Add to that the fact that he's served time in prison and helped pave the way for civil disobedience in the United States, and it starts to paint a picture of a literary heavyweight and a man weighed down by the burden of a flawed, war-like society.
And yet Berrigan in person is so funny, and so offhand about his actions that it's hard to believe this is the same person who has led raids into weapon manufacturing plants and poured blood -- his own -- on nuclear warheads before he helped destroy them.
A story about Berrigan, told in "Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan," an unauthorized biography of the brothers, gives a clue about Berrigan's humor. It's 1994, Berrigan is in a Manhattan courtroom, and a friend from his long-ago Cornell University days recognizes him. What have you been up to, the man asks Berrigan.
" 'Well, I've gone on to a life of crime,' Berrigan answers merrily" -- meanwhile waiting for sentencing.
Some Westminster students asked Berrigan about that evident attitude -- why, as one student put it, the priest appeared "sort of lighthearted" about things like prison and protests.
Berrigan never really answered the question, maybe because there really isn't an answer. It's part of his makeup that just slips through -- and it slipped through in other answers to questions.
"Did you ever think you shouldn't have done it?" one student asked about burning the draft cards in Maryland.
"No, I think we were hardened criminals by then," Berrigan deadpanned.
"How long were you in jail?" another asked, and Berrigan paused to add up all the months and years.
"Not as much as some," he finally answered. "I just talk about it more."
Berrigan was serious, too. He said he liked what he saw on college campuses such as Westminster's, where students worked on public service projects on their spring breaks. Yes, he said, there are positive signs; perhaps because "there is always an undercurrent of goodness that's never defeated."
As far as changes over the decades -- well, change comes slowly, he said. "I try to understand the times without expecting any great changes," Berrigan said. "If I ever thought I could change the times, I have all of that out of me."
Don't look for something that big," Berrigan advised students. "You don't have to solve every problem. Just work on one."
Berrigan has been on Westminster's campus since Wednesday as Peacemaker in Residence, sponsored by the college's Peace and Conflict Resolution Center. He will conclude his visit with a 6:45 p.m. lecture Monday at Wallace Memorial Chapel. The talk is free to the public.