I’ve only ever had to come up with a research topic once in my life before joining the Ramonat Seminar. This past semester I took an honors class created solely for the purpose of picking any topic I wanted and spending the entire semester writing about it. For the past few years I have had a strong love of Scottish culture and history, so it was pretty easy for me to come up with a general idea of what I wanted to write about. However, when it finally dawned on me this semester that I would have to pick a topic for the Ramonat Seminar as well, I panicked just a bit.
A depiction of the Battle of Culloden, fought between England and Scotland. See? Who wouldn’t want to learn about this?
I have always been a European history type of girl. I love learning about Scotland, England and all the countries that comprise Western Europe. Although I have some interests in early American history, I have never really been passionate about a certain American subject or event, certainly not in 20th century history. I am all about those medieval and early modern periods. How was I going to pick a subject to write about passionately and still find enough information for it? I knew I would never be able to write a good paper if I just picked some random topic that I didn’t care about. I had to find something in Dorothy Day’s America that I could invest my whole heart and mind in for an entire semester.
So, I began to think. I know that sounds really lame and anticlimactic but it’s actually what I did. I just sort of sat around and thought about what I had learned and what I was most interested in. I went through a variety of topics: Scots and religion in America, civil rights, the power of music, etc. Every topic I approached didn’t seem to matter enough to me. At one point I was totally sure that I was going to work on civil rights. Then I watched the Kennedy speech. In 1960, JFK gave a speech and sat for a Q&A with The Greater Houston Ministerial Association. This occurred while he was running for president and it was meant to make his stance on separation of church and state clear to many of those in Houston and even around the world. He was forced to make this distinction because so many were worried that his Catholic background would cause issues during his presidency. It was a fantastic video and JFK spoke extremely well. After watching this video, I felt positive that I had to write on JFK’s Catholic presidency or something related to it. However, not surprisingly, this changed within a few days.
JFK speaking to The Greater Houston Ministerial Association
While I found JFK’s speech interesting, I feared that I was more interested in JFK himself than any sort of argument I could make about American Catholicism in politics during that time. So, I started from scratch. I tried to think about what I found the most interesting about the 20th century. Was it war? Racial issues? Science? To try clearing my head, I thought what better way to get my mind working than to watch Netflix? It definitely wasn’t because I was procrastinating…. Anyway, when I logged onto Netflix, the first thing to pop up was a list of movies I had saved for watching, one of which was Across the Universe. For those of you who don’t know, Across the Universe is a movie that takes place in the 1960s and interprets the Vietnam War through romance, drugs, and the music of The Beatles. It has always been one of my favorite movies, mostly because I love The Beatles, and when I saw it pop up on my Netflix it gave me an idea. Why don’t I write about the Vietnam War?
I should probably be more specific. I didn’t want to write about this part of the war:
…but this part of the war:
I knew that many Catholics had been actively involved in anti-war peace protests and the 60s and 70s had always been the most interesting era to me in 20th century American history. Plus, I felt that these protests had a lot of pertinent connections to events happening today, such as the Standing Rock protests.
So, I delved into a world of complicated research on the Vietnam War as I tried to figure out what I could understand about the inner workings of peace protesting. In other words…I searched “Vietnam War peace protesting on Google”. Besides what I had seen in movies, I knew next to nothing about the Vietnam War era. While browsing the internet for information about peaceful protests, I came across an individual named Daniel Berrigan, a man deeply involved in protesting the Vietnam War. When I saw that he was a Catholic priest I thought that I had scored the jackpot! Here was my Catholic connection! Not only was Daniel Berrigan known as one of the more extreme Catholic protesters against the war, but he also had a brother named Philip who was also a priest and anti-war protester. These guys went to jail constantly, destroyed draft records, and wrote quite a few books. It was perfect…except for one small problem.
Philip Berrigan on the left and Daniel Berrigan on the right
As it turns out, radical priests who perform ostentatious protests and break into buildings to steal and burn draft records are pretty popular. I found that there was already a lot of scholarship on these two. So I, a junior undergrad, had to figure out something significant about the Berrigan brothers’ protesting that NOBODY ELSE had figured out. Needless to say, I felt panicked. I had only just figured out my research topic in general, but now I had to come up with a brand new, unique idea. How could I possibly delve through all the literature on the brothers to figure out what hadn’t been talked about?
The news that I needed to come up with my idea within the next couple weeks was broken to me the day I went home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Since going home involved a 6 hour train ride, I had plenty of time to ruminate on what my topic could be. I started reading about the Berrigan brothers and tried to imagine what I could talk about. I thought about connecting it to civil rights or maybe gender, but nothing seemed to stick for me. I began to get frustrated, but something was pushing at me in the back of my mind. When discussing my topic earlier, I remembered a comment one of my instructors made, wondering if there was any connection between protesters and having an artsy, perhaps theater background. Although I hadn’t really payed much attention to it at the time, it kept coming back up in my thoughts. Would it be possible for me to connect a theatrical background with the protests of the Berrigan brothers?
As I thought about it, I began to make more and more connections between theater and protest. I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I am very familiar with how the Mass is performed….and there it is. Performed. If you think about it, the Catholic Mass isn’t just a religious ceremony, it’s basically a theatrical performance! There are actors, story lines, songs, and cues for the audience to join in. Attending a Catholic Mass is almost like attending a the same play every week, only the play centers itself around a different biblical story every time. It was so obvious to me now! How could the Catholic ceremony be considered anything but a theatrical performance?? It had all of the elements of one and the priest was at the center of it all. The priest was the star performer every week. He read his lines, he acted out his performances, and he closed with a song. Priests were basically theatrical performers for a living.
The Mass isn’t the only aspect of Catholic culture that is one big performance. Catholic processions for holy characters such as saints are a common occurrence as well. These processions are a public form of celebration, usually to honor a certain saint on his or her feast day. Hundreds or even thousands of people can gather together on the streets to march in honor of a holy figure. These marches can be accompanied by hymns, prayers, costumes, and displays of the saint being held up by individuals, and they ring with theatrical characteristics. They are an integral part of Catholic celebration, public performances made to honor a saint or other holy figure. Based on both the theatricality of the mass and these holy processions, it is rather obvious that performance is an integral part of the Catholic church. Masses are special productions put on every week in honor of Christ while processions are street performances, created to showcase certain important saints. It is no coincidence that out of this religious world of performance came the Berrigan brothers.
The Berrigans were all about theatricality in their protests. They destroyed draft records by burning them with napalm, the flammable liquid used to burn down sections of forests by American troops in Vietnam, and pouring mixtures of human and animal blood on them. They were always very vocal in a lot of thier protests, always willing to take the blame for their protesting. At one point, Daniel Berrigan even wrote a play about one of his conspiracies to steal draft records, an incident dubbed the Catonsville Nine. Not only did the brothers see their protests as performances, but they were also both priests! I argue that the theatricality of the Catholic Church, both in the Masses and processionals, was what influenced the theatrical aspects of the Berrigan brothers’ protests. As priests, they were both the main part of the performance of the Mass. They starred in their own sort of play every time they carried out a religious performance. It was a part of their lifestyle and would have had a tremendous influence on how they saw the world. Although the Berrigans were definitely more radical than most Catholic tradition taught, they could not have performed their protests the way they did without participating in the performance of the Mass. It was essential to who they were and how they advocated for peace.
So…this is currently where I am at with my research idea. Although this is only based off of the tiny amount of information I have accumulated over the past couple weeks, I feel rather confident about my topic. As far as I know, no scholarship has been written on this idea. When I imagine my project in a few months, I am sure I will have accumulated a lot of scholarship not only on the Berrigan brothers, but on the church as performance as well. As I continue to study both of these factors, I will be making connections between the two, studying how and why the church would have had such an influence on the performances of these two brothers.
I am both excited and scared of what the future holds for me with this project. With research projects such as these, one always runs the risk of not being able to find enough evidence to support their claims. However, I feel pretty confident in my idea and in the research I am about to undertake. I know there will be more obstacles along the way, whether because I have a lack of information or of time to do some necessary digging, but I’m excited to face the challenges ahead. This class and finding a research topic has been a long process, once that was tiring but also quite satisfying. I have learned so much about Catholic social justice movements in 20th century America, far more than I ever imagined I would, and I’m excited to use all of this information to create my new and exciting research project for next semester. It’s been a wild and informative ride and I’m so lucky to have been a part of it.
For anyone who wants more info on the topics I covered:
The Amazing Soundtrack of Across the Universe
The Catonsville Nine Documentary
The Berrigan Brothers