was not running a fever. But his hand was hot, almost burningly so — as if the man was ablaze inside with some fervent passion for his faith, ablaze inside with a passion to continually labor for those who suffer due to the manifold sins of unsympathetic societies. Dan, at 80, declared when he would end his work: “The day after I’m embalmed.”
“How are you?” I asked Fr. Dan, in beginning our first meeting.
“I’m well,” said Father. “Just getting back up on my feet again.”
Fr. Dan would continue that rhetoric until the very end. A considerable portion of the last time I ever saw Father comprised of me trying to help him stand on his own two feet again. He was not going anywhere, and the nurses of Murray-Weigel surely did not let him get too far if he tried. But as long as there is conflict, as long as there is war, as long as there is injustice, Fr. Dan was going to stand again.
During our first substantial period of time spent together, Fr. Dan asked me a puzzling question coming from a man who lived his life according to the following charge: “[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is 2:4).
“Will you give me back my sword?” Dan asked.
“For what?” I responded.
“I wish I knew,” he said.
But Dan knew. He read The New York Times every morning with his breakfast. He is well-aware of the struggles of a modern people. And with this knowledge, Fr. Dan was ever-ready, until the very end, with his sword of peace for the battle against violence: his sword of righteousness for the battle against corruption, his sword of love for the battle against hate.
April 2016. Another meeting with Fr. Dan. On this occasion, our encounter was mainly marked by the nearly prayerful silence I’ve come to expect from him.
“I don’t think one has to […] concoct a religious vocabulary in order to share one’s faith,” said Dan in a 2011 interview. “And when I sit with a dying person […] he knows that I’m there for him.”
Fr. Dan and I simply kept each other company during those times, and that was enough.
At one point, I watched Fr. Dan open his top-left desk drawer and hand me a book of his — a gift. It was his 1978 book of poems and prayers, entitled Uncommon Prayer: A Book of Psalms. I was hesitant to take it, but eventually, I accepted. Fr. Dan remained silent for a while longer.
“So long,” he then said.
The next time I would see Fr. Dan would be at his wake. On the first Sunday following his death, the Mass saw the following proclaimed, from the Gospel of John: “Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23). Fr. Dan kept the word of God. Further, he made himself a servant to the least of God’s people. He lived his entire life in unremitting imitation of the Word Incarnate, who is Christ.
While I am greatly saddened by the death of Fr. Dan, I do not mourn the death of a friendship. I will always have friendship with Dan. As I now look upon another gift which Father once gave me — the gift of a dark blue hat bearing on its front the number “9” (yes, for the Catonsville Nine) — and realize that Dan has left not only a possession of his with me, but he has also left an enduring reminder of his message of acceptance and peace. Like friendship, the message of Fr. Dan will certainly not cease to be in my spirit or in the spirits of those who were touched by him. Now, I take solace in the words of Cicero, the great Roman orator. Writing in 44 B.C. in his dialogue Lælius de Amicitia, Cicero states that “veræ amicitiæ sempiternæ sunt.” Translation: “real friendships are eternal.”