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Stars of Courage: Fr. Daniel Berrigan

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The Society of Jesus is a division of the Catholic church developed in 1534 when Ignatius of Loyola, along with Francis Xavier, Peter Faber and other young men gathered together and professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Pope and devised to seek out the expression of social justice, intellectual pursuit and dialogue. Unlike many previous Christians incarnations, the Jesuits engaged the outer world. There are few religious sects like the Jesuits - there is a dedication to activism that is hard to find anywhere else.

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope and so, while liberation theology and elements of Marxism do inform his economic critiques, his more outward demeanor is not a radical departure of Catholic norms but instead a transition to a segment of that faith that never before had power in the Vatican. Latin America was also not the only place where the Jesuits took to social activism. It occurred in the United States as well.

Father Daniel Berrigan was a Jesuit and a Vietnam era activist who fit the mold of many in his generation. He was already almost 50 when the backlash against American involvement in Vietnam came to its height but he took to activism with the ferocity of a young man. He was involved in the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who took files nearly 400 files from the draft board in that Maryland town and burned them.

Berrigan's biography boasts a who's who of some of the radicals of his era. He formed a coalition along with the legendary monk Thomas Merton and priest and brother Philip Berrigan against the Vietnam war. He travelled to Vietnam with legendary historian Howard Zinn. His brother was sentenced to six years in prison for an episode much like the Catonsville Nine - in which Philip poured blood on draft letters.

Much like Pope Francis, Berrigan saw the need for church outreach toward the homosexual community, while of course emphasizing family. Berrigan quite literally wrote over 50 books and one of them was an intensive journal on pastoral care in the wake of the outbreak of AIDS entitled Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS. When speaking on this book and his work, he was not reluctant to criticize his own Catholic Church, saying remarks such as "We deal with very many gay Catholics who have felt terribly hurt and misused by the church. There are some people who want to be reconciled with the church and there are others who have great bitterness. So I try to perform whatever human or religious work that seems called for."

Berrigan remained a commentator in to his late life, eventually dying at 96 in 2016. Berrigan was critical of some elements of the American left, which by the early 2010s was becoming as obsessed with identity and grievance as its right wing counterparts. Berrigan remained lucid as ever and credited this decline in ideas with American life, saying in 2008, "The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life. It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base."

Berrigan's life and work was the base of much of the Christian radicalism seen in the 1970s and his life should be seen as an example for future activists. In the United States, he fit in to the context of Vietnam era peace activism but as a Jesuit, he fit with a 500 year long advocacy for social justice. Both Christians following the Jesuit path and Jews seeking Tikkun Olam would be wise to look at his leadership.


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Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

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Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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