Remembering Jerry Berrigan, longtime Catholic advocate for peace
As news spread that Jerome “Jerry” Berrigan had died, admirers in Central New York and across the country shared stories of the Syracuse teacher and activist. Friends near and far took to telephones and online forums, remembering Berrigan as a gentle and loving parent, brother, spouse and neighbor; a demanding professor; and an unwavering advocate for peace and justice.
“Jerry has given us all a valuable example of living the Beatitudes, sometimes at a great price,” Father Jim Mathews, pastor of St. Lucy’s Church, said at Berrigan’s July 29 funeral Mass. “He was a humble man who challenged us to be better people.”
More than 300 people packed St. Lucy’s for the two-hour service. Among the mourners was Father Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, writer and activist, and Jerry’s sole surviving sibling. Father Berrigan, 94, sat in a wheelchair next to his brother’s coffin and did not speak during the Mass.
An excerpt of Father Berrigan’s poem “Some” appears on his brother’s funeral card, and the entire poem was read at the beginning of Mass. The final verse captures Berrigan’s rationale for his faith-based activism: “(I walk) because the cause is the heart’s beat, and the children born, and the risen bread.”
Berrigan, 95, died July 26 at his Syracuse home. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Carol; four children; five grandchildren; and his brother, Daniel. He is predeceased by four brothers, including prominent activist Philip, who died in 2002.
He graduated from the former St. John the Baptist School in Syracuse and earned a bachelor’s degree from Le Moyne College in 1955 after several years in the seminary. He taught in Syracuse public schools and at Onondaga Community College, retiring in 2002. He was influential in starting Catholic Worker ministries in the Syracuse Diocese, including Unity Acres, Unity Kitchen, Oxford Street Inn and Jail Ministry.
His brothers Daniel and Philip became prominent activists during the Vietnam War. In May 1968, the two and seven other Catholics used homemade napalm to burn draft files in Catonsville, Md. Both were sentenced to three years in prison.
Jerry soon joined his brothers as an anti-war activist. His own rap sheet included an Aug. 14, 1973, arrest at the White House on the final day of U.S. bombing in Cambodia. He was also arrested for acts of civil disobedience at the Pentagon, at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., and at the Hanley Federal Building in Syracuse. His family estimates he was arrested between 30 and 40 times, and he spent time in prison in several cases.
He was last arrested in 2011 — Good Friday — after protesting Reaper drones at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Mattydale.
Not everyone approved of his and his brothers’ viewpoint and tactics. Critics questioned their patriotism and the role of faith leaders in political issues.
But Berrigan never strayed from his convictions.
“I take the promise of non-violence seriously as any contributor to turning the world to a Christian way would,” he told the Sun in 2010. “The lesson learned is the need to treat everyone lovingly and equally. Everyone deserves that by reason of their humanity, by reason of their being a child of God.”
Laughter, tears and song marked his funeral Mass. Family members carried gifts to the altar: a Bible, a paintbrush, plastic handcuffs and garlic.
Carla Berrigan Pittarelli said her father loved to garden, and in recent years, garlic was all he grew. She recalled a childhood full of love and literature and music, if not material possessions.
She described listening to her father and his brothers talking for hours about politics, their activism and their childhood. “Their laughter shook the house,” she said.
Father and daughter shared weekly diner dates for years, a ritual Carla called sacred. She remembers visiting the county nursing home with her parents and assisting her father teaching a play reading class at Loretto Geriatric Center.
“He had a way of making people want to be more,” she said. “His faith wouldn’t allow him not to work for peace and justice. He knew he had to put himself on the line because there was no option. He believed, in all his heart and soul, he was his brother’s keeper.”
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Costello, who met Berrigan in the 1950s, praised his activism. “Each time he was arrested was a prophetic statement,” Bishop Costello said. “He challenged all of us. I think that was part of his ministry.”
Berrigan’s legacy is simple, Bishop Costello said. “God is peace. Peace is God. His acts spoke more loudly than even his words.”
While infamous “Berrigan Brothers” Dan and Phil drew national headlines, Jerry was comfortable advocating for justice out of the spotlight.
“Jerry was the quiet guy doing his own thing,” Father Mathews said. “He was like the mustard seed. In his quiet way, he challenged the powers that be, whether it be war-making or injustice.”
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner directed City Hall flags be flown at half-staff for a week in Berrigan’s honor. She issued a proclamation that called him “a treasure to the Syracuse community” and praised his life’s work as “a gift for future generations.”
Berrigan likely would have found the gesture ironic, said longtime Jail Ministry leader Bill Cuddy. “Jerry protested so often about the flag covering war and war-making organizations in this country,” he said.
The gesture also reflects Berrigan’s ability to make friends of potential enemies.
“His very way of being in the world transcended all that divides us,” Cuddy said.
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Manlius. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.