1996 April 4 –Frank Cordaro’s “Apostle Of Peace: Essay In Honor Of Daniel Berrigan”
John Dear, editor
Orbis books, Maryknoll NY 10545
(From back cover of book)
“Mother Theresa drove me back to Catholism, but Daniel Berrigan keeps me there” Martin Sheen
One of the most influential Catholic figures in the 20th century, Jesuit priest and activist Daniel Berrigan has inspired countless people of faith and conscience to pursue the Gospel vision of a world without war. In 1968 he made national headlines as one of the Catonsville 9, who destroyed draft files to protest the Vietnam War. In the nearly thirty years since then he has continued to challenge the conscience of both his country and the church by his uncompromising manner of Christian witness.
In Apostle Of Peace reflective essays by forty fellow travelers celebrate Berrigan’s life and gifts as a peacemaker, prophet, poet, priest, and “keeper of the word.” These essays, by distinguished friends and colleagues from every walk of life, are written in honor of Berrigan’s 75th birthday.
The following essay by Fr. Frank Cordaro was published in Apostle Of Peace
A Letter from Prison
Greetings from Club Fed Yankton. I’m writing from the federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota. I am completing a six-month prison term for “crossing the line” at the Strategic Nuclear Command (StratCom) Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, just south of Omaha, Nebraska. This is the fourth six-month prison term I’ve done for trespassing at Offutt since becoming a Catholic priest in 1985. It would not be too far afield to say I have Father Dan Berrigan to thank for these opportunities to be imprisoned for my faith.
From very early in my faith-based peace-and-justice formation, I have looked upon Dan and Phil Berrigan as icons and heroes. They are two men whose vision and Leadership in the ways of Christian peacemaking in the U.S. Catholic community have helped set the mark for what goes for being faithful to the nonviolent spirit of Jesus in the last years of the twentieth century. As the years have passed, Dan and Phil Berrigan have also become good friends and mentors for me in my Journey.
I got to know Dan and Phil in the early 1970’s, when I was close to dropping out of the seminary after becoming active in the Catholic Worker movement. While still in the seminary, I spent the summer of 1975 at the Davenport Catholic Worker. I fell in love with the Catholic Worker movement. The following fall, I fell in love with a wonderful woman. That next summer I dropped out of the seminary and helped start the Des Moines Catholic Worker. It was early in this process that I first became a student of the Berrigan brothers, learning of their story and their witness, first through their writings and then by attending their talks.
In those early years, I made every possible effort to attend Dan Berrigan’s presentations in the region, no matter what the sacrifice. I’d drop whatever I was doing, clear my calendar.
I sometimes drove all night in order to be in that audience to hear Dan Berrigan. In Iowa alone, I heard Dan in Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Ames, and Davenport. I also traveled to Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, and South Bend to hear Dan speak.
It did not matter what the subject of Dan’s talk was or whether he was the featured speaker or on a panel, whether it was a reading of his poetry or his giving a lecture. I just wanted to be there, in his presence, to absorb what I could.
For years I did not understand much of his poetry. Half the time I missed the meaning of his prose. Yet I knew down deep in my “unsophisticated way” that this high-sounding, well-educated Jesuit poet was to have a profound and lasting effect on my life.
After each presentation I would patiently wait my turn in line with other admirers just to shake his hand and thank him for his good words and for being a faithful witness.
My first real personal encounter with Dan happened when I was visiting the New York Catholic Worker. Dan came to St. Joseph House to celebrate the Friday night Mass. It was right after the evening meal. Dan appeared very informal, with workman’s trousers, black turtleneck shirt, and a medallion around his neck. A simple soup-kitchen cup and bowl on a dining table served as chalice and patter on the alter. A small candle and crucifix completed the liturgical setting. A Bible was used for the readings. There was nothing else: no sacramentary, no vestments. Just twelve people around a soup-kitchen table. The Gospel told about the feeding of the multitudes. There was a dialogue homily. Dan talked first; others shared. I remember talking longer than Dan, but saying much less. I was embarrassed afterward.
It was one of the highlights at the Des Moines Catholic Worker when I helped bring Dan to town in 1979 for a dramatic reading of his play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. It was a fund raiser for the Catholic Worker. Dan, of course, played himself during the reading of the play. It was a great success. (We repeated the performance with Dan in 1994 at Dowling High School in Des Moines, the same Catholic high school that hosted the 1979 performance.) Dan charged us nothing for his time and effort, and asked only if we could cover his expenses .
The best gig involving Dan was having him give one of the keynote addresses at the first Faith and Resistance Retreat held in Glenwood, Iowa, in February 1985. This retreat was hosted by the late Bishop Maurice Dingman. More than 600 people attended. The three-day effort ended with 240 of those at the retreat “crossing the line” at Strategic Air Command at nearby Offutt. I shall never forget the touching introduction Bishop Dingman gave Dan, and how Bishop Dingman embraced him as Dan approached the speaker’s podium. (An enlarged framed photo of that embrace now hangs on my office wall.)
One of the things that attracted me to Dan and Phil Berrigan was their uncompromising reading of the scriptures. The New Testament serves as their primary source for interpreting reality. Everything from their personal understanding of themselves to the larger world in which they live is seen through the lens of the New Testament. Their sense of church—its traditions, dogmas, and structures—is measured by these scriptures as well as the larger social, economic, and political structures and institutions that rule the world.
From this uncompromising reading of the New Testament came a clarion call to follow the ways of the nonviolent Jesus. Dan and Phil took on the no-killing, love-your-enemies directive explicit in the New Testament, which was already made known and claimed in U.S. Catholic circles by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. They gave it new form and focus during the Vietnam war years. It was during this time that Dan and Phil taught us an important lesson on how to get the Church to face up to the nonviolent spirit of Jesus. They helped clarify for U.S. Catholic peacemakers the focus and direction our efforts should take in confronting U.S. militarism and war making.
In the beginning of their anti-Vietnam war efforts, the Berrigans directed much of their attention and energies toward the church— individual Catholics, parish congregations, religious communities, and bishops. Their reasoning: If the Catholic community knew the sobering facts about the Vietnam war, and our government’s murderous and unjust participation in it, and applied a basic reading of the gospels, the U.S. Catholic community would rise up and condemn the war. The U.S. Catholic bishops would declare the war unjust and forbid any Catholics from participating in it, and that would put an end to it.
They soon found out that the roots of imperial militarism and violence run very deep in the U.S. Catholic faith community. The church as a whole was not ready to sever its ties with our nation’s war makers. (It still is not.) Dan and Phil figured the most direct and quickest way to get the Church on the right side of the anti-war, anti-imperial struggle was to take responsibility upon themselves to act. They turned their attention and energies to confronting the nation’s war making structures and institutions.
Their refocused direction took shape when they entered the Catonsville draft-board offices, walked out with bundles of draft-card files, and burned them. They did this bold act in broad daylight. They even stuck around to “‘fess up” to the crime. They let the symbolism of their action and the testimony of their convicted persons explain the meaning.
With the burning of the draft-card files at Catonsville, the ways of the Catholic peacemaking in the United States were changed forever. A whole new form of faith-based nonviolent resistance was born. The same basic principles and faith reasoning lead Dan and Phil to participate in the first Plowshares action, which took place at the General Electric Nuclear Weapons facility at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. They made sound gospel sense at Catonsville in 1968, and the same sound gospel sense rang equally true at King of Prussia in 1980.
One of the moral pitfalls for us peace-and-justice folks who spend a great deal of time and energy condemning unjust social, economic, and political structures is that we tend to become self-righteous. We don’t always distinguish the social sins and evils of the systems we are confronting from the people caught up in the fallen structures and institutions.
I have always admired how Dan has avoided this shortcoming. Through the years he has spoken the harsh truths to the “powers that be,” namely the social evils of our day, yet managed never to condemn the people caught up in them. In making critical judgments of systems and structures, Dan never puts himself above anyone who takes part in these flawed systems and structures.
Given Dan’s history and the struggles fought through the years, given the powerful people who find his message altogether too much to bear (both inside and outside the church), this is no small feat. This non judgmental discipline reflects a basic humble spirit that has helped mold Dan Berrigan.
It is the same humble spirit that has greeted many of us, through the years, who have come to Dan for counsel and advice. He would take each of us, compassionately listen to our concerns, and give far more encouragement than advice. I know this to be true because I have been the benefactor of his wise counsel on more than one occasion. For this I am personally grateful.
In 1983, after seven years at the Catholic Worker and after numerous protests, arrests, and jailings, I explored the possibility of reentering the ordination process. I had fallen out of love—it happens. Responding to a long-standing, sincere, and deep call to serve the church as all ordained priest, I asked the Diocese of Des Moines to take a second look.
Good Bishop Dingman took me back and sent me to St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. I did two years’ time at St. John’s. I raised what holy heck I could, making clear I was not relinquishing my Catholic Worker-resistance ways. And to the surprise of many, myself included, Bishop Dingman ordained me a priest into the Des Moines diocese in June of 1985.
I now consider myself a second generation “Berrigan-type” priest. As a beneficiary of Dan’s priestly journey, I was ordained with my eyes open to the nonviolent resistance spirit of Jesus found in the Gospels and to the imperial setting that we find our U.S. church in today. I consider Dan a role model for my priestly life.
As I approach my tenth anniversary as an ordained Catholic priest, a priest in good standing with the “big C” Church, I am particularly grateful for Dan’s stick-to-it-ness in staying both a Jesuit and a priest during these last fifty-five years, no small accomplishment. Dan’s perseverance and grace to stay within these institutional confines give me hope and reason to believe I might do the same, at least good cause to make every effort to do so.
On August 6,1993, I got to do something I have wanted to do ever since being ordained. I was able to con celebrate the Eucharist with Dan Berrigan. The liturgy took place on the anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the entrance of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site just before a trespassing “civil disobedience” witness was to take place.
There was nothing dramatic about the liturgy. The symbols were simple: a rock mound, a piece of art, a wooden cross, a makeshift table for an altar, a Bible, some bread and wine. The Nevada desert on an already hot early August morning served as worship space. There were seventy-five nonviolent peace-and-justice-Catholic Worker types in a circle around the altar. As Dan led the opening prayer I thought to myself how blessed I’ve been to know this good and faithful man over the last twenty years. He has meant much to me and so many of my contemporaries in the U.S. resistance church. And I prayed that I make of my life in some measure the same faithful and generous witness Dan has with his.
Thank you, Dan Berrigan, for making a path!
Happy seventy-fifth birthday!