The Common Good
March-April 2003

We Didn't Quit

by Elizabeth Palmberg | March-April 2003

Philip Berrigan, 79, the first American Catholic priest jailed for political dissent, according to one biographer, died on December 6, 2002, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Philip Berrigan, 79, the first American Catholic priest jailed for political dissent, according to one biographer, died on December 6, 2002, in Baltimore, Maryland. He had dedicated his life to living the gospel through nonviolent struggles against racism, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and U.S. militarism.

Raised in a large, working-class family in Minnesota and upstate New York, Berrigan inherited a concern for social justice from his socialist father. During World War II, Philip was drafted and served as an infantryman, an irony that was not lost on him during his long career as a pacifist: "I killed in order to prove the immorality of killing," he said later.

Appalled at the racism he witnessed in the army, Berrigan went on to be ordained in 1955 in the Society of St. Joseph, an order of Catholic priests devoted to serving African Americans. He taught at the all-black St. Augustine's High School in New Orleans until 1963 and became involved in the civil rights movement, participating in marches and freedom rides. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Stokely Carmichael once described Berrigan as "the only white man who knows where it's at." The movement schooled Berrigan in the principles and practice of nonviolence and impelled him to his first arrest, in Selma, Alabama, in the early 1960s.

Soon, Berrigan's commitment to racial justice led him to question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam: "Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral, and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent, and idealistic abroad?" Because of his antiwar sentiments, he was transferred in 1965 from a seminary teaching post to a poor African-American parish in Baltimore.

On October 27, 1967, Berrigan and three other protesters entered a Baltimore draft board office and poured blood out of Mr. Clean bottles onto draft files. Six months later, Berrigan was catapulted into the national spotlight when he, his brother Daniel, and seven others removed hundreds of draft cards from a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm, and prayed the Lord's Prayer while waiting to be arrested. The "Catonsville Nine" received widespread media coverage and catalyzed religious protest against the war in Vietnam. It was this action and those that followed that kept the Catholic Church from becoming a "wholly non-prophet organization," said one speaker at Berrigan's wake.

During his two-and-a-half year prison term for the Baltimore and Catonsville actions, Berrigan secretly married Elizabeth McAlister, an activist nun in the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Berrigan and McAlister, who were officially excommunicated by the Catholic Church when they disclosed their marriage in 1973, founded Jonah House that same year, a community whose members "live simply, pray together, share duties, and attempt to expose the violence of militarism and consumerism." The couple had three children: Frida in 1974, Jerry in 1975, and Kate in 1981.

With the end of the war in Vietnam, Berrigan expanded his activism to address all U.S. militarism and the nuclear arms race. On September 9, 1980, inspired by Isaiah's vision of beating swords into plowshares, Berrigan and seven others entered a General Electric missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, to hammer and pour blood on Mark 12A warheads. This action launched the Plowshares movement. Berrigan participated in five more Plowshares actions and inspired hundreds of others to do the same.

Over the course of his life, Berrigan was arrested more than 100 times and spent more than 11 years behind bars, his final term ending in December 2001. He was also a tireless speaker and writer who made a point of answering every letter he received.

Berrigan died at Jonah House, surrounded by family and community members, two months after being diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer. "We tried to stay in there, speaking some sanity and some nonviolence," Philip Berrigan said in 1997. "We didn't quit. That's epitaph enough."

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor at Sojourners.

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