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.
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.
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.
“When I came out of the seminary in ’64, Martin Luther King was in the streets, Cesar Chavez was in the fields, Berkeley students were doing free speech marches and the anti-Vietnam War movement was in full bloom,” he says. “I got involved in all that.”
He met King, attended Mass with Robert F. Kennedy and fasted with Chavez.
“Father Louie was with us at every major crisis we had,” said United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. “He lives the purpose of what he believes, the idea of peace and nonviolence. He has a quiet strength, and he’s fearless.”
Vitale’s first arrest came in 1971, when he helped organize a sit-in by welfare mothers that blocked traffic on the Las Vegas Strip to protest major cuts in aid by Nevada.
The priest had gotten to know Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who called him his “Franciscan conscience.” When the police reported to O’Callaghan that the friar had been detained, Vitale says the governor replied, “You better keep him in. He’ll be very disappointed if you let him go.”
In the 1980s, Vitale helped draw thousands for mass arrests at the Nevada Test Site. He was arrested so often -- including eight times in one day -- that he became friendly with the justice of the peace, who nevertheless sentenced him to several months in jail.
Vitale has heard grumbling about his arrests from some Catholic officials but says he has always had the support of his superiors.
“He is a very holy man and a very good priest,” said Bishop John Wester, who served as auxiliary bishop in San Francisco and has known Vitale for years. “He is following in the footsteps of St. Francis. Strategically, I am not sure that getting arrested is the best way. But I admire the fact that he follows his heart.”
Vitale has hardly been an outsider in the church. He was elected in 1979 to head the Franciscan Order in the Western states, a post he held for nine years. In 1992, he became pastor of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where he remained for 13 years. Neither job prompted him to curtail his protests.
As pastor, he raised $12 million and renovated the 100-year-old church. After it was beautifully restored, he opened its doors to the homeless so they could sleep in the pews during the day.
The idea of allowing drunk, smelly or snoring people to stretch out in the pews offended some churchgoers, who found it disrespectful. But that didn’t stop Vitale.
The church remains open to homeless sleepers.
Today, walking with Vitale in the Tenderloin is like touring with a celebrity. As he heads down Golden Gate Avenue from St. Boniface to a dining hall run by the Franciscans, homeless men and women call out, “Father Louie.”
A man in a scruffy camouflage jacket stops him and shakes his hand. A middle-aged woman, a little unsteady on her feet even though it’s barely noon, gives Vitale a big hug. Slightly embarrassed by the attention, he chats with each of them briefly and asks after their health.
In November, Vitale returned to Arizona to protest the training of military interrogators at Ft. Huachuca. After a similar protest in 2006, he received his harshest sentence for trespassing, five months in jail. Home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, the fort trains personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps in intelligence techniques. Vitale contends that military interrogators have been taught torture methods, an allegation the Army denies.
About 200 protesters are gathered in a nearby park. Vitale, taking the microphone, delivers a stream-of-consciousness rap ranging from his time in the Air Force to his meeting former Abu Ghraib prisoners in Jordan.
He theorizes that St. Francis suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after he joined a military expedition and was taken prisoner. “He came out and rebelled against any kind of war,” the friar says. Vitale closes by invoking Cesar Chavez and leading a chant of “Si, se puede.”
Afterward, several people come up to have their picture taken with the friar.
“He’s a rock star,” says Chelsea Collonge, 24, a Catholic Worker activist and friend who was arrested with him at the Nevada Test Site. “He’s so good at affirming people. He loves what he does. He loves people.”
The group marches more than a mile to the fort’s entrance, where barricades block the way. Vitale, determined to get arrested, surveys the dozens of police near the entrance and calculates how to enter the fort.
“When you see that people are being tortured, what’s a few months in jail?” he asks.
He walks through the line of police, crosses the street and slips through two strips of yellow police tape. Across the road, the protesters watch and cheer.
“Sir, you’re going to be arrested,” a soldier with a bullhorn warns repeatedly.
But that’s exactly what he wants. He walks a few more steps into the custody of two burly military policemen, who handcuff him and put him in a van.
The protest has no visible effect on the military’s activities at the fort, but Vitale says results are not the point. “Effectiveness is not what we’re after,” he says. “We are doing what’s right before God. That’s what we are called to do, and what happens happens.”
Vitale has already begun his next protest, fasting and holding vigils at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Pilots there remotely fly Predator drones, which target terrorists but sometimes also hit civilians.
He hopes to be arrested to commemorate the arrest of Jesus on Holy Thursday. If all goes well for the friar, he will be in custody by this afternoon.