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Mayer, Paul

November 22, 2013
East Orange, NJ

Paul Mayer, a Jewish-born former Roman Catholic priest who was at the forefront of peace and social justice campaigns for five decades, for a time working closely with the radical pacifist priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, died on Nov. 22 at his home in East Orange, N.J. He was 82.

His son, Peter, said the cause was brain cancer.

Mr. Mayer converted to Catholicism as a teenager and gave up the priesthood in 1968 to marry a former nun. But he said he still considered himself a priest — just as he still considered himself a Jew.

“Jesus never stopped being a Jew, and frankly I don’t think I could stop being a Jew even if I wanted to,” he told the psychotherapist Alan Levin in an interview for a forthcoming book, “Crossing the Boundary.”

He wore the priest’s collar for the rest of his life. He also became a devotee of Navajo religious tradition and the philosophy and practice of yoga.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Mayer helped the Berrigan brothers plan some of their highly publicized antiwar sorties, including the 1968 raid on a draft board office in Catonsville, Md., to remove and burn draft files in the parking lot outside. He also coordinated underground support for the Berrigans when they went into hiding, hunted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as among its 10 most wanted fugitives.

In 1971, Mr. Mayer was named an unindicted co-conspirator in an alleged plot to kidnap Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, supposedly to ransom him in exchange for an end to the war in Vietnam. The defendants contended that the F.B.I. had fabricated the plot with the help of a paid informer. Mr. Mayer headed the defense committee for those charged in the case, known as the Harrisburg Seven. While awaiting trial, Mr. Mayer officiated at the wedding of two of the defendants, the Rev. Philip Berrigan and an activist nun, Elizabeth McAlister, at the federal detention center in Danbury, Conn.

The trial, in 1972, ended in a hung jury, after which the government dropped all but minor charges against Father Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth.

Mr. Mayer was a Benedictine monk for 18 years at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, N.J., before being ordained a Catholic priest in the mid-1960s. In 1966 he met Naomi Lambert, a nun at the time with the order of Medical Mission Sisters, while traveling in Mexico. They married two years later. By the time the Vatican relieved him of his priestly duties in 1971, they had had the first of their two children.

The couple established a commune of sorts, called Project Share, in East Orange, where they and a group of families lived together and supported one another in two adjacent six-unit apartment buildings.

His marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s. Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Maria.

Mr. Mayer continued a life of extravagant disregard for conventions. In 1972 he toured villages in North Vietnam that the Communist authorities said had been carpet-bombed by American planes. He visited Cuba many times to deliver medical supplies, in defiance of the United States trade embargo.

In 1973, while heading an American delegation to the World Peace Congress in Moscow, he caused a stir by criticizing the meeting’s sponsor, the Soviet Union, saying it was waging “a campaign to silence” any of its citizens “who seek to express their rights.” In response, his own delegation of activists stripped him of his leadership role.

Paul Michael Mayer was born in Frankfurt on Feb. 24, 1931, to Ernst and Berthel Mayer. After Paul and a younger brother, Franz, were expelled from school as Jews under Nazi decrees, their father, a concert pianist who worked as a salesman, and their mother, a nurse, immigrated to the United States with their children in 1938.

Mr. Mayer lived in an orphanage while his parents and younger brother stayed with relatives for about a year, until they could afford to rent an apartment in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

His decision to convert to Catholicism at 16, he said, reflected a “driving adolescent drive to belong.” The writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and Christian mystic, cemented his commitment, he said. After being ordained, he was a parish priest in Panama.

He took up the cause of social justice when he joined the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Almost 50 years later the passion had not subsided.

In an unpublished memoir he completed shortly before his death, he recalled his arrest in December 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street protest: “I found myself climbing a 15-foot linked iron fence to cast my lot with this visionary youth movement that was sweeping the planet.”