Philip Berrigan

From New World Encyclopedia

Philip Berrigan (October 5, 1923 – December 6, 2002) was, for over 35 years, one of America's leading anti-war and anti-nuclear activists. Berrigan was the first U.S. Catholic priest to be jailed for political reasons and ultimately spent nearly eleven years of his life in prison stemming from convictions for more than 100 acts of civil resistance to war.

Serving in World War II, Berrigan was deeply affected by his wartime experiences. Following the war, he became a Catholic priest. In the 1960s, he found the focus of his life's work in the peace and anti-war movements, to which he committed himself until his death in December 2002.

Early life

Philip Berrigan was born in Two Harbors, Minnesota, a Midwestern working–class town, the younger brother of Daniel Berrigan. Their father, Tom Berrigan, was second-generation Irish-Catholic and a union man.

In 1943, after a single semester of college, Berrigan was drafted into combat duty in World War II. He served in the artillery during the Battle of the Bulge (1945) and later became a Second Lieutenant in the infantry. He was deeply affected by his exposure to the violence of war and the racism of boot camp in the deep South.

After the war, Berrigan joined the Josephites, a Catholic order of priests, originally founded to minister to freed slaves. He was active in the civil rights movement and lectured extensively on race relations and poverty. He marched for desegregation and participated in sit-ins and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Ordained a Catholic priest in 1955, he was often at odds with the Church hierarchy over his peace activities, which ultimately became the focus of his life's work. Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, a Catholic nun, were married in 1973, whereupon both were excommunicated.[1]

Protests against the War in Vietnam

Philip Berrigan, his brother Daniel Berrigan, and the famed theologian Thomas Merton founded an interfaith coalition against the Vietnam War, and wrote letters to major newspapers arguing for an end to the war.

The Baltimore Four

In the mid–1960's, Philip Berrigan began taking more radical steps to bring attention to the anti-war movement. On October 17, 1967, the "Baltimore Four" (Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis; and poet, teacher and writer David Eberhardt, and United Church of Christ missionary and pastor The Reverend James L. Mengel) poured blood (including Berrigan's) on Selective Service records in the Baltimore Customs House.

Mengel agreed to the action and donated blood, but decided not to actually pour blood; instead he distributed the paperback New Testament "Good News for Modern Man" to draft board workers and newsmen. As they waited for the police to arrive and arrest them, the group calmly explained to draft board employees the reasons for their actions.

Berrigan stated, "This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina." He became the first priest in America to be arrested for an act of civil disobedience. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

The Catonsville Nine

In 1968, after his release on bail, Berrigan decided to continue protesting the Vietnam War.

A local high-school physics teacher helped to concoct homemade napalm, and on May 17, 1968, nine men and women entered the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland. There, they removed 378 draft records, and burned them with the napalm in protest against the war. The nine were arrested and, in a highly publicized trial, sentenced to jail. Berrigan was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for this action.

These nine Catholic activists came to be known as the Catonsville Nine. They issued this statement: "We confront the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor."

This widely publicized act intensified protest against the draft, prompted debate across the nation, and stirred angry reaction on the part of many Americans. It also propelled the nine Catholic participants—especially the Berrigan brothers—into the national spotlight.

The Catonsville action reflected the nature of the antiwar movement in the late 1960s, as well as the larger context of the social and political situation of that decade.[2]

Jonah House

In 1973 Philip Berrigan, along with Elizabeth McAlister and others, formed a community they named Jonah House. From its inception, the community embraced a great variety of people; religious and lay people, married and single people, children and adults, younger and older people. They believed that living and working in community was a way to model the nonviolent, sustainable world they were working to create.

Faith-based, the emphasis of Jonah House's formation was on the anti-war and social justice teachings of the Catholic church and was formed with the understanding that living in community is an essential learning tool for the principals of nonviolence and resistance. Jonah House members lived simply, prayed together, shared duties, and attempted to expose the violence of militarism and consumerism.

The community lived in a row-house in west Baltimore for 23 years, and moved to St. Peter’s Cemetery in 1996, where it lives on 22 acres, caring for the grounds. One third of the cemetery has been cleared; the rest is woods overgrown with vines. The community maintains a vegetable garden and dozens of fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers and ornamentals.[3]

The Plowshares Movement

On September 9, 1980, Berrigan, his brother Daniel, and six others (the "Plowshares Eight") began the Plowshares Movement when they entered the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where nose cones for the Mark 12A warheads were made.

They hammered on two nose cones, poured blood on documents and offered prayers for peace. They were arrested and initially charged with over ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. On April 10, 1990, after nearly ten years of trials and appeals, the Plowshares Eight were re-sentenced and paroled for up to 23 and 1/2 months in consideration of time already served in prison.

Since this initial action, over seventy Plowshares actions have taken place around the world against weapons of war, several involving Berrigan himself. Berrigan's final Plowshares action was in December of 1999, when he and others banged on A-10 Warthog warplanes in an anti-war protest at the Middle River (Maryland) Air National Guard base. He was convicted of malicious destruction of property and sentenced to 30 months in jail. He was released December 14, 2001.[4]

The Plowshares Movement takes its name from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Isaiah (2:4), which states, "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." [5]


Philip Berrigan was diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer in October of 2002. He discontinued chemotherapy treatment after one month and prepared for his death. Thirty close friends and relatives came together for a ceremony of last rites on November 30, in which his brother, Daniel officiated. His life was celebrated as he was anointed for the next part of his journey.

Berrigan died one week after receiving his last rites, on December 6, 2002, at Jonah House, the community he co-founded in 1973, surrounded by family and friends. He is buried at Jonah House.

Berrigan left at his death, his wife Elizabeth McAlister and his children: Frida, Jerry, and Kate.

Shortly after his death, Berrigan's family issued a statement that included words dictated by Philip to his wife, Liz, just before his passing, including these which summarize his life's works and convictions:

I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself.[6]

During his lifetime, Philip Berrigan spent approximately 11 years in jails and prisons for acts of civil disobedience, acts which stemmed from his fervent beliefs in the pursuit of peace.


Philip Berrigan was considered a key figure in the development of Christian anarchism due to his belief that freedom will only be guided by the grace of God if people show compassion to others and turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. The principles he espoused were of nonviolence, nonresistance and turning the other cheek, which are illustrated in many passages of the New Testament and Hebrew Bible.

The society he founded through Jonah House was based upon Christian love, Christian nonviolence, responsibility to self and others, and freedom.

Though he was at odds with his church for his activism, he was indeed following Biblical instruction:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).
  • Do to others what you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).
  • Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).
  • You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13).
  • But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).
  • Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).
  • If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21).
  • All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:44-45).
  • We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
  • For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
  • No king but the Lord shall rule over you (Judges 8:23).
  • Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7)?
  • The gentiles have rulers over them, but it shall not be so among Christians (Mark 10:42-45).


  • Berrigan, Philip. No More Strangers. New York: Macmillan Corporation, 1965.
  • Berrigan, Philip. A Punishment for Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
  • Berrigan, Philip. Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary. New York: Holt; Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 0030845130
  • Berrigan, Philip. Widen the Prison Gates. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973. ISBN 0671216376
  • Berrigan, Philip and Fred Wilcox. Fighting the Lamb's War. Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996. ISBN 1567511007
  • Berrigan, Philip and Elizabeth McAlister. The Time's Discipline: The Eight Beatitudes and Nuclear Resistance. Marion, SD: Fortkamp Publishing Co., 1989. ISBN 9999230121


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Berrigan, Philip Francis.
  2. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Fire and Faith; the Catonsville Nine File. Retrieved April 7, 2007.
  3. Jonah House, Jonah House Community.
  4. Common Dreams, Philip Berrigan, Anti-War Activist, Dies at Home in Baltimore, MD.
  5. Holy Bible, New International Version (1973).
  6. A Globe of Witnesses, In Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Philip Berrigan. Retrieved April 5, 2007.

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External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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