When Father Daniel Berrigan passed away in late April, tributes and anecdotes poured out about this Catholic priest who was peacemaker, poet, and much, much more.
Absent from almost all of these accolades was Berrigan’s outreach to lesbian, gay, and bisexual Catholics and to persons who had HIV/AIDS.
Tom Roberts wrote about some of Berrigan’s LGBT solidarity in the National Catholic Reporter. For instance, in the late 1960s the priest sponsored a gay group at Cornell University, according to LGBT advocate Brendan Fay. This act, in Fay’s view, revealed Berrigan’s “heart and his embrace and his willingness to go beyond the clerical comfort zone and to reach out and say ‘yes’ to a need instinctively.”
Berrigan attended Dignity services in New York after Cardinal John O’Connor expelled this group of LGBT Catholics from Church property in the city, and he ministered to Dignity communities elsewhere. In his book Portraits of Those I Love, Berrigan profiled former Jesuit and noted gay theologian John McNeill as “The Jesuit,” a chapter in which Berrigan admiringly called McNeill a person who was “unafraid of the cross.”
Like McNeill, Berrigan was unafraid to challenge a church to which he had committed his life. In an essay for The Huffington Post, Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, a New York social service agency for LGBT homeless youth, explored Berrigan’s outreach to sexual and gender minorities. Siciliano explained that Berrigan’s concern for people hurt by the church was closely connected to the priest’s wider struggle for social justice. Preaching to Dignity/Miami in 1987, Berrigan offered the following remark:
“The church remains for the present adamant: against serious peacemaking, against the gay community. But in these matters, each in it’s own way a matter of life and death, it cannot be said that the church speaks for Christ. It could even be said that the church speaks in contrariety to Christ…We think of the church, and the official treatment of many, and then we think of Christ…We are struck by a contrast. The church rejects, ostracizes, places certain people beyond the pale; on a lifelong basis…
“I do not know, any more than you, whether church authority will renounce it’s sinfulness, will at last heal and bind up those it has wounded so grievously. (And so be healed and bound up, and acknowledge her own wounds.)…We must forgive, deepen our love, persist in our conviction that even the church can be redeemed from sin.”
Berrigan’s outreach to LGBT Catholics was paralleled by a ministry to those people dying from AIDS, Siciliano noted. He began chaplaincy with St. Vincent Hospital’s AIDS Hospice program, New York, as early as 1984 and continued this work through the mid-1990s. His task, Siciliano observed, “was to befriend those who were sick and dying” through pastoral visits and hospitality:
“He got to know the men. He describes himself as their ‘listener of last resort.’ Some were lonely and isolated. He invites them to meals at his apartment when they are healthy enough for the journey uptown. He takes them to restaurants. He invites one man living as a guest in someone’s tiny spare room to stay in his apartment while he spends some weeks teaching at a distant university. He invites another man to stay at a cottage he has use of on Block Island to escape a brutal heat wave, but alas when the time came the man had become too ill for the journey.”
In 1989, Berrigan, a prolific writer, published Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS about his ministry. Siciliano offered snippets from the book because he believed it is important “that we read Dan’s words of admiration for the heroic goodness of these gay men [caring for people dying from AIDS] in contrast to the messages then being disseminated by the leaders of his Roman Catholic church.”
Berrigan helped bury the dead, too, offering memorial services even at his own apartment for those people who had felt so excluded by the church. All this work took a toll on the priest who wrote, in Siciliano’s words, “of being bludgeoned by grief, of being frightened by it’s intensity as his friends suffer and die” even as he kept ministering on the margins.
Siciliano commented that homophobia in Catholic circles and anti-church sentiments in LGBT circles have likely both contributed to the neglect of Berrigan’s outreach, but now he hopes the priest’s witness will be shared more widely because:
“Dan provides something remarkable: an example of a truly Christian response to AIDS and homophobia. Dan responded to the suffering and ostracism of people with AIDS with loving kindness, compassion and friendship. A friendship in which there was no place for the pharisaical moral judgement of so many church leaders. A friendship of persons made equal though love, helping each other through a terrible time.”
Dan Berrigan’s wisdom and his witness have been widely celebrated because he prophetically challenged U.S. militarism and nuclear weaponry. What cannot be lost is his prophetic challenge to the church, too, which occurred by his decision to simply live the Gospel amid communities marginalized by the church. May Dan’s life teach us all for many years to come.
To read the National Catholic Reporter’s obituary for Dan Berrigan, click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry