Phil Berrigan
May He Rest in Peace

by Fr. Frank Cordaro

Phil Berrigan, the man who invented the nonviolent resistance wheel of life that I and so many other Catholic Workers and nonviolent peace activists live by, is dead. Rest in peace, Phil. Life well lived! Your wheel rolls on. You left behind the legacy of a lifetime of faithful nonviolent resistance to war and weapons of mass destruction. I first met Phil in Iowa City, in the fall of 1975. I was in my third year of seminary after spending the summer living and working at the Davenport Catholic Worker. That fall I was doing a ministry internship at Center East, the old Catholic Newman Center for the University of Iowa.

Back then, the whole history of the Catholic church’s anti-war tradition was new to me as was the USA Catholic anti-war efforts during the Vietnam War. Yet, some early reading and quick study introduced me to the importance of Phil and Dan Berrigan to the anti-Vietnam War efforts. So when Phil came to town, I was anxious to learn what the Berrigan brothers were up to in post-Vietnam War USA.

Addressing a large crowd, he spoke at length of the Jonah House community in Baltimore, where he and his wife, Liz McAllister, and children lived. After speaking of their human blood-spilling protests at the pillars of the Pentagon, he invited all of us to join them in their efforts.

There was much in his message that appealed to me. He was a Catholic who took the call of active nonviolent peacemaking, the scriptures, and our sacramental tradition seriously. The people of the Jonah House community weren’t just “talking the talk.” They were walking the nonviolent resistance walk that Jesus walked.

Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister at the 20th anniversary of the Des Moines Catholic Worker, August 1996

At the question and answer time after Phil’s talk, I stated that it was all well and good for him and his friends out east to go to the Pentagon to protest war and weapons of mass destruction, but “what about people like us in Iowa (at the time, Iowa was the third smallest recipient of Pentagon tax dollars), who have no Pentagon or White House to protest?” I remember Phil’s exact words; “There is no place in this country where the Pentagon does not have its presence. The military industrial complex is everywhere. You just have to look.”

Within a few years, we were protesting and being arrested at the Rock Island Arsenal, on the east coast of Iowa and at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters / Offutt AFB, on the west coast of Iowa. In 1982, we even protested the Wellman Dynamics plant in Creston, IA, where there was work being done for the cruise missile. Today, we in Des Moines don’t even need to leave our fair city to find an active

extension of the Pentagon at work. The Iowa Air National Guard and the F16 fighter planes they use to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq are stationed at the airport, walking distance from the neighborhood in which I was raised. Phil’s words ring truer now more than ever. The military industrial complex is everywhere. You just have to look for it.

I met Phil the second time in August,1977, while I attended a two-week summer training session with the Jonah House folks. At the end of our training, on August 9th, the anniversary of the USA bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, I did my first act of civil disobedience. Five of us poured our blood on the pillars at the Pentagon; we were immediately arrested and I spent 30 days in jail, a real baptism by fire. It was life changing for me.

From a Catholic sacramental point of view, our blood pouring was a powerful liturgical action. Its truth and reality is as true and real as anything we claim in our Eucharist. For me, connecting our blood spilling at the Pentagon to the theology of the Eucharist became a whole new way of thinking and acting, rooted in a sacramental world view.

Our next meeting was in November,1979. I was with Phil and Liz at Jonah House the night before I stood in front of President Jimmy Carter to protest nuclear weapons and the Salt II Treaty. Phil and Liz suggested I take ashes, to represent the ashes of those who will die by the bomb. The ashes came from the Jonah House woodstove. Thereafter, my relationship with Phil and the Jonah House Community deepened and grew. I was no longer just an admirer of the Berrigan /Jonah House lifestyle. We became dear and trusted friends.

Over the last 25 years, the east coast faith-based nonviolent resistance communities have increased in number and strength. More a tribe than a movement, these good and holy people have been doing the hard work of nonviolent resistance and peacemaking. Dragged into countless courtrooms, afforded little justice, even less respect, spending many, many years, collectively, in jails and prisons in this country, they are the communal fruits of Phil’s good work. The rest of us across the country, who have taken up the call to nonviolently resist war and warmaking, have associated ourselves with the folks at Jonah House and Atlantic Life Communities in a web conspiracy connecting hundreds, if not thousands, of peace people. This extended nonviolent resistance family reaches beyond our national borders into Europe and Australia. It is truly a worldwide movement.

In 1980, using lessons learned from the draft board raids of the anti-Vietnam War days, Phil, brother Dan, and six others entered a General Electric Missile factory in King of Prussia, PA. With ordinary hammers and blood they nonviolently “disarmed” Mark 12 missile nose cones. With this witness, the Plowshares movement was birthed.

The Prophet Isaiah had a vision of world peace and justice in which “swords will be beat into plowshares” and “nations study war no more” (Isaiah 2). The Plowshares activists do what nations and churches seem incapable of doing - enacting the Isaiahan vision by actually disarming weapons of mass destruction. These Plowshares activists face great personal risk, many years in court, jails and probation with heavy fines to pay.

Between 1980 and 1998, I had made it a point to visit Jonah House before or after a jail experience. The timing made it easier for me to take the anticipated “walk with Phil.” During these walks, Phil inevitably asked whether I was up to joining the latest Plowshares action. It was always easier to turn down an invitation from Phil after or before my going to jail. As a result, I put off doing a Plowshares action for many years. Line crossing at Offut and doing a six month bit was all the risk-taking I was prepared to do. I finally joined the ranks of a Plowshares activist in May, 1998, as a member of the Gods of Medal Plowshares. Five of us took our hammers and blood and tried to disarm a B52 bomber at an air show at Andrews AFB. It was the most challenging, difficult, gut wrenching, honest, fear-plagued, life-giving and truthful thing I ever did.

Phil visited Des Moines twice. In January, 1982, he spoke at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and in August, 1996, he and Liz came as the main speakers at our DMCW 20th anniversary celebration.

The last time I saw Phil was in the last week of his life. I was blessed to be able to spend four days in Baltimore after Art Laffin’s wedding celebration in Washington, DC. I stayed with our friends at Viva Catholic Worker House and spent my days at Jonah House with Phil, his family and the Jonah House community. Scores of supporters came to say their good-byes to Phil. I joined in the Communal Anointing of the Sick, led by Dan Berrigan, the Saturday before Phil’s death. I felt like we were vigiling at the deathbed of a prophet. It was a holy and blessed time for me. I returned home two days before he died.

For his faithful witnessing, Phil served over 11 years of jail time. A WW II vet, a Roman Catholic priest, a loving husband and father of three wonderful children, he lived a holy and noble life. His resistance lifestyle demonstrated what being faithful to the Gospel message looked like in the last half of the 20th century. It was one of the few authentic models of radical Christian living in first-world America - at the center of the empire. Open to any one, it is a movement embracing the nonviolent spirit of God which may be the difference between the human family surviving or not. The stakes are that high.

I remember a conversation I had with Bishop Dingman about Phil and the folks at Jonah House. I told him how impressed I was with the communal resistance way of life at Jonah House. For all their activism, communal living, protesting and prayer life, the thing that impressed me the most about the Jonah House community was how central the scriptures were to the everyday life of the community. I told the Bishop that visiting Phil Berrigan and the folks at Jonah House was like visiting a primitive Christian community of apostolic times.

Thank you, Phil. May you rest in peace. Life well lived! May your nonviolent resistance wheel of life roll on and on...