It was 30 years ago yesterday that a group of nine Catholic activists broke into the offices of the Selective Service on Frederick Road in Catonsville, seized draft records and burned them in the parking lot using homemade napalm.
The action on May 17, 1968, by the Catonsville Nine, who were arrested and tried in federal court in Baltimore, became a nationwide cause celebre that led to as many as 100 similar actions in protest of the Vietnam War.
The leaders were siblings who were Roman Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who became known colloquially as the Berrigan brothers.
Time has not mellowed the brothers. Both are still activists who engage in civil disobedience, mostly in protest of nuclear weapons.
Philip Berrigan, 74, left the priesthood, married and raised three children at Jonah House, a community of fellow activists in Baltimore. He is serving a two-year sentence at a federal prison in Petersburg, Va., for vandalizing a Navy guided-missile destroyer in February 1997 at Maine's Bath Iron Works.
The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, 77, lives in a Jesuit community in Manhattan. He recently finished teaching a course at Fordham University on "Poets in Torment." He will give a full schedule of spiritual retreats nationwide this summer. He is awaiting the publication of several new books, including a meditation on his namesake, the apocalyptic prophet Daniel. And he is awaiting sentencing for trespassing after he participated in an act of civil disobedience on Good Friday at a war museum on the Hudson River in New York.
Both look back at Catonsville with nostalgia and wonder.
"It was certainly a watershed day," says Daniel Berrigan. "I knew beyond a doubt that my life would never be the same."
"It was the beginning of a large-scale check on the government regarding the Vietnam War and the conduct of the war," says Philip Berrigan in an interview from prison. "It was followed by about 100 raids against the Selective Service here in this country.
"The government couldn't very well replace the files," he says. "They weren't microfilming the files at that time, so they weren't replaceable. So those young guys, I would say thousands of them, did not have to go to Vietnam and kill and be killed. Someone called it the ultra-resistance. It was perhaps the most radical act against the war up to that time."
The Berrigan brothers had been active in the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s, which Daniel Berrigan calls "a certain kind of boot camp in this whole business of social change and conscience and civil disobedience. . . . It allowed for and even urged a new look at unjust laws and war and racism."
Then Philip Berrigan and three others were arrested in 1967 for pouring blood on draft records at the Custom House in Baltimore.
"I was very shaken," says Daniel Berrigan, who at the time was working at Cornell University. He was not sure he wanted to get involved.
"I still had this kind of lingering notion that my work was mainly counseling students who were endangered by the draft, . . . and I didn't see that anyone of my age could do any more," Daniel Berrigan says. "And then Philip got out of jail awaiting sentencing and he came up to Cornell and we spent the whole night talking. Because he was audaciously planning another action." Catonsville.
"And I said, 'well, give me a few days.' That's an old Jesuit thing, 'give me a few days,' " he says. "And I said, 'I'll signal you whether I'm in or out.' So I couldn't see any good reason not to do it. And we did it."
That two Catholic priests would participate in such an audacious action caused scandal. "It's really hard to reconstruct at present because things have changed so, but in those days there was a very marked disapproval all over the Catholic community and within the order about priests who were stepping out of line, who were joining the crazies, who were losing it, actually," says Daniel Berrigan.
"It was a huge kind of a cultural betrayal, that's how it was taken. I always knew that in the immediate years ahead, my hardest audience would be Catholics. And that proved to be true -- which also has changed enormously since."
His Jesuit superiors reacted "with panic and anger."
"I was very nearly dismissed from the order. But luckily, on both sides, it didn't occur," Daniel Berrigan says.
"Actually, the head of our order, a very marvelous man [the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.], later on came from Rome to visit me in prison and thereby said in effect, we're with you. But that took quite some time," he says. "And I only learned later that he had been visited by the CIA in Rome and they were urging him not to come and he was so enraged he got on the next plane."
Philip Berrigan, who at that time was a member of the Josephite religious order, had a similar experience.
"Both myself and my brother were rejected utterly by the church hierarchy," he says. "They disowned the action and they condemned it, really.
"But the paradoxical thing was when I was in jail, my order was really quite supportive. They used to come visit me, for example," he says. "Having me in jail, it made them think about the war" and struggle with its morality.
Each brother credits the other with leading the way into resistance and activism.
"Of course, Philip was always in the lead in these matters," says Daniel Berrigan, "but I was at least capable of following his lead."
"I don't know if that's entirely accurate," Philip counters. "He's been really the inspiration of the movement for well over 30 years. I might have taken some organizational initiative that appealed to him and then we did it together, but it's kind of a quid pro quo. We work together very well."
And after all these years, after hundreds of arrests and years of jail time between them, why keep it up? Are their methods outdated and ineffective?
"We get that kind of remark all the time and I just say to folks that say equivalent things, 'Well, if you have a better way, please help us and give it to us,' " says Daniel Berrigan.
"But we're not interested in doing nothing," he says. "And we can't look too closely at some version of, quote, 'success as a measure of the worth of our activity.' The point is, as far as we're concerned, to be faithful to the Gospel no matter what. And the outcome is not in our hands anyway."
But the brothers aren't as young as they once were.
"As you get older, it gets harder," says Philip Berrigan of serving time in prison. "You just aren't that resilient anymore, not that flexible. I'm 74 years old. You have a new set of aches and pains. I do the best I can to counteract it. I do exercise. I'm not whining, I'm merely reporting."
And what will he do to mark the 30th anniversary of the Catonsville action?
"If I were out in the street, I would be commemorating it a bit," he says. "The spirit of Catonsville is a very rare one and it put a lot of things in motion.
"But I'm not going to do anything here. It's just not possible," he says. "Well, maybe say some prayers."
Pub Date: 5/18/98