The Legacy of Fr. Daniel Berrigan

Michael Cook

 This essay may seem to some Enduring Gloucester readers as touching on concerns beyond the blog’s local purview. However, my hope is that it will prove to have some relevance to the issues we are facing in Gloucester, as the fishing industry continues to change and the subsequent economic, social, and political consequences of those changes become apparent, along with how we, as a community, think about the best ways to respond to those changes. 

This April 9, 1982, file photo shows Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and Vietnam war protester, marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York. AP phot

This April 9, 1982, file photo shows Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and Vietnam war protester, marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York.   AP photo.


On April, 30 the world lost a man who, for me, personified what it means to be a Christian generally and a Catholic more specifically.

I am, of course, referring to Father Daniel Berrigan.

The Jesuit priest and scholar’s life-long commitment to peace, social/economic and political justice, often put him at odds with not just the American political, legal, corporate, and military establishments, but also with factions of his own Church.

Like many of his fellow Jesuit and Maryknoll priests and nuns, Berrigan’s work and activism took him to Latin America, Southeast Asia, as well as right here at home.

In 1968, Berrigan became the first American priest to be arrested in the 20th century after he and eight other men of the cloth and the laity set fire to dozens of draft cards they had taken from the local draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. They became known as the “Catonsville Nine”.

Along with his activism against the American war on Vietnam, Berrigan also became a vocal critic of US foreign and military policies in Central America in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Berrigan was one of the few American priests who dared to publicly criticize Pope John Paul II, for his failure to attend the funeral of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated by a US trained senior Salvadoran military officer while celebrating Mass the day after he called on the Salvadoran military to stop the slaughter of their impoverished fellow countrymen on behalf of the country’s  ruling junta.

In the 1980’s, Berrigan joined with Father Ron Hennessy, a Maryknoll missionary in Guatemala, to raise the American public’s awareness of the involvement of the US government, military, intelligence services, corporations, and Christian fundamentalist groups in the propping up of a succession of right wing Guatemalan regimes that carried out what can only be called a genocide against the long oppressed Maya population.

As Berrigan aged, he shifted the focus of his fight for social, economic, political, and environmental justice to the United States. He became a vocal advocate in New York for hundreds of thousands of low wage workers who, lived under the constant threat of looming homelessness because their stagnant wages simply did not keep up with the ever escalating costs of rents throughout much of the state.

He spoke eloquently of stable, safe, and affordable housing, not only being a fundamental human need, but also a fundamental human right. He worked to shatter the myth that the homeless are homeless by choice, or that all homeless people are drug addicts, drunks, mentally, or some combination of all three. He brilliantly linked the problem of homelessness to the growing wealth and income inequality in America and to the gentrification of once socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods.

He advocated forcefully for the belief that we are today’s stewards of Creation and that we have a moral obligation to do all we can to pass a livable and sustainable planet on to those who follow us.

Berrigan was a powerful advocate of the belief that, like housing, health care is not merely a privilege, but a basic and fundamental human need and right.

Berrigan’s passing, and his long history of activism, inspired me to think about what is happening here in Gloucester and why it is so important for people of good will and good faith to come together to strategize about becoming a constructive and influential force in determining what direction the profound changes confronting the city will take, so that all of Gloucester’s residents, not just its most affluent, can continue to call this beautiful, and sometimes bedeviling place by the sea, home.

We need to figure out how to protect our natural wonders and unique oases, like Ten Pound Island and Dogtown, from those who see them as lures with which to bring tourists to the city in pursuit of the dollars that, will in reality, only enrich a few, while leaving many others working in the service and tourism industries whose wages will not allow them to continue to live in America’s rapidly gentrifying “Oldest Seaport”.

Many people view these issues and challenges solely through the lenses of politics and economics, but, perhaps because of my renewed interest in the Catholicism of my birth, I also see a spiritual/religious aspect to these issues, and a spiritual/religious obligation to speak out about them precisely because they are at the core of the causes for which men and women like Father Berrigan, Archbishop Romero, Ghandi, Dorothy Day, and Harriet Tubman lived and died.

Gloucester, like the nation itself, is fast approaching some kind of crossroad. We here on the island have only a limited ability to impact what happens “over the bridge”, but that doesn’t mean we cannot, if we work together, have an enormous impact on what crossroad we go down locally, so that we can truly become a community that embraces the belief that things like housing and access to health acre are not just privileges reserved for the lucky few, but fundamental human rights to which all people are entitled.

We just have to come together to try.


Mike CookMike Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.