Priest, poet and pacifist

Born: May 9, 1921;

Died: April 30, 2016

DANIEL Berrigan, who has died after a long illness aged 94, was the Jesuit poet and peacemaker whose visit to Glasgow in the 1970s caused controversy in Scottish Catholic circles.

One of the most influential voices in shaping Catholic thinking about war and peace, he gained international attention for his work against the Vietnam War, including his participation in a striking act of civil disobedience with his brother, Philip, also a priest, and seven others who became known as the Catonsville Nine.

In 1968, the group burned draft records in the parking lot of a Maryland selective service office from which they had taken files. It was one of the most spectacular and high-profile actions of a lifetime of civil disobedience and protest against militarism, nuclear weaponry and US wars.

Berrigan later wrote a play inspired by the events, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was performed off Broadway in 1971 and turned into a film by Gregory Peck the following year.

His visit to Glasgow came in 1974 at the height of his fame. Dublin-based Scots journalist and author John Cooney wrote of the visit: “In the early hours with boots tossed aside, he sat with navy blue cardigan, tartan shirt, blue jeans and sporting a beard that gave him the appearance of a mandarin, at an informal get-together in a house on the south side of Glasgow.”

Earlier the same day, he had taken part in a three-hour meeting in centre of Glasgow organised by prominent Catholic layman, solicitor James Armstrong, who was a founder member of the Scottish Catholic Renewal Movement.

By bringing Berrigan to Scotland, the movement, which was considered to be on the left of the ecclesiastical continuum, had unwittingly provoked the wrath of a group of right-wing Catholics under the leadership of Ayrshire activist, Hamish Fraser. Outside the meeting hall, a small group of protesters carried banners urging Archbishop James Donald Scanlan to ban Berrigan.

Inside the meeting, Berrigan preached his customary message that the protest movement against the Vietnam War had marked an important point in history. He maintained that the collusion of Church and State in defence of property had been exposed, and a modest attempt to find new ways of community living had been started.

Berrigan’s usual low-key style had first surprised and then won over the audience. At question time this same low-key style contrasted with the keenness of a panel of critics anxious to be seen as sympathetic but penetrating critics of the Berrigan gospel.

He dealt with arguments good-naturedly – arguments that were probably all too familiar to him, with the only difference being that they were being expressed in unfamiliar Glaswegian accents.

Born in Virginia, Minnesota, Berrigan was the fifth of six sons. His brother, fellow peace activist Philip, was the youngest, and the family moved to New York in 1946.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from St Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary in New York, and in 1952 received a master’s degree from Woodstock College, Maryland.

He was devoted to the Catholic Church throughout his youth and joined the Jesuits directly out of high school in 1939 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952.

In 1954, he was assigned to teach theology at the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School. In 1957 he was appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

That same year, he won the Lamont Prize for his book of poems, Time Without Number. He developed a reputation as a religious radical, working actively against poverty and on changing the relationship between priests and lay people.

From 1966 to 1970, he was the assistant director of the Cornell University United Religious Work (CURW), the umbrella organisation for all religious groups on campus, including the Cornell Newman Club, eventually becoming the group's pastor.

Berrigan held faculty positions or ran programmes at Union Seminary, Loyola University in New Orleans, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. However, his longest tenure was at Fordham, a Jesuit university located in the Bronx, where he even served briefly as their poet-in-residence.

He appears briefly in the 1986 film The Mission, playing a Jesuit priest. He also served as a consultant on the film.

He was the author or co-author of more than 50 books, including several volumes of poetry.

Cathy Woodson, the national chair of the Catholic peace organisation Pax Christ USA, on hearing of Berrigan’s death, said, “His passion for justice and peace, his message about war came across with a sense of power that led me to look closer at how faith leaders in the Catholic peace movement carried out what they preached. He lived his commitment that pushed beyond our expectations and comfort zone, standing strong for peace in our world.”