The witness of Daniel Berrigan

Ashley Beck

In April the renowned American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan died in New York at the age of 94. Ashley Beck, Programme Director of Pastoral Ministry at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and Assistant Priest of Beckenham in south London, assesses his significance.

If you read the diaries of the great American Catholics from the last century, the Cistercian Thomas Merton and the Servant of God Dorothy Day, there is a figure who often crops up as a friend and colleague in the witness against the Vietnam War and militarism in the United States. This laconic entry in Day’s diary for 1 December 1978, a decade after Merton’s death, gives a tantalising picture:

‘Fr Dan Berrigan. Meeting packed to the doors. Fr. read Merton’s poems – all said afterward it was a prayerful meeting – the best ever. And I could not attend, confined to my room!’1

Berrigan’s death on 30 April 2016 removes one of the last big links between our time and the era of Day and Merton: but in the British Isles, even more than is true for Day and Merton, his significance is seldom realised.

Berrigan was born in 1921 in Minnesota but the family moved to New York state when he was very young – his family background was mixed German and Irish. Having been educated in Jesuit schools he progressed very naturally into the Jesuits in 1939 and was ordained priest in 1952.

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