Daniel Berrigan was born the fifth of six sons to Thomas Berrigan and Frieda Fromhart Berrigan, who were married in northern Minnesota by a priest who had served Native Americans. Berrigan described his Irish father as an “extraordinary conglomerate of passion and illusion,” whereas his German-born mother was practical and deeply devout. When Daniel was five, the family moved to a farm near Syracuse, New York, where he was educated at St. John the Baptist, a schooling that he felt was a “mitigated catastrophe,” since most of the nuns, “ignorant and unhappy,” made sure that these traits flourished in their charges. His father, a poet manqué, familiarized his son with such Romantics as Lord Byron, but his son preferred the poets of his own time. In high school, a nun who manifested a humanitarianism and holiness that he found attractive saw him as a potential priest, as did a friend and classmate. After graduation, he decided to enter the Society of Jesus because of this religious order’s “revolutionary history.”
His life as a Jesuit began on August 14, 1939, when he entered the novitiate at St.-Andrew-on-Hudson near Poughkeepsie, New York. After two years of ascetical and spiritual training, he took his perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This was followed by two years of literary studies in the Latin and Greek classics. During this time, he published his first poem, which he later described as a postadolescent “Marian effusion,” in the Jesuit magazine America. The next phase of his Jesuit training occurred at Woodstock in the Maryland countryside, where he studied Scholastic philosophy. He experienced World War II vicariously through his brothers, who fought in Africa and Europe, and he learned of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima while he was a patient in a Baltimore hospital. The horrors of this war helped to solidify his growing pacifist outlook.
From 1946 to 1949, he taught at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City, New Jersey. He also met Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, who encouraged him to minister to the poor. After returning to Woodstock to pursue his theological studies, he was ordained a priest on June 19, 1952, and was soon sent to France. The time Berrigan spent in France, where he met men who had been engaged in the Resistance and others who participated in the worker-priest movement, was particularly important in shaping his formation as a social and political activist. He returned to New York in 1954, and during the next decade, while he first taught at a Jesuit school in Brooklyn and then a Jesuit college in Syracuse, he devoted more and more time to his avocations of poetry and political activism. Through letters and meetings, he became friends with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was an accomplished poet and spiritual writer. Merton tried to mitigate Berrigan’s increasing radicalism, particularly after Roger LaPorte, a member of the Catholic Worker movement, burned himself to death in the United Nations Plaza to protest the Vietnam War. Berrigan participated in services honoring the “sacrifice” of this young man, which he compared to the crucifixion of Christ. Berrigan’s activities disturbed Church and Jesuit authorities, and he was sent to Mexico and South America.
Upon his return to the United States, Berrigan, increasingly distraught over the war in Vietnam, became even more politically active. Early in 1968, he traveled with historian Howard Zinn to Hanoi, where they negotiated the release of several captured American pilots. Later that year, Berrigan, his brother Philip, and seven other Catholics forced their way into a federal office in Catonsville, Maryland, removed draft files, and burned them with homemade napalm. They were taken into custody, indicted, convicted, and sentenced. During the summer of 1970, Daniel Berrigan avoided imprisonment by going...
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