Berrigan, with his brother Philip, led demonstrations against the war. They spoke against the war. And on May 17, 1968, they went a little further. They led a group into the peaceful Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, walked into a Knights of Columbus Hall that housed a Selective Service Board, and walked out with 378 draft records. Then they burned the pile of papers with homemade napalm.
The Berrigans went to federal prison for that event; since then, they've been arrested regularly for protests at places where weapons are manufactured. In fact, Philip is still in prison, his brother told students; he's due out in November.
Yes, by standard definitions, Berrigan is a troublemaker -- and not even a repentant one, at that. When asked what he was especially proud of in his career, he replied in one class, "I was proud to go to prison, and I was proud to go to trial."
But make no mistake: peace-making is what Berrigan is about. As he sees it, though, sometimes troublemaking is part of the peacemaking process. Just as important to Berrigan, troublemaking is also part of his spiritual process, too -- practicing what he terms the "politics of Jesus."
The Berrigans were the first Roman Catholic priests to receive federal sentences back then, and their actions appalled a lot of people -- their church included. "That a priest would break the law, or a nun would -- people were very upset by that," Berrigan said.
But, he added, "once you get past the conspiracy and the destruction of property, we were doing the politics of Jesus," which Berrigan said can be found in Jesus' relationships with people, and his inclusion of people considered outcasts by the majority. Some of Jesus' actions were considered subversive and dangerous by government officials in those days, too, Berrigan noted.
While the Vietnam War got a lot of Berrigan's focus at the time -- later the Gulf War did, too, as he led protests against that military action -- it is not just war that the priest fights. It's violence. And racism. And poverty. And ignorance. And every other blight on humanity that eventually breeds and nurtures war.
"The assault on people is everywhere," Berrigan told one group of students. He said he sees it at a weapons museum in New York City, where families wander through to see weapons of mass destruction. "People bring their kids in there to see all sorts of horrible weapons," Berrigan said. "We (he and other social activists) stand outside and tell them maybe they shouldn't do that."
It's actions like these that make Berrigan unsurprised by the recent acts of violence in schools. "Violence comes in every message kids get," he said. "There's a polluted wave of violence coming at children." That's why he doesn't view kids killing other kids as anything particularly "new," he said. "It's something old in a new form."