Freshmen Required Reading Promotes Jesuit Ideals and Links Fordham Community


A student worker holds a copy of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, the freshmen orientation book for the incoming 2011 class. (Craig Calefate/The Observer)

FCLC – The required reading for all incoming freshmen at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) not only introduces students to the Jesuit ideals in which Fordham prides itself, but it also weaves connections throughout the Fordham community. “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” is a play that is based on an act of civil disobedience that took place on May 17, 1968.  It was written by Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who is Fordham’s former poet-in-residence.

The play was chosen as the required reading for freshmen because of the political parallels between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War, but it was also chosen in order to prompt new students to start thinking critically about issues that are fundamental to the Jesuit mission, according to Dean Arleen Pancza-Graham, assistant dean of freshmen and sophomores, who suggested the play.

The play is an account of the trial that took place in October 1968, five months after nine men and women entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., and burned 378 draft files with homemade napalm in an act of peaceful defiance. The author, Daniel Berrigan, was one of the nine, along with his brother Phillip Berrigan.  Both of the Berrigan brothers were priests.

In addition, Pancza-Graham said that “it was quite serendipitous that Mark Street [assistant professor of Visual Arts] was at the meeting,” referring to the meeting of faculty members who will be teaching freshman seminars this fall. Street’s wife, Lynne Sachs, a filmmaker, produced a documentary on the Catonsville, Md., events while they were living there, Graham noted.

“Reading the play is a way to witness people in a deep struggle,” Sachs said, “and for students to read about those who gave up their physical freedom for intellectual freedom.”

As poet-in-residence at Fordham, Berrigan most notably created a performance piece last year to honor the 500th year of the founding of the Jesuits, after being commissioned by the Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J., president of Fordham., who chose Berrigan for being “the most accomplished Jesuit poet of our time,” McShane said.

Pancza-Graham noted that the ties between the play and Fordham were only realized after the book was chosen. “It was only after the book was chosen that we became aware of the fact that there was a benefit reading of the play being rehearsed in California and that it involved actors who were already familiar with Fordham College at Lincoln Center.” She was referring to both Tim Robbins, who visited the cast of the Fordham theater department’s main stage production of “Dead Man Walking,” a play written by Robbins, and Beau Bridges, whose daughter attends FCLC. Both performed in the reading of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” in Culver City, Ca., on Aug. 18.

Bridges explained that the play and the incident itself teach an important lesson to young people, especially the Fordham students who were asked to read it. “I think that finding out the truth is a worthy task,” he said. “One of the responsibilities for anyone is to educate the community.”

As for Pancza-Graham’s hope that reading the play will give insight to FCLC students on the issues of peace and justice, some freshmen have already realized this.

“As a Jesuit University, Fordham will undoubtedly challenge us in a similar way to make educated, moral decisions, even if we must go against societal norms to do what we know is right,” said Marc Valentin, FCLC ’11.

Brian O’Connell, FCLC ’11, feels similarly, and is eager to be exposed to more of the Jesuit ideals during his career at Fordham. “The fact that [we were] asked to read it says to me that the school takes its heritage seriously, and wants to foster some of the Jesuit ideals into its students,” he explained. “It’s telling me that Fordham is about ideals and morals and that’s something I’m excited about.”