“Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.”
— Daniel Berrigan
by Mike Palecek
I owe my life to Dan Berrigan.
For good or for bad.
I think for good.
I drove from a smallish, conservative town in northeast Nebraska in January 1979 to begin seminary at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In February or March, Berrigan was speaking at Macalaster College, up Summit Avenue a few blocks at a Vietnam Symposium, whatever that means, along with Eugene McCarthy and a journalist named Gloria Emerson.
Anyway, I went, and I heard, and I walked up to him afterward to introduce myself and ask a stupid question.
A couple of us ended up driving Dan around town that night, to a church to hear John Trudell speak about the FBI burning his family in their home, then over to a TV station where Daniel Schorr was hosting a discussion between Berrigan and some guy from the Kennedy administration. I think it was Ted Sorenson.
They let me into this one room and pointed at a table full of food. I could graze as long as we were there. Have at it church boy.
Berrigan also came over to the seminary and spoke to us, about Vietnam, prison, the United States, the Catholic Church.
I was enthralled. I had never heard this stuff before, and likely would not have ever heard it in my seminary instruction.
Well, on a home visit I asked the parish priest who had hooked me up with the seminary, Fr. Walter Nabity.
I asked him about Berrigan and protesting and nuclear weapons and war and all that.
Fr. Nabity told me to forget about the protests, stick to my studies, stay away from the likes of Berrigan.
Well, I was confused.
I told Berrigan what Nabity had said. Dan wrote back to me. [Below]
Over Easter vacation, on Berrigan’s invitation, two of us took a train to Washington, D.C. for a Holy Week retreat and protest. We stayed at the Church of St. Stephen in northwest D.C.
There were lots of “famous” folks from the peace movement there that week, that I only found out were famous, within the peace movement, over the following years: Richard McSorley, Sr. Anne Montgomery, Art Laffin, Elizabeth McAlister, Fr. Carl Kabat.
And of course, Phil Berrigan. I remember going up to Phil and asking him a stupid question. He was wearing this army coat. He took me to the middle of the church and sat with me. He listened to my questions.
“What’s a nuke?”
And we talked about the Catholic Church, celibacy, marriage, prison, the United States, the military, Thou Shall Not Kill. Lots of stuff. And he took the time to talk to me.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
It was pretty cool. We planned these protests at the White House — Jimmy Carter’s administration — and the Pentagon, and some people went to the Department of Energy, too.
We boarded the bus in small groups so that it would not appear to be a suspicious big group.
We went through the White House visitor tour line in those small groups and inside we looked at tables and tablecloths and silverware, and I tried to not look like someone who needed to be apprehended and returned to Nebraska.
The tour exited out onto a porch. And then those who were doing the protest took out banners from their purses or coats and held them out.
Fr. Carl Kabat poured blood on the pillars and was put into a headlock and hauled away. I got a good picture of that.
And then we went over to the Pentagon and held signs, slept on the floor of the church, ate vegetarian vegetables, then got on the train and went back to Minnesota, never to be the same again.
I think for the better.
I ended up leaving the seminary. On my way out the door I posted a manifesto on the bulletin board by the front door and the elevators, something about how I couldn’t stay at a rich Catholic school, that I had to go be with the poor, now.
A friend who went on to be ordained for the Omaha archdiocese later told me my bulletin board manifesto was weird. It probably was.
I know for one thing, that I really liked the idea of hanging out with these famous guys who had been on the front pages of all the big newspapers in the 1960s. It made me feel important.
But I don’t think the Berrigans and others felt that way. Not at all. I think they did it because they feel it in their guts.
And I think I take away the best part of all that today, the part about the importance of standing with the poor and against war.
In the end, there is no glitter that sticks to that. It’s your lonely self in a prison cell and it’s a family on a hot hillside outside of Pine Ridge trying to live.
That is what you feel in your heart when you hear this message and you want to be a part of it. And you walk that way. Sometimes you run. Sometimes you try to run too fast and maybe you fall. But that doesn’t matter. You get up and try to keep going.
I ended up going to New York City to work at the Catholic Worker on the Bowery for a while, then Ruth and I got married.
I went to prison myself. I remember being in the hole in Chicago MCC, the federal prison downtown. I was having a rough, rough time.
The guard comes up to my window with this quizzical look on his face. He has this letter asking for my release, signed by Fr. Daniel Berrigan and one million other Jesuits. The guard looked at me like, who are you?
Well, I am nobody, but I know somebody. How about another slice of that shitty bread?
Well, for me, I went to prison, went crazy, went home.
I thank Dan Berrigan for taking the time to talk to me, for one thing, when so many people were clamoring for his attention, and for having the heart and soul and wisdom to know what the truth is, and passing it along.
Back in Norfolk I only had “Choice A” as to how to look at life.
After going to St. Paul, I had “Choice B” as well, and that really makes all the difference.
Letter from Daniel Berrigan
Sept. 21, 1979
I was happy to hear from you. I’m sorry, though, that things have become so unclear in your thoughts since we met and you came East for the protests.
I think your parish priest is full of baloney. Please don’t hesitate to tell him so, if you want to.
He reminds me of all the cutout-clerics I’ve met over the years who went on to get their degrees while innocent children died in Vietnam and many of us went to prison.
I don’t envy him his degrees from Harvard and Columbia. I’ve lectured on both places and find them rich centers of moral retardation.
As for people getting paid to protest, it’s here that the baloney goes rancid. Our payment was years in prison to protest the killing; his payment was something else again.
I hope someday he picks up the New Testament and gets some light on the life, imprisonment and death of Jesus. Also on some texts like, “love one another, as I have loved you.”
Well, enough of that. If I am angry, it’s at his defamation of those I love. He sounds as though any outrage in the world would find him indifferent among his books and degrees. I just wonder what sort of advice someone like him is capable of giving someone like you.
As far as the cult talk goes, I think your seminary is closer to the cult reality than Jonah House. There, you and other young people seem to be being brainwashed — cleansed of all traces of the gospel and of Christ, in order to prepare for a safe and pallid clerical future, in which you can go on to advise other young folks against becoming Christians and witnesses. How’s that for turning things around?
Any place (like Harvard, Columbia, or St. Thomas) that is neglecting to give young people a vision of life, faith, a human future, doesn’t deserve to go on. I hope you leave there. I hope you find a community that is not lost in fantasy and immaturity with its mutterings of Communism and cults.
That’s all so much useless bullshit. It has absolutely nothing to do with Christ or our Church. In fact, it’s like a so-called religious branch of the State Department or the Pentagon, peddling the kind of religion that will allow murder to be legitimized, nukes to be created, the innocent and poor to be wiped out.
I thought, when I came to your seminary, Mike, something better might be in the air. (Usually I avoid such places like the plague.) Evidently I was wrong. But for Christ’s sake, don’t condemn yourself to such a future.
Come back and see us when you want. You’ll always be welcome. Meantime, we go on with the work of non-violence, responsibility, hope.