Dan Berrigan's Hidden Works of Mercy | Sojourners

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Dan Berrigan's Hidden Works of Mercy

The well-known peace activist spent much of his life bringing comfort to the dying.
By Patrick Henry

DANIEL BERRIGAN WAS one of the best-known American peace activists of the 20th century. But there’s a lesser-known aspect of his Christian commitment worth noting as we celebrate the centennial of Berrigan’s birth on May 9: his work on behalf of the material and spiritual needs of New York City’s “discarded souls,” in particular those suffering the ravages of cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Berrigan’s peace activism had deep roots. In 1964, he co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 1967, he and his brother, Phil, became the first Catholic priests to be arrested for opposing the war in Vietnam. In May 1968, Berrigan and eight others, including Phil—in an act that would change the nature of Christian nonviolent resistance—entered Local Draft Board No. 33 in Catonsville, Md. The nine seized Selective Service records and burned them outside the building with homemade napalm. For these actions, recounted in Berrigan’s play (and later movie) The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, he served 18 months of a three-year sentence in Danbury Federal Prison.

In 1980, Berrigan took part in the first Plowshares action at the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa., where, in a symbolic disarmament, participants damaged two nose cones of Mark 12A missiles and poured their blood on secret blueprints. Berrigan continued to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued construction of nuclear weapons until his death in 2016.

Daniel Berrigan became a cultural icon, appearing with his brother on the Jan. 25, 1971, cover of Time magazine (“Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans”). Over the years, Berrigan, an award-winning poet, published more than 50 books of poetry, plays, social criticism, and, above all, biblical and religious commentary. He taught at Fordham, Yale, Columbia, and Loyola University New Orleans, reaching thousands of students with his message of nonviolence. Actor Martin Sheen, who was arrested dozens of times with Berrigan, claimed that Dorothy Day got him back to the church and Berrigan kept him there. In 1986, Berrigan appeared in Roland Joffé’s film The Mission and began a close friendship with the film’s star, Jeremy Irons, whose son he would baptize. Berrigan’s May 6, 2016, funeral at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan was attended by hundreds of people, including Dar Williams who sang “I Had No Right,” the song she had composed for Berrigan years before.

Berrigan’s work with people at the end of their lives is a less celebrated, but no less important, part of his story.

Keeping sane on a “ship of fools”

FROM 1979 TO 1984, Berrigan cared for the dying as a volunteer at St. Rose’s Home in Manhattan. St. Rose’s housed at no charge 50 patients who were terminally ill with cancer and who came to the home to die. In We Die Before We Live: Talking with the Very Ill, Berrigan describes his experiences there, washing bodies, emptying bed pans, feeding the dying, and listening to and praying with and for them.

The staff was dedicated to making people’s lives bearable, comfortable, and lively for as long as they lasted. “No one is forced-fed,” writes Berrigan, “whether on religion, psycho-semantics, or antics” and “there are no state snoops because there is no state money.” St. Rose’s was simply “a laboratory in dying,” a “ship of fools” sailing on heroically while Berrigan and the other orderlies “bail, row, weep, swab the decks, change beds, ferry in the newly arrived near dead, and try to keep sane.”

At St. Rose’s, Berrigan found what he saw as the true church where, enveloped by the ever-present stench of cancer, the gospel was practiced. A mystical union formed between the orderlies and the dying. Berrigan offered consolation and tried to help the dying make peace with themselves and others. Why did he begin volunteering at St. Rose’s? He felt something was lacking in his life of “teaching, writing, and pilgrimaging to the Pentagon to throw ashes and blood at the idols.” He didn’t go to St. Rose’s as a chaplain dispensing the sacraments. He went to “greet” the dying, “hold their hands ... talk to them, learn from them ... dressed in old clothes, ready for whatever service seems required or helpful ... and to be found in the right place when the Lord comes.”

Snapshots of compassion

LIKE DRAFT BOARD centers and St. Rose’s—sites where people were legally declared marginal and ready for death—St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village was another stop frequented by Berrigan. Here he worked on and off for roughly 12 years with people dying of HIV/AIDS, which from 1981 to 2001 would take the lives of 450,000 Americans—75,000 of them New York City dwellers.

Many people with AIDS were scorned, isolated, exiled, shamed, and treated like lepers. To Berrigan, the Catholic Church’s attitude—exemplified by supposedly biblical denunciations that God’s wrath had descended upon people with AIDS for their “unnatural” lifestyles—was “a very whiff of brimstone.” In the thick of these condemnations, St. Vincent’s responded instead to the gospel’s call to love. Working with many LGBTQ doctors and nurses, the staff consistently fought homophobia, pushed for sensitivity training and the compassionate treatment of all patients and the patients’ loved ones, and saved thousands of lives.

Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS records Berrigan’s experiences working at St. Vincent’s, where most of the patients were Catholic. To those suffering from intolerable pain, shame, betrayal, and ostracism, the Supportive Care Program’s staff did their best to offer “care and caring, nursing and nurturing, medicine and ministry.” There is understandably a general tone of sadness throughout this 1989 book, which interweaves dialogue and Berrigan’s richly imagistic, poetic prose of witness.

Berrigan provides narrative snapshots of a dozen or more young and formerly vigorous men whom he came to know. Sometimes it’s an unnamed person referred to only as a “drug abuser” who contracted AIDS through needles, or a woman who asks Berrigan to visit her ex-husband who she is taking care of, the man completely wasted by AIDS. Berrigan brings the man Communion, and the man asks Berrigan to, as Berrigan puts it, “hold his face in my hands.” Berrigan celebrates the woman and paints a scene where neither anger nor conflict is allowed the last word: “He, she, and I, the bread of life in the breach of death, the banishing of fear, a healing that surpassed unimaginably the skills of this world.”

More snapshots: To Berrigan, Paul is “another Job,” the suffering prophet, who asks to be confirmed before he dies and murmurs on his deathbed, “I’m going home, I’m going home.” Frank, a “Lazarine corpse,” full of purple lesions and a nose blown up like a clown’s. Oscar, whose whole body is ravaged by AIDS, is a “hanging thread of a man,” whose hand Berrigan holds at his bedside. Ambrose, writes Berrigan, is a combination of “sweetness and innocence,” a childlike being but, unfortunately, a Job-like being as well.

The first AIDS patient Berrigan meets, a young artist named Donald, hauntingly appears as “the mold of death.” Mike is an endless talker who makes of Berrigan “a listener of last resort.” An actor and teacher of acting, he has abandoned the religion of his youth (“no end of threats, punishment, hellfire”) and has found the Quakers and, on occasion, the Methodists. Berrigan brings roses and a book, holds his hand, and listens. Robert, whose brother also has AIDS, has lost 18 friends to the epidemic between 1984 and 1987, a period during which he had attempted suicide. Born Episcopalian, Robert converted to Catholicism and worked for the church hierarchy for years. Now he is back with the Episcopalians. He asks Berrigan to be part of his funeral service in the Episcopal Church.

Berrigan seems to adapt so well here that we need to reflect for a moment on the unimaginable anguish of witnessing the slow, inexorable disintegration of young men, one after the other. His time caring for people with AIDS constituted “a dark night of unknowing ... all menace, a greater darkness in the darkness.” Under these circumstances, establishing friendship was never easy. All friendships were either appointed (“Would you kindly visit my son or my friend?”) or forced (You knock on a door, make contact, then come when called.). “So much had to be taken on faith, on both sides.”

More poignantly, all friendships were temporary and ended with death, which always followed the inevitable cycle: down and out, up again, usually only briefly, then down for good. Appropriately, Berrigan writes: “I must rein in my grief, lest it pull me under.” Despite the myriad difficulties involved for both the patient and the volunteer, Berrigan—who particularly looked after the young and those without families—offered friendship and consolation.


Berrigan knew he needed to listen, to witness, and to console the abandoned, suffering souls he found there.

“Who could have dreamed such a blessing?”

BERRIGAN'S WORDS PAINT several unforgettably moving portraits of people with AIDS he got to know well at St. Vincent’s, people he later visited in their homes and for whom he sometimes cooked dinner in his own apartment. Luke was a student in a Jesuit school where Berrigan had lectured. He had become a master chef, trained in France, and had had a successful restaurant in Brooklyn. We find him at death’s door in St. Vincent’s, with his parents at the foot of his bed, the family’s Calvary. “Luke is the peacemaker in our family,” his mother tells Berrigan. All they want is for him to die “a good Catholic.” Berrigan assures them that their son is “already seeing to that.” Luke is resigned and has accepted his fate. His only wish is that his parents, too, will accept his death and not grieve for him. Berrigan, who had at first lashed out with a “Why have you forsaken me?” at “The God of silence ... the God of no comment” at the foot of this cross and unable to offer formulas to comfort those suffering, would finally find God in Luke’s courage and belief in the face of death, and in the steadfast faith of Luke’s parents.

Richard, another Catholic, a former brother in a religious order who has left the church behind, is a slow-moving, serene 40-year-old. He had been a carpenter and plasterer until he was no longer physically able to work. Berrigan met him too late to become a friend, but he invited Richard and Andrew, Richard’s friend, to dinner in his apartment with another person with AIDS. Andrew had been a friend of Richard’s for years and visited him in the hospital. Two years earlier, when Richard was discharged from the hospital, he had nowhere to go. “He had no one,” Andrew explains. “And I thought, Yes, he does. He has me.” Andrew took Richard home, without a thought or an inkling of what a heavy burden he had assumed. This completely stunned and humbled Berrigan: “I hadn’t heard it before,” he muses, “and yet I had. Dorothy Day ‘took people home.’” But “this Jesuit has not so far done so. And is by no means proud of the confession.”

Walking the halls of St. Vincent’s, Berrigan knew that what he needed was to listen, to witness, to console the abandoned, suffering souls he found there—and to help them find peace by reconciling them with themselves, their families, if possible, and, if they suggested, with God. He was richly recompensed for his efforts, repeatedly witnessing extraordinary instances of love, sacrifice, and commitment in persons afflicted with AIDS, which enabled him to imagine a new, faith-strengthening cycle of suffering, birth, and rejoicing. “Who could have dreamed such a blessing?” he exclaims. “More to the point, who could have deserved it?”

In his 1973 book Absurd Convictions, Modest Hopes, Berrigan claims that “The kind of religion [that he and his brother practice] takes its start around the clues offered at the altar but tries to end up amid the needs of real people.” His “works of mercy” have spiritual roots emanating from a religious impulse that follows the divine command to reach out to the marginalized and the destitute dying and to find God in them.

Ultimately, as Berrigan makes clear, these works affirm St. Paul’s notion that we are all members of the same body. Berrigan’s compassionate work at St. Rose’s and St. Vincent’s, as well as his nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear weapons, must also be understood through the lens of the spiritual works of mercy. Together, they instructed the ignorant, counseled the doubtful, forgave offenses, comforted the afflicted, and were actualized prayers for the living and the dead.

Patrick Henry is an emeritus professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and has written about Daniel Berrigan for Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, and Shalom: Jewish Peace Letter.