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Hundreds gather to farewell Fr Daniel Berrigan, a ‘beatnik Jesuit friend’

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More than 800 people packed the Church of St Francis Xavier in New York City’s Greenwich Village to cheer the life of the Jesuit at a festive service on 6 May.

Fr Berrigan, a poet, author and longtime peace activist, died on 30 April at age 94.

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The Mass was concelebrated by more than two dozen priests, including retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. Jesuit Fr Stephen M. Kelly prefaced his homily with a tongue-in-cheek welcome to members of the FBI, which was met with laughter and applause. During his life, Fr Berrigan’s anti-war demonstrations and meetings were routinely monitored by the FBI.

Fr Kelly recalled Fr Berrigan and his late brother and fellow activist Philip as men who lived the Resurrection and challenged religious leaders to know “bomb-blessing has no place in Jesus’ self-giving”. He suggested their lives of radical witness made them candidates to be doctors of the church.

At the Offertory, as the choir sang Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, a procession of children and relatives presented gifts described as important to Fr Berrigan’s life: copies of his books, framed photos, a Salvadoran cross, a hammer, a green shirt he was fond of wearing, and a large banner with Isaiah’s admonition to beat swords into plowshares.

Elizabeth McAlister, widow of Philip Berrigan, got a sustained standing ovation when she opened her eulogy with a rousing statement Fr Berrigan used to rally the so-called Catonsville Nine and their supporters in 1968. The group entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, outside Baltimore, removed files, pour their blood on them and burned them using homemade napalm in an adjacent parking lot. Fr Berrigan and others were found guilty of conspiracy and destruction of government property and served jail sentences.

McAlister said Fr Berrigan invited his students into the streets to witness against the atrocities of war and they returned to their classrooms changed. “Dan shared ways to dig into resources and live deeply even with so much wrong in the world,” she said.

“The gift I walk with most is his practice of talking deeply but briefly at the end of an evening about something in the world and then posing the question, ‘What gives you hope?'” He experienced getting insights from others, he built and rebuilt the base, remembered the reasons for hope and returned to faith, hope and love,” McAlister said.

“Sisters and brothers, it is of no service to Dan or to his memory for us to simply hold him up as an icon especially in ways that exempt us from responsibility,” McAlister said to applause. “How much better would it be if we asked for a double portion of Dan’s spirit, and better yet, if we acted on it?”

In other eulogies, three nieces and a nephew recalled Fr Berrigan as a wonderful storyteller, an uncle who introduced them to a gritty, cheeky New York, and a man whose mind was unleashed through his pen. “It was almost like he lived right in the heart of God and reported back to us,” Jerry Berrigan said.

Before the Mass, Jesuit Fr James Keenan recalled with a smile that although their assignments never overlapped, he was grateful to Fr Berrigan because, “He made a good decision on my part. He was one of my four interviewers coming into the Society (of Jesus) from Brooklyn Prep.”

Ken Curtin recalled Fr Berrigan as a frequent visitor to his Bronx office in the early 1970s when he worked with the Defense Committee, an independent group established to publicize and support people who participated in draft board raids. He laughed as he said Father Berrigan’s example cost him a lot of money through the years.

“The night before the last time I was arrested in Washington in 1974, Fr Berrigan bought me dinner, saying, ‘If you’re not working, you don’t pay’ and I’ve had to follow that practice ever since,” Curtin said.

About 300 gathered before the funeral and marched through Greenwich Village to the church on West 16th Street, following a serpentine path that passed buildings and locations significant to Fr Berrigan’s life. The mourners assembled in the rain at Mary House, a Catholic Worker house in the East Village. Led by a brass band named the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, and a woman on stilts carrying a parasol, they carried photos, banners and new and worn anti-war placards. Without comment, but with occasional song, they passed the St. Joseph Catholic Worker house, a Jesuit residence on Thompson Street, Washington Square Park and Union Square.

Organizer Matt Daloisio said, “Somehow it was fitting to walk through the rain to come sing Dan home.”

The marchers came from near and far. Art Laffin, a 39-year friend of the Jesuit from Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, said 50 Catholic Worker communities were represented. “Dan never wavered in calling for the abolition of war. He spoke out clearly. He knew the cost of discipleship and he paid the price. He gave his life to make the Word flesh,” he said.

Retired teacher Trudy Silver from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said, “I’ve just been so appreciative of the Berrigans and the role they’ve played in the movement over the years. Their inspiration guides my thoughts, actions and teaching. I put them up there with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who make life better.”

Despite the pelting rain, the march and funeral had the air of a reunion. As she surveyed the marchers, Silver said, “I’ve seen people here I’ve been arrested with over the years. People pulled together to honor Dan.”

There were mourners of all ages at the church, but the baby boomers were the best-represented group and there was an impressive display of gray beards and ponytails.

Joseph Finneral, a white-bearded self-described profligate from the Catholic Worker community in Worcester, Massachusetts, leaned on his sumac walking stick to offer an assessment of Fr Berrigan.

“There’s little to cherish in this world and he’s the one who pointed to it,” Finneral said. “He was a great teacher and I loved the man. To tell the truth, and although the Berrigans would laugh about it, I’m a bit in awe of them,” he said.

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