Father Daniel Berrigan passed away Saturday at the age of 94.
Berrigan died at Murray-Weigel Hall, a Jesuit health care community in New York City after a long illness. He would have been 95 next week on May 9.
Father Berrigan was very influential on my old Flint friend, film director Michael Moore, and it’s not that much of a stretch to suggest that Berrigan’s influence on me strongly impacted my decision to unleash Mike before an unsuspecting public with “Radio Free Flint” on WTAC & WWCK-FM in the early 1980s.
I was blessed having this brilliant Jesuit rebel as instructor in philosophy and theology during my years at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, an institution to which I have referred several times in recent years - usually in positive commentary on Francis, our current Jesuit Pope.
Berrigan gave me the only “F” I ever received at Le Moyne for submitting a five-page report on a book I never read, even though Father Carmody rewarded that same report with an A+ the prior year in Freshman theology. “This makes me pot boiling mad,” Father Berrigan wrote with giant red marker flourishes . “See me after class.”
I was wise enough to immediately confess my foolish transgression and was assigned a penance requiring me to submit a 1,000-word book report every week until the end of the semester a month away.
After that bumpy start, Father Berrigan and I got along fine. In my senior year, I would give him rides to the Jesuit rectory after theology instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I last saw him in 1998 while I was running a radio group in Youngstown. He had come to the area on a speaking engagement, remembered who I was and asked if I’d “actually read any books lately.”
Father Berrigan was quite enamored with French Jesuit philosopher, mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and regularly corresponded with Thomas Merton, Trappist priest and author of “Seven Storey Mountain.” Merton is generally regarded at the most important American Catholic author of the 20th century.
Berrigan made headlines when he went to North Vietnam in 1968 to bring home the first three U.S. prisoners of war. Historians would note that the Vietnam War didn’t officially end until April 30, 1975.
Later in 1968, Berrigan and his brother Philip, who was also a priest and decorated WWII hero, attracted national attention as “The Berrigan Brothers.” They and seven other Catholic protesters, known as the Catonsville Nine, used homemade napalm to burn draft records they had taken from a Maryland selective service office.
Sentenced to several years in prison, Daniel Berrigan spent four months living underground before the FBI finally captured him.
Until he was well into his 80s, Berrigan was arrested time after time in challenging the status quo, particularly in seeking social justice and repeatedly engaging in dramatic action against the terrifying prospect of nuclear war.
In 1980 he was arrested for taking part in raiding a General Electric missile plant in Pennsylvania, where he and brother Philip rained hammer blows on atomic warheads, and in 2006 for blocking the entrance to the Intrepid Naval Museum in Manhattan.
On the day he turned 80 in 2001, when asked how long he would continue his bold rejection of mindless militarism with acts of civil disobedience, he told reporters, “The day after I’m embalmed. That’s when I’ll give it up.”
In his final years, Berrigan’s primary efforts were directed at helping AIDS patients in the New York area. In 2012, he appeared in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to support the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
He was a most uncommon man - engagingly social, intellectually dazzling and profoundly spiritual.
Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. was the toughest and finest teacher I ever had.
I deserved that “F.”