Freed Franciscan friar's message of nonviolence leaves feds quaking in fear

Friday morning broke overcast and chilled, but there were warm smiles on Bartlett Street at the home of the Franciscan brothers.

Subversive smiles, some would say.

The friars and their friends were happy because Franciscan Louis Vitale, or "Father Louie" as he is better known, was released after spending three months at Nellis Prison Camp on a federal trespassing conviction. Vitale, 70, had had the audacity to protest the United States' blood-stained role in training Latin American troops in the Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. Human rights organizations have linked those troops to numerous atrocities, including the murder of nuns and priests.

The friar didn't throw rocks at a building or spray paint a tank. Vitale and approximately 100 others walked onto the military reservation and caught sentences of varying durations.

In an irony worthy of a Heller novel, Vitale was convicted of trespassing on a military base, sentenced and sent to prison at a camp located in the middle of a military base.

His release can mean only one thing.

It's time for authorities to raise their level of paranoia to at least a yellow alert.

Admittedly, Vitale is a rail-slim 6-foot, 156-pound septuagenarian with a gray beard and a brown cassock. ("I went out to the weight pile," he says. "I didn't do too good.")

Clearly, he's tougher than he looks. So tough, in fact, some in the government must fear him, or at least his message.

Inside Vitale burns the heart of a man who qualifies as an American subversive in these war-mongering times. Vitale believes in nonviolence and traded his freedom to illustrate the point. From the look of the energized group of Franciscan brothers, sisters and social workers that surrounded him Friday, he's not alone.

Did he learn his lesson after three months in the federal pokey? Has he changed his ways?

Father Louie just smiles.

"As far as being repentant, not a bit," he says.

But his time at the minimum-security camp was not wasted. If anything, it strengthened his personal resolve and gave him insight into the effects of long-term incarceration on inmates.

The Nellis inmate population includes a substantial number of federal drug offenders and white-collar criminals. True to his calling and creed, Vitale believes he met many men strapped with lengthy sentences who would gladly go straight if given a chance.

Some would call him naive, but he observed the love and longing many of those prisoners had for their families. He came away believing they were capable of rehabilitation.

As prison rules preclude inmates from practicing their professions, which in the case of the drug traffickers is probably a good thing, Vitale spent time unofficially assisting Chaplain Frank Tinajero.

He felt the all-encompassing seriousness of not only the prison, but the air base as well. Nellis is unofficially the home of a substantial nuclear weapons cache. That put the lifelong anti-nuclear activist in close proximity to his enemy.

Vitale also responded to the approximately 1,000 letters of support he received from schoolchildren, old friends, and supporters from the United States and parts of Europe. Although being a prisoner of conscience brings with it a modicum of celebrity -- anti-nuclear activist/actor Martin Sheen tried unsuccessfully to visit him -- Vitale downplays his importance and instead reels off names of associates and allies who've done far more time and received far less attention.

Which brings me to the question of what the federal government ought to do with Vitale and his kind. Sentencing them to community service makes perfect sense.

Then again, that's basically the Franciscans' job description.

"OK, then, so don't do anything," he says, offering more logic than the federal system allows. "We're about as harmless as could be."

Then he smiles that subversive smile.

To hear him tell it, there are options to war.

Beware of that smile. And watch out for those 70-year-old bones.

I have it on good authority Father Louie will call for peace until the answer echoes through the land.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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