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Bearing the Cross

I arrived early Friday morning, after walking through the rain, at the St. Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village for the funeral of the Rev. Daniel Berrigan. I stood, the church nearly empty, at the front of the sanctuary with my hand on the top of Dan’s rosewood casket. It was adorned with a single red carnation and a small plaque that read: “Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan. Born May 9, 1921. Entered S.J. August 14, 1939. Ordained June 21, 1952. Died April 30, 2016.”

The walls of the Romanesque basilica had large murals, by German artist William Lamprecht, of the stations of the cross—Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Jesus collapsing under the weight of the cross, Jesus nailed to the cross and crucified. Lamprecht had muted the colors so each successive scene was darker and more ominous than the previous one. A Tiffany stained-glass window, with its glints of light, portrayed the Madonna and child. Over the large sanctuary, with its rows of wooden pews, hung soft, milky-white, bulbous lamps. The blue-veined marble altar, the graceful arches, the Carrera marble floor and the towering organ with its 3,323 pipes gave the moment solemnity and grandeur, although Dan relentlessly challenged the pomp and power of all institutions, including the church.

Dan, like his brother, Philip Berrigan, and his close friends Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker Movement and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led a life defined by the Christian call to bear the cross. This is the central call of the Christian life. It is one few Christians achieve. The bearing of the cross, in Christian theology, is counterintuitive. It says that the “the last shall be first, and the first last.” It demands nonviolence. It holds fast to justice. It stands with the oppressed, those who Dan’s friend, the Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria, who was murdered by the death squads in El Salvador, called “the crucified people of history.” It binds adherents to moral law. It calls on them to defy through acts of civil disobedience and noncompliance with state laws, when these laws, as they often do, conflict with God’s law.

If you bear the cross, you often go to jail or, in Dan’s case, federal prison for 18 months, after he, his brother and seven other religious activists in 1968 burned 378 draft files of young men—most of them African-American—about to be sent to Vietnam. The activists had manufactured homemade napalm to set the documents on fire in garbage cans in the parking lot outside the building from which they took the files.

In her eulogy, Elizabeth McAllister, Dan’s sister-in-law, read the statement Dan wrote for the group, known as the Catonsville Nine:

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