Peace Activist Philip Berrigan Dead at 79

December 7, 2002

By Bryan Sears BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Philip Berrigan, the former Roman Catholic priest who with his Jesuit brother Daniel led a generation of religious opposition to the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race, died of cancer at the age of 79, his family said on Saturday.

Berrigan died late on Friday at Jonah House, his communal living facility for pacifists in West Baltimore, after being diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer in October. He stopped chemotherapy after one treatment and received last rites at a Nov. 30 ceremony officiated by the Rev. Daniel Berrigan.

"These are hair-trigger times, with well-manicured barbarians at the wheel and our nuclear strike force poised and ready," he said in a statement to friends and supporters issued earlier this week.

"The American people will prevail. So will all thoughtful and decent people throughout the world," added the message, sent to well-wishers on a Jonah House card.

Berrigan, who spent at least 11 of the past 35 years behind bars for acts of civil disobedience, was ordained a Josephite priest in 1955 and assigned to teach black children in Louisiana, where the Civil Rights movement inspired him to a lifelong commitment to peace and social justice.

He and Daniel Berrigan became national figures of the anti-war movement during the Catonsville Nine protest on May 17, 1968, when they and fellow activists poured homemade napalm onto hundreds of Selective Service cards outside a draft board at a Knights of Columbus hall in Catonsville, Maryland.

"I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the Earth itself," Berrigan said in a statement given to his wife, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister, during the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Howard Zinn, Boston University historian and Berrigan friend, credited the brothers with forging a path of religious civil disobedience for U.S. Catholics from the Vietnam War to conflicts in Latin America and the Persian Gulf.

In a statement to Reuters, Zinn described Philip Berrigan as "one of the heroes of our time, a man of immense courage and commitment" whose devotion to peace "stands in such stark contrast to the war-makers who hold power in Washington.

"He lived his life in an exemplary way, in a community of people who worked with him for peace and justice, sharing their worldly goods, demonstrating what a decent society might be like," Zinn said.


Philip Berrigan, a World War II veteran, helped found the Plowshares peace movement against the modern arms race in 1980, on the Biblical ethic of beating swords into plowshares. The group's first act was to break into a General Electric defense plant near Philadelphia, smash the nose cones of Mark 12A warheads and douse blueprints with blood.

"The deep, deep sense I have of him is really beyond praise, beyond words," Daniel Berrigan, a fellow Plowshare, said of Philip in an interview last year.

In his final clash in December 1999, he and three other Plowshare activists broke into an Air National Guard base near Baltimore and attacked two A-10 warplanes with blood and hammers to protest the military's use of depleted uranium in armor-piercing shells.

He was imprisoned for the act and remained behind bars until Dec. 14, 2001.

"There are times when I'd like to just sit back in my rocking chair, but I'm going to fight all the way and hopefully die with my boots on," Berrigan told Reuters in a May 2001 interview at a federal prison in Ohio.

His public appearances against violence and militarism continued into this autumn, though he needed a walker to get around.

"Right to the end, in the midst of his dying, he was unflinching and unswerving in his call for a world without war," said Richard Deats of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace group that helped Catholics including the Berrigans, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton unify the peace voices of the church.

In his 1996 autobiography, "Fighting the Lamb's War," Berrigan described Jesus as a revolutionary committed to social justice and Washington as a plantation where minorities live in shoddy housing and work at lousy jobs or wait to be herded into prison as members of a neglected surplus populace.

"I see no point in working within an evil system. Christ was never a reformer. He didn't advocate voting for one corrupt politician over another," Berrigan wrote. "He preached that we should dismantle, not attempt to patch, the state."

Born Oct. 5, 1923, in Two Harbors, Minnesota, Philip Francis Berrigan is survived by his wife, two daughters, a son and four brothers.

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