Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Farewell, My Teacher

Daniel J. Berrigan, SJ, died on Saturday, April 30, 2016, at the age of 94.  Published remembrances have called him a peace activist, defiant priest, poet, prophet, convicted felon and fugitive.  I prefer to call him “my teacher.”  During the Spring semester of 1993, I was one of a group of Villanova graduate students in a course entitled “Minor Prophets, Major Themes,” taught by visiting professor, Daniel Berrigan.

Prior to meeting Father Berrigan in that class, I was not too familiar with his work.  I knew the Berrigan name as one that was tossed around unkindly in many circles during my childhood, but I knew very little else.  I really did not know what to expect when this thin, unassuming 72-year-old man walked into our classroom and began to speak with gentleness and his own brand of enthusiasm about the “minor” prophets.
During the semester, I grew to know Daniel Berrigan, a man whose life so resembled the depth of the Scriptures he imbibed, that it was easy to see Jesus in him.  This man, who was often quoted as saying, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood,” was someone who had first-hand knowledge of the cross of Jesus Christ and who was committed to witnessing for peace “until the day after I’m embalmed.” 
Each Wednesday during that semester in 1993, he took the train from New York to suburban Philadelphia and was met at the station by one of the graduate assistants, who would bring him to campus for our evening class.  At the end of the class, one of the graduate assistants would take him back to the train station for his return trip.  He kindly refused the university’s offer of an apartment, because he did not want to miss too much of his ministry to people with AIDS at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York.
Being one of the graduate assistants who shared this driving task, I got to know a bit about Daniel Berrigan and his way of causing others to reflect deeply on their lives rather than merely to cruise unconsciously through them.  Three of these “life’s lessons” remain deeply embedded in my heart today:
·       Speak softly.
·       Live consciously.
·       Live with integrity.
Speak softly
One day when we were approaching campus, we saw students wearing their ROTC uniforms.  Very quietly, Father Berrigan said, “How do you feel about studying theology in a university that trains officers for the military?”  I answered honestly, “I’ve never really thought about it.”  He quietly answered, “Hmm. . . . Maybe you should.”  Although he felt passionately about the subject, he delivered these words without a hint of anger or antagonism.
Live consciously
Toward the end of the semester, he asked what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  I told him about my plan to apply to doctoral programs.  After a few seconds of thought, he said, “Just be sure that you are doing it for the right reasons.  I doubt that you’ll be fulfilled if you make ‘tenure track’ your goal.”  In other words, blindly doing what the “world” expected us to do with our lives was not as important as following our prayerfully-informed heart.
Live with integrity
At the beginning of the semester, he told us that he would not be giving us grades for the class.  He saw competition as violence and he felt that, in giving grades to students, he would contribute to the violence already rampant in our world.  So, at the end of the semester, he asked us to tell him what grade we thought we deserved and why.  While this might seem like an invitation to an “easy A,” that was not the case.  We students had to verify that our weekly written assignments, oral presentations and intelligent participation warranted the grade we were giving ourselves.  Were we, in truth, deserving of that grade?  This was not as much about a grade as it was about living lives of justice and integrity.
I have only seen Father Berrigan in person once or twice during the 23 years since my last encounter with him at Villanova, but he continues to have a profound, long-lasting influence on my life.  Each time I make the gentle, but uncompromising choice for peace, each time I consciously choose to pay attention to an issue rather than tacitly accepting it, and each time I maintain my integrity in difficult situations, I believe I pay tribute to the Good News of Jesus Christ as witnessed to me by the life of Daniel Berrigan, my teacher.

- Sister Ann Marie Paul, SCC

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