Daniel COSACCHI and Eric MARTIN, eds. THE BERRIGAN LETTERS: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan. New York: Orbis Books, 2016. pp. 340.$30.pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-164-5.

Reviewed by James R. KELLY, emeritus Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458 (jkjr.kelly@gmail.com

Along with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the Berrigan Brothers must star in any  account of late 20th century Catholicism when, especially after the Second Vatican Council, Catholics had to conjoin more critically and distinguish their American and their Catholic identities. Daniel Berrigan S.J. died at the age of 94 on April 30, 2016, Philip at the age of 79 on December 6, 2002. 

In the last Berrigan letter in this volume Daniel writes that on the commemoration of what would have been Philip’s 80th birthday “Toward Sunday noon, we assembled in Bryant Park and began a solemn procession across Manhattan, bearing placards with Phil’s photo and quotes from his writings. Our goal was the SS Intrepid, a hideous, overbearing war museum anchored in the Hudson River. There 29 of us crossed a police line and were arrested. All honor to a noble spirit. Philip lives!”

Going to jail for their civil disobedient protests against America’s long list of declared and mostly undeclared wars and its still vast and modernized nuclear weapons of mass destruction, doing jail time was a routine (more than 10 years for Philip, a little less for Dan) part of their extraordinary lives. Or, more precisely, their provocative ministries. From these more than 400 letters, selected from about 2,200 archived at Cornell University, it’s evident that for both, Dan, a life-long Jesuit, and Philip, a Josephite until his marriage to Liz McAllister, their civil disobedience in witness to the life of Christ and the Gospel message of nonviolence was as natural as saying a Mass.  

This volume of Berrigan letters is not for Berrigan beginners. The letters themselves and the editors rarely give the context or the detail that even the good-willed reader requires. In a March 24, 1986 letter Dan complains about the “NY Times ignoring us for years.” In a May 15, 1989 letter about a death penalty conference in Boston, Dan concludes “Not a word in the (literally) unspeakable Times.” 

There’s a pleasing irony here. The New York Times  gave lengthy and detailed obituaries (easily down-loadable from its archives) for both, with Dan’s beginning on the front page of the May 1, 2016 edition and containing a movie-star-like picture of him speaking outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1972 to an enraptured crowd of mostly young people. These Times obituaries, which reference the many books by the Berrigans and the many more about them, make their letter-exchanges less a slough and more an arresting light on our own Jeremiah and Isaiah.  Their mutual love and appreciation are manifest, but also their differences. Indeed, there were many uncertain bends in their mutual but varying prophetic journeys. 

In his Oct. 6, 1981 letter Phil writes, “In this last brief period in jail, I’ve had the temptation – once or twice – that our history together argues for a little more trust in my judgment… I know you make your recommendations out of love for me – and I profoundly appreciate that. But sometimes they get a bit galling, and I wonder if you trust me as I trust you.”

Phil wrote of the hardships of living in community in Jonah House in Baltimore and that more than once he and Liz proposed to move out and start elsewhere if that would reconcile the differences. On Jan. 20, 1987 Dan expressed disagreement not only with some who under the tag of liberation theology accepted some use of force and then with some of the later Plowshares’ actions that caused expensive damage to planes carrying nuclear missiles, fearing that this “up the anti” prophesy risked “a loss in the symbolic” by opening their civil disobedience up “to largely wasteful discussion on sabotage, violence, etc. I sense a loss of the modesty of the first enterprise, where the hammers were small, as was the damage in $$ terms, the whole thing quite manageable in the explaining, and public understanding easier to come by. I felt more peaceableness and equanimity of spirit in discussing those early acts, than I do now… To announce a quarter million in damage is to set the head spinning, and (I think) obscure the intent, which I take it was first of all to induce public awakening through the symbols themselves, rather than to attempt a direct impeding of the machine (impossible in any case).”

Their letters contain many quotables. Let’s conclude with one from each. In the midst of a letter (Aug. 16, 1975) complaining about some in Jonah House who “love community when it suits them” Phil reflects, “No – God has not turned from us – He’s just unusually soft-spoken.”

Dan, on Sept. 1, 1968: “Christianity is not winning in history; it means merely being in the right place through history, in view of the end.” 

In your darker moments, do your Pax Christi spirit a favor and read a few of the Berrigan letters.