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  In Memoriam



“Remembering Phil”

By David O’Brien, Holy Cross Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies

Philip Berrigan ’50 (left) shares a laugh with his brother, Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Philip F. Berrigan ’50 died of cancer on Dec. 6 in the Jonah House, Baltimore, Md., at 79.

Raised in upstate New York, Berrigan served as a World War II infantry officer in Europe, then returned to Holy Cross. After graduation he entered the Josephites, an order of priests dedicated to serving African Americans. He was among the first Catholic priests to join the civil rights movement. He participated in the freedom rides of the early 1960s and achieved national prominence leading a fight against conservative welfare policies in Newburgh, N.Y. Relocated to Baltimore, he became a leader of surprising Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War. With Tom Lewis, now a Worcester artist, Berrigan in 1967 carried out an action against a Baltimore draft board, and, in May 1968, he joined his brother Daniel, a well-known Jesuit priest, and seven other Catholics in burning draft records in Catonsville, Md. “The Catonsville Nine” established the Berrigans as national figures, priests risking jail for actions of conscience. Philip and Daniel wrote widely and groups of disciples sprang up across the country; at one point they went underground and led the FBI on a well-publicized search rather than voluntarily surrender for prison sentences.

After Vietnam, Phil married and began a family, but he and his wife often alternated jail time as they, with brother Dan and other friends, continued their protest against nuclear weapons. For the Berrigans and their supporters, the weapons, their expensive production, and the threat of use each of us makes with them, constitute a crime against humanity. They took this claim so seriously that they would argue, more or sometimes less gently, that it is at least near sinful to pay taxes, to keep silent, to remain outside of prison.

Time magazine once referred to Holy Cross as the “cradle of the Catholic Left” because it educated Phil Berrigan and socialist leader Michael Harrington, author of the influential attack on poverty, The Other America. In 1971, the College dedicated an issue of the Holy Cross Quarterly to the Berrigans; it later appeared as a well-received paperback book. On the recommendation of the graduating class, the College invited Daniel Berrigan to deliver the commencement address in 1973, although he was not awarded an honorary degree. A respected poet, spiritual guide and Jesuit, Daniel appeared occasionally at Holy Cross, most recently delivering a powerful meditation on America after Sept. 11, during our spring 2002 conferences, “The Anatomy of Evil.” Philip was less welcome, perhaps because he was an agitator, with very firm convictions, unskilled at dialogue. His steel-like determination to face hard truths about our devotion to power, our continuing dance with death, was not the stuff of academic conferences, or commencement addresses.

His family and friends knew Philip Berrigan as a man of prayer, steeped in the Christian scriptures, absolutely devoted to his Church in the way of great saints, and to his country in the way of great radical prophets like William Lloyd Garrison. Like many such people, Philip Berrigan was always something of a soldier—a tough, unbending, relentless force stirring even those opposed to his political and moral positions. One judge called him “the conscience of his generation.” His classmates remembered him as an honest, courageous and loyal friend. One theologian, on Philip Berrigan’s passing, acknowledged that, at times, he found Phil hard to deal with, but he believed Berrigan helped prevent the Church “from becoming entirely a non-prophet organization.”

In 2000, the 50th anniversary of his graduation, some friends and classmates proposed Berrigan for an honorary degree, but Holy Cross, like the Church, did not know quite what to do with such a person. Perhaps one thing that could have been said had he been honored was that he understood, in Harrington’s words about his Jesuit education, “ideas have consequences.” One must live according to what one believes is the truth. Following conscience, Phil Berrigan stood always at the center of things. In the fullness of time, one suspects we will know that the Berrigans spoke in word and life truths we prefer to avoid. Philip Berrigan centered his clear gaze on the most basic issue of the age, the value of each human life, of each person loved by God. He kept his gaze focused on that truth amid hatred and hunger, wars and weapons of incredible destructiveness. He made us uneasy as we worked so hard to ease away from such questions of lives and deaths. And, can it be said, as Phil would say, that education sometimes helps us numb conscience and avoid the call of our best selves to affirm life, for everyone and not just for ourselves? Holy Cross could not honor Philip Berrigan, but, in the fullness of time, it may turn out that Berrigan, his brother and family and friends were, and are, right. Then it will be the College that will be honored to have once had a hand in forming such a Christian, such an American, such a man of courage and conviction. Requiescat in pace.

Philip Berrigan is survived by his wife, Elizabeth McAlister; a son; two daughters; and four brothers.


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