Success: To Be Just Half as Prophetic as Daniel Berrigan



Megan Wilson-Reitz is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. She is a long-time member of the extended community network of the Cleveland Catholic Worker, with whom she has gotten in trouble many times while advocating publicly for a more just and peaceful world. She and her husband are raising two tiny Catholic radicals in the City of Cleveland.


Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., [left] being detained with his brother Fr. Phil Berrigan [center] after being arrested for one of many acts of nonviolent civil disobedience during their lifetimes, to call attention to the violence and inhumanity of war.

“So let me tell you a story about a time that I spent the night in the Cleveland Municipal Women’s Jail.”

This casual statement is my one foolproof classroom attention-grabber. Even the ubiquitous cell phones are temporarily forgotten in my students’ amazement.

“YOU got arrested? On purpose?” they ask incredulously. “But WHY?”

This question generally leads into a long classroom discussion about the history and practice of religiously motivated civil disobedience. As with most discussions in an intro course, few of them will remember any of it. When the class ends for the semester, however, there is one thing they always tell their friends. “Take her class, dude, she really believes in this stuff. She even went to jail for it.”

The moral of this story? Action teaches better than any words.

In the classroom, my story inevitably tiptoes back to another story, a story of action. “Let me tell you,” I say, “about an amazing Jesuit named Daniel Berrigan.”

A Giant, Faithful to the Radical Jesus

There are many witnesses who serve as inspiration and challenge for me as I try to live my life in a way that is faithful to the radical Jesus I know from the Gospel. But even among this gathering of great witnesses, Daniel Berrigan is a giant.

Yesterday, at the age of 94, Fr. Daniel Berrigan went home to the God he has served with fierceness and fire, humor and generosity, and steadfast loyalty, for many decades. The importance of his legacy is, for me, impossible to overestimate.  

As an academic, I’ve always been envious of the man’s ability to combine incisive academic writing with poetic virtuosity. As an activist, I’ve always been inspired by his principled action for justice. As an artist, I’ve always admired the brazen theatricality of his public witnesses.

Success: To Be Just Half As Prophetic as Daniel Berrigan

If I could only be half as erudite, half as prophetic, half as outrageous, as even one of Daniel Berrigan’s writings or actions, I would consider my life successfully and faithfully lived. He is truly a Christian for our times.

As a young Jesuit, Berrigan captured the attention of the world in May of 1968, only weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he and eight others (among them his brother Philip, then also a Catholic priest) broke into a draft office in Catonsville, Maryland and removed 378 draft records, which they burned in the parking lot with homemade napalm, praying all the while. It was an outlandish, and at the time, unthinkable, thing for Catholic priests to do. Breaking and entering! Destruction of property! Risking arrest! Doing time in prison!

The Catonsville action may have been Berrigan’s most famous, but it was only one of many public actions against war and violence. He would continue this witness in one way or another for the rest of his life, putting his body in the way of the war machine, pouring his own blood over weapons of mass destruction, and donning over and again the prison uniform, which he called “clerical attire I highly recommend for a new church.”

As my students ask, “On purpose? Why?”

Why indeed? Because Jesus.

On Dorothy Day: Living As If the Truth Were Truth

Daniel Berrigan once said of my hero Dorothy Day that “she lived as though the truth were true.” It is just exactly what we might say of him. For Berrigan, Gospel nonviolence was the most important of those truths. “The Sermon on the Mount concerns us here, or concerns us never,” he insisted. “The time to obey is now.”

It gladdens my heart that Daniel Berrigan lived long enough to see the historic Vatican conference, only two weeks ago, that rejected the legitimacy of “just war” ideology. I am convinced that we can depend upon his intercessions as we wait in hope for the imminent destruction of the deceit that is “just war.” (I also suspect that if God does not act quickly on this one, Fr. Berrigan and some friends will be chaining themselves to the pearly gates to protest the delay.)

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23). If there ever was a prophet who trusted the word of God and kept it, who brought the dwelling of Christ among the people, Daniel Berrigan was that prophet. We are all holier for his presence among us for these past 94 years.

Fr. Berrigan, giant among our cloud of witnesses, we honor your faithfulness and we recommit to the radical discipleship that is needed to make the Gospel vision real, in your name and in the name of the One you served with such passion.

Daniel Berrigan, poet and prophet, ¡presente!


(to the Plowshares 8, with love)
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.
“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”
“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”
“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

-Daniel Berrigan, S.J.

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