In honorem Dan Berrigan, SJ – 1921-2016

Dan Berrigan died today; my thanks to Jim Forest for letting us know about this. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blogpost about him, which I am resending now in tribute to a magnificent man and a fully-lived life. Requiescat in pace, et surgat in gloria!


So here he is, Dan Berrigan, SJ, priest of the Society of Jesus, now aged 92, still living in New York, and one of my all-time heroes. I met him in 2004 when Judith Hardcastle and I were in New York, preparing for a Thomas Merton pilgrimage there the following year. We were talking about whom we could get as a keynote speaker, and thought of Dan, who was a friend and correspondent of Merton. Realizing that he lived in New York, Judith, who is afraid of neither man nor beast, looked him up in the phone book, and phoned him as if he were an ordinary human being. He was happy to hear from her, and invited us over to his apartment in the Jesuit residence.

When we got there, he opened the door, wearing jeans and a blue and white sailing shirt. I had the response, standard for me in those days (this was ten years ago), of tears coming to my eyes at the beauty–I use this word deliberately–of this old man (I don’t think he noticed my tears). Like some others I had encountered (Trevor Huddleston, Marie-Bernard Nielly, Bill Shannon, Chadral Rinpoche) he was and is a beautiful old man, a shining figure. I think by this I mean someone who is an integral person, at one with himself inwardly and outwardly. You don’t have to be old to be this kind of person, but if this is the kind of person you have become or are becoming, it seems to intensify in the elder years.

He did come to our Merton event the following year, and spoke very eloquently and movingly about his relationship with Merton, which was not always entirely easy–they differed about the place of direct action in working for peace–and about what it meant for us to be peacemakers in our own time.

An opponent of the Vietnam war from its beginning, he traveled to Hanoi in January 1968 with Howard Zinn to receive from the North Vietnamese three American POWs, the first such to be released since the beginning of the American bombing of Vietnam.  Later in the same year, with eight fellow activists, he destroyed 378 draft files belonging to the Catonsville, MD, draft board—his group became known as “the Catonsville Nine.” He was sentenced to three years in prison for this, but went into hiding for a time in order to draw attention to the group’s cause. Soon re-arrested, he went to jail until 1972.

Then in 1980, with his brother Philip, and six others (“the Plowshares Eight”), he was a participant in an action in which nuclear warhead nose-cones were damaged, and in which the Eight poured their own blood onto documents and files in the nuclear base in King of Prussia, PA. After ten years of appeals, he and the others were re-sentenced and then paroled. (I shudder to think what would be the punishment if he or anyone else performed such an action today, given the paranoia of the US administration, or, more accurately, of the national security state apparatus which is the effective government of the United States.)  Since then, while continuing to protest the war-related actions of his government, he has lived in New York, devoting himself to his poetry, to teaching at Fordham University, and to bearing witness to the truth (cf. John 18:37, significantly, from Jesus’ word to Pilate at his trial).

I consider him a prophet (i.e., somebody who sees what he sees and then says what he sees), and worthy to stand in the lineage of the biblical prophets. There is already a prophet Daniel in the Bible, but we can certainly use another one! Ad multos annos, Dan Berrigan, servant of God, friend of Jesus, prophet of peace!

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Shakespeare: the 400th anniversary today of his departure

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus!” (“Julius Caesar” I.ii.129).

Yes, he doth. Four hundred years after his death his plays present the human condition to us all over the world. Perhaps my most memorable memory of a Shakespeare play is from the time I saw “MacBeth” performed in Zulu at the Globe Theatre in London, under the name of “M’Batha.” And of course the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and our own Bard on the Beach continue to offer us magnificent presentations of his genius.
There is a quotation, also from “Julius Caesar,” which I have often quoted to someone who seemed to me to be on the cusp of a good decision, but needed just a little nudge to move ahead. Come to think of it, it applies to every great social moment as well: climate change, nuclear weapons, Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It is a great description of the kairos, the moment of truth.
And here it is for you–my salute to the Bard on his anniversary.
There is a tide in the affairs of [men],
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
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I’m joining Pope Francis’s church

Yes, I’ve decided to join Pope Francis’s church.

I don’t mean by that that I am going to become a Roman Catholic. I mean I am identifying with the millions–perhaps billions–of people who are astonished and gratified at how he is exercising his exalted and mediagenic position. Some of these are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists and communists, as well as Christians of other persuasions. Some indeed are Roman Catholics, although it has to be acknowledged that there is a fearful, hard-core segment of the Roman Catholic Church which resents and resists what he is doing–a rapidly shrinking group, I hope. Yes, they belong to the Roman Catholic Church, of which Pope Francis is the head, but they don’t belong to Pope Francis’s global electronic church–let’s call it the Church of Justice and Love.

There is no doubt in my mind that Francis is the master of the gospel gesture in the age of mass media. Continue reading

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Easter Day: a new experience

Easter Day yesterday, and many ways to celebrate it. A Roman Catholic friend of mine has the custom of going someplace different every Easter, church-wise. He invited me to go with him to the East Van sunrise (read: rain-rise) service at Trout Lake Park, and I accepted. There were about 100 people there at 7:30 am, from various churches. The service was led by a youngish pastor name of Julia, from First Vancouver Christian Reformed Church. That’s a conservative denomination of originally Dutch ethnicity.

In her “reflection” (note: not her sermon), she told us how the Immigrant Services Society was building a large welcome centre for refugees on the lot next door to her church. This made her congregation realize that they had to become better informed about Islam, and they were working on it. The church has also hired a new staff person to be chaplain to refugees, and work with those who will soon be their next-door neighbours. She also commented on the similarities and difference of belief between Islam and Christianity. (She didn’t say this, but it occurred to me that simply as believers in God, Muslims and Christians share a worldview which is less and less common here in beautiful British Columbia.) I found it inspiring to hear so inclusive a message from a representative of a conservative denomination.

At one point we were divided into small groups in order to offer prayer in a more intimate way than in the larger group. In our little group there was a Greek Orthodox woman, whom I was able to greet with the traditional Greek Easter greeting, “Christos anesté!”–Christ is risen. But I didn’t know the response, which she then taught me: “Alethos anesté!”–he is risen indeed! So my Greek expanded exponentially!

I also learned a new liturgical custom. After she made a particularly strong statement, she would say, “Amen?” in a questioning tone; to which of course everyone immediately responded “Amen!” I’m looking forward to having an occasion to practise this new learning.

Thanks again to my friend John for taking this initiative, and to his wife Miriam for the delicious breakast we shared afterwards.

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Dal Richards 1918-2015

I’ve just listened to Margaret Gallagher’s thoughtful and gracious tribute to Dal Richards, who died on New Year’s Eve–perfect timing, since NYE was for him for 79 years the great moment of the year. From 1936 to 2014, he led his swing band in saying goodbye to the old year and hello to the new.

Some family memories. I remember my parents talking about dancing to Dal’s orchestra on NYE at the Panorama Roof at the Hotel Vancouver, then the most glamorous night-spot in town. So when we noticed that on Mom’s 85th birthday (November 21, 1997) he and his orchestra would be playing at a downtown restaurant, we arranged her birthday party there, without telling her why we had made that choice. Dinner carried on, and she enjoyed the music–“sounds a lot like Dal Richards!” Then we asked him to come over to our table and ask her to dance, which he did. A very sweet moment.

In 2013, with my sister’s 70th birthday coming up (on March 30), we wanted to do something special. So we hired Dal and four of his musicians for a mere (I mean this sincerely) $1000, which we thought was an incredible bargain for someone of his fame and stature. Everyone who came chipped in $20 and the cost was easily met. We arranged the party in the lower floor (OK, the basement) of First Lutheran Church, and again, made it a surprise. And of course Helen danced with Dal.

I saw him for the last time on this plane on Christmas Eve. He was slated to do one of the readings at the 1:00 pm Gospel Choir Christmas service at Christ Church Cathedral. He was not well, and there had been some talk about him not being able to read. My sister was asked to be ready to sub for him if this turned out to be the case. But when he arrived, frail as he was, he insisted that he was perfectly capable of reading. So he did read, with my sister beside him, her arm supporting him, and her hand pointing at the lines he had been asked to read–his last gig.

Margaret’s tribute ended with him playing and singing “As time goes by,” one of his signature pieces–and he did have a fine singing voice. Given that our family’s memories of Dal go back to the thirties of the last century, there is a particular poignancy in that song title. Time has now finally gone by for Dal, and we are all the richer for a man who enjoyed to the full his ability to give us the gift of music.

His funeral/memorial will be at Christ Church Cathedral probably some time next week, time and day TBA. Rest in peace, Dal, and thanks for the memories.

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Paris and Beirut: kith and kin

We grieve–many or most of us–with the citizens of Paris over the recent tragic assaults that have left so many dead and so many wounded. We also–some of us–grieve with the people of Beirut and Baghdad over the recent assaults there. All of these, we are given to understand, are the work of ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.”

There have, however, been voices raised in Beirut (I haven’t heard of any from Baghdad) complaining that the deaths in Paris have been getting more attention in western media than the deaths in Beirut. Are Lebanese lives, they ask, of less importance or value or preciousness than French lives? Continue reading

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It’s morning in Canada again

” … every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, NRSV).


In spite of the text, this is not a sermon. It’s my response to yesterday’s swearing-in of our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and his star-studded cabinet, which I found very moving. Part of it, of course, was relief and gratitude that the previous incumbent of the office (he hasn’t quite yet achieved the status of He Who Cannot Be Named, but on the feeling level for many Canadians, he isn’t so different from Harry Potter’s nemesis) had departed. Emblematic of this feeling: a petition was started in Calgary to name its international airport after him. Another petition was soon launched, this one in favour of the Stephen Harper Landfill, which received many more votes than the first. So sayonara, Stephen Harper: ride off as soon as possible into the sunset, and just keep riding.

So then, “what is new and what is old.” That text came to me Continue reading

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Two new Canadian citizens

This afternoon I went to a ceremony of admission to Canadian citizenship. I went because my former in-laws, Suzanne and David, were to become citizens, after more than three years of bureaucratic misery which came to a happy conclusion when they were informed a short time ago that they were to be admitted as citizens today, October 16.

They were not alone, of course: they were two among 74 admitted at the same time, and an equal number had been admitted to citizenship at each of the two ceremonies earlier in the day. Continue reading

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The pope and the other Christian churches (fourth in a series of four)

It’s clear from the attention paid by the media to Pope Francis on his recent trip to Cuba and the US that the pope–both the office and the person of the current holder of the office–is somebody with whom the media can “do business.” The media know who and what a pope is. That sounds banal in the extreme; but the media deals in banality, in celebrity, in sound bites and excitement; and the pope supplies all of these, and manages even so to communicate his messages to many.

In the last twenty years, in fact, the media have “anointed” (as it were) the pope as the head of the Christian church, the world community of Christians. What after the Reformation of the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was unable to achieve by apologetic or polemic, Continue reading

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The pope and his critics

So the pope is now back home in Rome, after a triumphant tour of Cuba and the US. One commentator did a riff on Julius Caesar’s famous remark, when he send “Venit, vidit, vicit” (but shouldn’t that have been “vincit”? Oh, never mind!) A friend of mine commented that he went from Washington to New York to Philadelphia “slaying dragons right and left”! The manifest majority of those who heard and saw him were very happy to do so.

However, not everybody is happy with the pope. His critics fall into three main categories: Continue reading

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