Father Daniel Berrigan: A Priest from the Underground (May 9, 1921 – April 30, 2016)

Hsquared Magazine
Posted on May 01, 2016, 5:13 am
6 mins

On May 17, 1968, nine Catholics entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland and seized 165 1-A draft records. The nine walked outside the building, burned the draft cards with a homemade napalm, recited the Lord’s prayer, and, “waited for Armageddon” (Interview, Father Daniel Berrigan on PBS, June 22, 2010).

The Cantonsville Nine were arrested, charged with felonies in Federal court and were eventually represented by William Kunstler.

From his opening statement to his closing one, Kunstler continued to attempt to sway the jury to vote their conscious. But for every Kunstler statement that the jury was free to vote on the “principal issues” there was a counter instruction by the Judge that the jurors would be instructed to make their findings “on the facts as they appear from the evidence and upon the law as it may be given to them by this court.”

The Cantonsville Nine, as the group became known, included Father Daniel Berrigan (a Jesuit priest), his blood brother Philip Berrigan (a former Josephite priest), Thomas Melville (a former priest of the Maryknoll order), Marjorie Bradford Melville (a former nun of the Maryknoll order who eventually married Thomas Melville), Br. David Darst (of the De La Salle Christian Brotherhood), Mary Moylan (a nurse and midwife), John Hogan (a Maryknoll Brother), and, George Mische (an army veteran who later became a peace movement organizer.)

In a May, 2013 article for the National Catholic Reporter, George Mische described the group’s motives as “each of us took seriously the calls from Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy to work for peace and justice.”

Father Berrigan viewed the existence of the draft cards as “hunting licenses against humans”. In his opening statement before the court he attempted to create a shift in collective understanding that while the burning of draft cards with napalm was shocking (and, according to Father Berrigan, intentionally so), the act could not be any more shocking than the killing of children by the same method.


The Cantonsville Nine were convicted and received sentences ranging from 24-42 months. Following the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the group’s appeal, six members reported to serve their sentences, and, three members – Daniel Berrigan, George Mische and Mary Moylan – (according to Mr. Mische) “carried out our resistance further” by “not turning ourselves in as ordered.”

George Mische was captured within a month’s time. Father Daniel Berrigan was found in the home of the theologian William Stringfellow and poet Anthony Towne five-months following his refusal to report to prison. Mary Moylan was never captured by authorities, but rather turned herself into ten years after her conviction and served approximately a one-year’s sentence in a federal prison in West Virginia.

Mr. Stringfellow and Mr. Towne were indicted in 1971 for assisting Berrigan but the charges were later dismissed. When Stringfellow was asked by a reporter at the Cornell Daily Sun why he had assisted Berrigan, Stringfellow replied “Where is a person in his situation to turn, but to his friends?”

Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Philip Berrigan, received three years and served their sentences in a federal prison in Connecticut.

The Berrigans were later denied right to travel to North Vietnam by their parole board. The board had argued that under policy it was allowed “to disapprove any application by a parolee to travel to a foreign area where the Secretary of State, acting within his competence, determines that such travel is not in the public interest.”

While the brothers did not ultimately prevail, the case reached the United States of the Supreme Court (Sigler v. Berrigan 410 U.S. 902 (1973).

Justice Douglas dissenting wrote, “The ability to understand this pluralistic world filled with clashing ideologies is a prerequisite of any hope for world peace. The late Pope John XXIII in his famous encyclical Pacem in Terris emphasized that without knowledge and understanding among all peoples there can be no hope for love and peace. One of the best ways to insure this knowledge and understanding is to allow the people of the world to mingle freely with one another.”

In recounting the arrest and trial for PBS’s special Daniel Berrigan on the Cantonsville Nine, Father Berrigan said, “In my own heart I was comparing that day to a kind of birthday. I felt reborn. I felt that I had done what I had been born for, and I think the others did, too.”

Editors, writers and members of the Fraternal Order of the Leather Apron Club.