Over the weekend, families all over the world gathered to celebrate mothers for their lives of sacrifice, support, and love. A large family of devoted social justice activists, Catholic priests, and peacemakers also gathered — this time, to honor the love of a father.
Father Daniel Berrigan would have turned 95 today, passing away last week just shy of May 9. At Sojourners, those who worked alongside or were mentored by their friend Dan have been sharing memories, pictures, and reflections with each other and with others like me, to whom Daniel Berrigan is a legend, not family.
But luckily for me — a Protestant millennial with much work and learning to do before she is the peace activist she aspires to be — a new publication arrives this week as a guide to the Berrigan legacy of nonviolent resistance, prayerful discernment, and close communication with those you love.
The Berrigan Letters provides page-turning insight to the lives of the Berrigan brothers, as told by them to each other. Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin, two academics with a focus on social justice and theology, are publishing a compilation of personal correspondence between Father Daniel Berrigan and his younger brother and peacemaking companion, Philip.
Beginning with letters from Dan in seminary in the 1940s, written to younger brother Philip as he discerns his calling, you can see plainly the love and admiration the two brothers have for one another. Through his words in a letter from 1954, after he traveled to France, you gain insight into Dan’s awakening to the need to work for justice and peace, inspired by the priest workers who “are one of the few steps taken to put a tether on all the billowing theory and drag it to earth.”
These letters reveal history in the making — an excellent primer to the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s and the priests who were arrested in their path of protest. The famous “Catonsville Nine” burning of the Vietnam War draft files, and the subsequent jail sentences and trials, are documented in written exchanges between Daniel and Philip. In one 1968 letter, Philip describes how a seminarian remarked to him that, “’Jail is the only place for a priest to be.’”
This seemed to be one of the underlying mottos of the Berrigan brothers, who brought the gospel to the streets and to the prisons.
Many of the letters are written from various prisons as one or both brothers were serving time for their activism. In a reflection after one of the few times that they served sentences alongside one another, Philip wrote,“Our greatest achievement in jail was learning our meaning to one another and trusting it implicitly,” assuring his brother that they “were not done yet.”
And they certainly were not done yet. For another 30 years, the Berrigan brothers led the nonviolent charge against war, poverty, and racial injustice, writing letters to each other and to other loved ones throughout their years of activism. Their work took them all over the country and world (including to a 1985 Sojourners Peace Pentecost celebration in Washington, D.C.), and these letters catalog their dreams, plans, worries, and prayers during their travels. From news clippings, poems, and reports about trials, to birthday greetings and responses to political elections, the Berrigan brothers expressed honesty, faithfulness, and love for one another and the world.
The editors introduce the collection with the hope that, “those who work for the justice, peace, nonviolence, love, healing and mercy of the gospels and prophets will find something in these pages to sustain them.” Whether you are new to peace activism or were standing alongside Dan and Philip as they protested the Vietnam War, these letters will remind you — like they did me, as I hastily devoured the hundreds in the collection — of the long road to justice, while giving you hope and courage for that struggle.
In a birthday card to his brother on Daniel’s 46th birthday, Philip wrote the following tribute, which I offer now on his 95th:
“You’ve been a vessel of grace to all who know you, met you, heard you or read you. So your birthdays as they come are in a sense, milestones for us all—better still, sources of hope. For thousands would not have such a view of the faithful servant without you.”
Happy Birthday, Father Daniel Berrigan. May your legacy of word and deed drive us forward toward grace, service, hope, and peace.