“What does the Gospel demand of us?” Jesuit Father Daniel J. Berrigan, a teacher, writer and peace activist who died on April 30, 2016, in New York City at the age of 94 asked himself that question frequently. He was a Jesuit for 76 years and a priest for 63 years.”With hundreds of other marchers I felt so honored to have a front side seat in St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, New York for Dan’s funeral Mass on Friday May 5. It is difficult to find sufficiently laudatory words for this well-planned Resurrection Mass so personal to Dan’s life. Much applauding, laughter, and a powerful, prophetic heart-wrenching sermon, much like Dan’s own sermons delivered over the years filled the large church with the greatest appreciation for the truth telling and courageous actions this peacemaker had brought to the American culture throughout his years of service. Steve Kelley, a dear friend of Berrigan’s, began his sermon with the words: “Now we know there are FBI agents planted here in our Church so I want to assure them that now they can close the file on Fr. Dan Berrigan!” At that moment, thunderous laughter filled the church. Everyone was well aware of Dan’s prison stints, his continuous forays with the FBI, and his close care of friends and followers for his safety away from the FBI . Much loving testimony from his nieces and nephews and his sister in law Liz McAllister then followed Steve’s sermon.. The profundity of the words in tribute to Dan held me transfixed.
Honoring Fr. Berrigan on this day began 2 hours before the Mass opening when hundreds of us marchers with chants and signs, banners with Dan’s words, and a lively joyful band marched in Dan’s honor from Maryhouse Catholic Worker for 16 blocks in pouring down rain to the church. My own sign quoted a line from Dan’s poem Some: “Because the cause is the heart’s beat.” Once in the church, well over 1000 people assembled to say “thanks” to God for giving us such a prophet in our day. People had come from as far away as Los Angeles to honor Dan for the significant way he personally touched their lives–peace activists mostly, a few children and high school kids, Catholic Worker people, nuns, priests, and lots of gray haired activists still on the streets working for a more just and peaceful world.. We in that church represented a thousand different circles of peacemakers,uniting like Dan had urged us into a community committed to peace work on behalf of all God’s people against the horrors of war. Dan often went to prison for his protests against war: “Let it be said plainly: War cancels faith. For the duration. War is the great exercise in practical lethal atheism.” These are strong words of truth based on faith. Again and again he maintains: “There is no just war; The Gospel is always relevant.” All this left me feeling confirmed down to my toenails that part of the mission chosen by my community “speaking truth to power” is not only most necessary in our times but also absolutely morally right.
I end the relating of this splendid day in New York with some of Dan’s words used in the sermon:
“Do not be ruled by fear but by faith.” “Do you want to live a flat line existence,.. to have your freedom never used, to be overcome by fear?” “Bomb blessing has no place in Jesus’ church” “These many beautiful days cannot be lived again. But I take them with me to whatever lies ahead.” (Dan)
For Fr. Dan Berrigan, living the Gospel of Jesus gave him entry into the greatest joy and freedom without fear. We promise to help your spirit live on, Dan, by living that spirit ourselves. We shall resist war in every way.