Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Daniel Berrigan And Those In The Silent Generation That Did Not Shut Up

Just over a week ago, I found myself watching a live stream of the funeral mass of Father Daniel Berrigan.

My reaction was probably a little different from most. I laughed along with the physical audience when the homilist joked about there probably being FBI agents out there making sure that Berrigan, whom they had been tracking for nearly 50 years really was dead.  The thing that I could not get over though was the setting of the funeral Mass.

The Church Parades

The Church of St, Francis Xavier on 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan is a parish run by Jesuits - founded by Father John Larkin in 1847, It is a good sized building so it seems like a pretty reasonable setting for the funeral of the most famous Jesuit in the New York Province.  But there is this odd thing.  Also founded by Father Larkin in 1847 was the College of Saint Francis Xavier.  Ultimately it became a high school and it is right next door to the church.

Being a graduate of that high school, I was in that church numerous times.  The last time was last May for the Saturday Mass along with members of my class as a prelude to celebrating our 45th reunion along with all the other five year classes.  But that is not is what is most memorable about the church.

What is memorable is the church parades.  Because Xavier High School was not just a high school, with four years Freshman, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors divided into home rooms.  Since the entire student body was required to participate in the Junior ROTC program, Xavier was also a regiment.  Three battalions.  The First and Second divided into companies and platoons and squads and drilling for parades and reviews on either Monday or Tuesday at a nearby armory.  And the Third Battalion composed of special units - the color guard, X-Squad (precision drill team) and band who practiced intensively on the school roof or band room.  And then there was my beloved Supply Corps, which did not march in parades or reviews, but showed up early and stayed late to load and unload a truck on loan from the Army with band instruments and rifles.

We all had ranks and wore one of three uniforms every day, but I have covered that elsewhere.  Church parades were actually not much in the way of parades, as the entrance to the school was right next to the church.  Still there was something impressive about the whole regiment filing in.  Then there would be a "military mass", which some came to view as almost obscene. I think we probably had them about once a month.

At any rate, it introduced a bit of irony into the funeral of one of the era's greatest peace activists. Imagine that camera panning a congregation of 1,000 teenagers in military uniforms.  That was what that sanctuary would look like every month or so in 1969 when Father Berrigan was on the run from the FBI (Also ironically not an unusual career choice for Xavier graduates).

Candles of Joy and Concern

So I could not resist bringing it up at the "Candles of Joy and Concern" at my church last Sunday.  I attend the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester  (not to be confused with First Unitarian).  The practice there is for you to write your joy or concern on a card which Reverend Payson reads, which was unfortunate, since I have wretched hand writing, but it got across anyway.  It had an interesting result at coffee hour, which is probably as close as you get to a sacrament in UU churches.

Interesting Times

At coffee hour, I ended up deeply engaged with three women in their mid to late seventies (None of whom appeared to be a day over 65, by the way)  They all appreciated that I had made a gesture to mark Father Berrigan's passing,

  One of them had been a college professor.  Her salary was levied by the IRS, because she had refused to pay the excise tax on long distance phone calls. That tax had been dubbed "the war tax", perhaps because it had been explicitly enacted to fund an earlier war - the one against Spain.

Another told me about being part of an anti-war mothers group and getting a letter from either Nixon or Agnew chiding her on being unpatriotic.

One lady in particular had a fascinating story. I have this terrible memory for names, so I'm going to call her Ruth, which actually might have been her name.  I could have talked to Ruth for hours.  She had a rather fascinating background.  Her mother was a Missouri Synod Lutheran and her father was a physician of Italian descent.  So she attended Lutheran Church every Sunday but went to a Catholic girls high school, which is kind of unusual for the mid nineteen fifties.  Not at all surprising that one of her children ended up being a UU minister.

The really impressive thing to me though was that she grew up in Cliffside Park, which kind of wraps around Fairview, where I grew up to both the north and the east.  And she met boys like many girls from Catholic high schools by going to mixers at Xavier.  She even went to one of the military balls when she was 15.

Dentists For Peace - Who Knew?

She apparently didn't meet her husband at Xavier, he being Jewish and all, but that is neither here nor there.  He was a dentist and in the early sixties just out of dental school faced a dilemma.  There was a doctors draft that was pulling physicians in and there was some expectation that it would be extended to dentists.

Compared to most medical specialties it takes a lot of capital to start a dental practice. To start one up and then have to put it on hold could be disastrous.  So combining that practical issue with  some idealistic patriotism, he decided to join up.  He and Ruth spent three years at Fort Ord.  While he was there getting officers ready to go a long time without seeing a dentist again, he realized that that little thing they had going on over there in Southeast Asia was an actual war.

He finished up his three years in the Army and he and Ruth became anti-war activists. There was actually a dentists against he war group.  Who knew?  She remembered him one time coming from a meeting where there were photographers outside. Not from the newspapers as it turned out.

Being In The Silent Generation And Not Shutting Up

In the seventies, people began talking about how early it was that they were against the war.  By 1972 it almost seemed that the only reason for us to be in the war was to make sure we got our prisoners back.  As Ruth related to me her and her husband's experience being alienated from some of their family for their views, I realized how much harder things were for what was dubbed the Silent Generation.  (The Beat Generation was definitely a misnomer.  I once heard somebody say "Four guys don't make a generation" - referring to Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and some other guy.  Haven't been able to track the quote down.  Maybe I imagined it.)

You might call them the pre-Boomers, people born from 1937-1946. You might envy them to some degree.  There relatively low numbers in an expanding economy meant opportunity.  There was also an expectation that they should hurry up and get to work.  They were also unique in being the first birth cohort that grew up expecting that military service would be a common rite of passage.

In 1966, the top pop song was Ballad of the Green Berets

It took a lot more courage to speak out against the war in 1965, than it would a few years later when the Secaucus Seven loaded into their car in Boston to go to Washington.

Ruth met Father Berrigan when the Trial of The Catonsville Nine was being performed.  Peace activism will waxes and wane in its appeal, but it remains in part because there are people like Berrigan and these women who were inspired by him who keep it up consistently.  For them it was not a phase.  They remind me of my friend Tom Cahill, who I believe was the only US Air Force veteran to serve as a human shield in Iraq.

The best piece I can think of to sum them up is the poem by Bonnaro Overstreet

To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

Peter J Reilly CPA is altogether dissastisfied with this piece, but needs to move on.

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