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Protesting priest's path leads repeatedly to jail

Father Louis Vitale has engaged in civil disobedience for nearly four decades in pursuit of peace and justice. 'He is following in the footsteps of St. Francis,' a bishop says.

April 09, 2009|Richard C. Paddock

SANTA BARBARA — Father Louis Vitale has lost track of how many times he has been arrested. More than 200, he figures, maybe 300. The gaunt Franciscan friar figures he's spent a year and a half behind bars. At 76, he is ready to go to jail again.

Last month, he appeared before a federal magistrate in Santa Barbara.

Dressed in the traditional brown robe and the knotted rope belt that signifies vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Vitale explains in his gravelly voice that he had a higher purpose when he trespassed two years ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base: calling attention to the perils of nuclear war and persuading military personnel to embrace nonviolence.

"The biggest threat to the world is our nuclear arsenal," he tells Magistrate Judge Rita Coyne Federman.

More than two dozen family members and friends, including actor Martin Sheen, are in the courtroom to show support for the friar and his three co-defendants.

Vitale tells Federman, who had found him guilty in December, that sending him to jail would only make him more determined to break the law again to protest injustice.

"I am committed to doing anything I can," he says.

The judge, rejecting the prosecution's call for five months in jail, concludes that more time behind bars would not change the priest's ways. She orders him to pay a $500 fine.

Sheen, sitting in the second row, expresses surprise. "The government needs the dough," he cracks.

Outside court, Vitale admonishes friends and family members not to pay it. He would rather go to jail.

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For nearly four decades, Vitale has made civil disobedience a way of life.

A former Air Force navigator with a PhD in sociology from UCLA, he believes his mission is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and St. Francis, who comforted the poor and preached nonviolence. "I call it the evangelization of peace," he says.

His example inspired so many people to put themselves on the line during the anti-nuke protests of the 1980s that he was dubbed the Pied Piper of the Nevada Test Site. More recently, he has helped focus attention on the training of Latin American security forces at Ft. Benning, Ga., and the instruction of U.S. military interrogators at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz.

"He's one of my heroes," said Sheen, a longtime friend who has been arrested with Vitale in Nevada. "He is one of the great peacemakers."

Vitale, who lives at St. Elizabeth's Friary in Oakland, is one of a small number of religious figures around the nation who seek to go to jail for their beliefs. "By taking on the suffering of others, we change the world," he says. "We are willing to put our bodies where they are and suffer the consequences, be what they may."

He is tall and slender, bearded and bald with a fringe of close-cropped gray hair, a prominent nose and large ears. Friendly and self-effacing, Vitale often cracks jokes that soften his radical message.

"I like to be liked and I try not to offend people," he says.

At protests or the courthouse, he typically wears his monk's habit. But he also projects an air of informality, carrying a cellphone in his breast pocket and wearing black Crocs.

As a speaker, the fast-talking friar displays a passion for his cause, albeit with a tendency to ramble. His ability to inspire appears to stem more from his upbeat nature and his example.

Vitale often cites the inspiration of St. Francis, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

He gets up in the middle of the night to pray and fasts on Fridays, which contributes to his lean physique. The friar also goes on lengthy fasts as a political statement; his longest was 46 days to protest the Persian Gulf War.

"He looks more like Gandhi every day," Sheen says.

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As he travels around speaking to audiences, Vitale often uses chapters of his life story to illustrate his message.

Born in San Gabriel, he could have gone into the family fish-processing business and lived a life of affluence. After graduating from what is now Loyola Marymount University in 1954, he enlisted in the Air Force. He took pride in being a "flyboy," bought a Jaguar Roadster and enjoyed the party life.

Vitale often recounts how his squadron was ordered to shoot down a presumed enemy aircraft approaching the U.S. He says the crew was told not to risk inspecting the plane before firing but flew alongside anyway. Two women waved at them through a window. It was a commercial airliner.

That planted the seeds of his disillusionment.

When his three-year stint ended, the self-described playboy found himself drawn to the church. He gave up his girlfriend and gave away his Roadster. He chose the Franciscans, he said, because they had a sense of humor.

"It was the idea of doing good, whether it was as a crusader or a hero," he says.

Vitale took his vows in 1960 when he was 28. When he emerged from the isolation of his theological studies, he found much had changed.

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