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Do We Need the Eucharist or the Church?

Potential volunteers call Casa Juan Diego to see if there is any group not connected with religion that gives hospitality to immigrants and refugees.

Some would like to join in the work, but are uncomfortable with religion.

Our answer to this question is no.
We know of no one that can survive day after day, year after year, sharing the burden of working with the poor, in love, without the grace and strength of the Eucharist and the support and prayer of the Body of Christ.

Needless to say, these applicants are very disappointed, since religion is not held in high repute today.

Popular Distinction

There is a popular distinction between spirituality and religion.

Religion is stereotyped as negative and rigid, having to do -*with rituals, externals, restrictive rules and doctrine. Spirituality is something else, they say.

Why bother with the institutional church is the question– the church is considered too conservative and oppressive by some. Church members are accused of being hypocrites and of not living out the faith by others. And some feel the church is too liberal.

Recent studies indicate that many baby boomers look for meaning outside formal religion. They see religion as irrelevant. In fact, 85% of the baby boomers believe that you can be a good Christian, very spiritual, without going to church.


Spirituality is essential. Heaven knows we need saints, people who are trying to do something with their lives, trying to follow Jesus, no matter the price.

What goes on in people’s minds, hearts and souls is very important. What kind of spirituality they have will impact many people and the whole world.

There are a large number of popular types of spirituality today, many also popular with Catholics, searching outside the Catholic tradition to enrich their faith.

“Spirituality” may be based more on personal experience, individual interpretation, sometimes narcissism and emotion, rather than a belief in the church as the body of Christ or the People of God called together to live as Jesus did and to contribute to the common good. Often, some of the best traditions of the church and the Gospel have not been explored. An example being the whole of Western mysticism being ignored. Or some limited sections of the Scriptures may be selected; sometimes the hard sayings of the Gospel are omitted.

And sometimes the most important values in a person’s life come not from the teachings of the faith, but from what is politically correct or even what is convenient.

Creating own gods

People have developed such an awful image and concept of God that you would have to be some kind of nut to have anything to do with their God or religion.

Once you have relegated God and religion to the minor leagues, permission is given to worship more important things, such as one’s own freedom, pleasure, material possessions or politics. A spirituality that can live with this kind of permission will flourish.

It seems, to us, that it is most helpful to have principles, guidelines, truths and role models if we are to find the Way, the Truth and the Life, if we are to have the strength and the grace to be able to follow the call of Jesus.

Pro Choice vs. the Call of the Gospel

Having free will makes everyone in a sense a pro choice person–in the general sense–in favor of making responsible choices.

The term pro choice has been misunderstood or is a misnomer. With all the emphasis on freedom of choice today, the term pro choice, as popularly used, has nothing to do with selecting the good, but simply means an abortion.

But being pro choice is not such a great value if we make the wrong choices.

Overemphasis on choice can be a shibboleth obfuscating the morality of choice.

The real question, the real choice is, shall we choose–or refuse–the call of Jesus and the Gospels.

Everything follows from that.

Narcissism may become the new cult of many Americans if we let free choice be interpreted as the choice to do anything we darn please.

Contemplating one’s navel may be OK, but it is a poor way to contribute to the common good. The world needs us! We have reached the point where people now stand in front of their full-length mirrors and say to themselves, “I am who I am.”

We were wrong

For years we spoke of the primacy of the spiritual to our volunteers.

They did not seem to understand, although they said they agreed with the idea of spirituality. They didn’t respond in a way that would bring us to the spirituality of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

We were on the wrong track.

For us the primacy of the spiritual–the words of Dorothy Day–meant something altogether different from what they understood as “spiritual.”

What did spiritual mean to Dorothy Day?

First of all, Dorothy Day and the Workers were inebriated with
the concept of the Body of Christ (The People of God).

All members of the church are part of the church, or rather parts of the church, like parts of a body all united and functioning together, all having the same blood coursing through their veins. In the Body of Christ, the Church, the blood running through each member is the life of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-26).

And the leg cannot say, I am not part of the body, I have no responsibility. The leg, if separated, is dead, dead, dead. All that remains is a decent burial. Members and organs of the body (of Christ) have life as long as they are good functioning parts of the body and remain united in the body.

Very often people think of the Church as the hierarchy only. This is a gross mistake, if not heresy, because the Church being the Body of Christ includes all members and believers. We do need bishops and priests as successors of the apostles, if we are going to be rooted in the early Church.

But all members of the Church have responsibility for the Church, not just the Bishops.

When we criticize the Church for not doing something, we are criticizing ourselves, because we are the Church– just do it yourself!

The great and first claim of a bishop or even a pope is not that he is a bishop, but that he or she is a member of the Body of Christ.

Stanley Vishnewski, one of the early Catholic Workers in New York, writes in Wings of the Dawn (published by the New York Catholic Worker) about visits from Fr. Benedict Bradley and Fr. Virgel Michel in the early 1930’s in which they made the community aware of the living doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. We will let Stanley speak for himself as he shares about the priests’ visit:

“The Church,” Fr. Bradley told us, “is not simply a society, and organization; she is an organism, a living and life giving organism, with head and members. The dogmatic concept of the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. This is the cardinal truth revealed to the world by Christ. It was preached to the man on the street by St. Paul. The early Christians all understood it. St. Augustine urged it insistently and St. Thomas Aquinas taught it. The Mystical Body of Christ is the title which the Fathers of the First Vatical Council declared to be the most excellent expression of the nature of the Church. It was explained by Leo XIII and urged upon a weary world by Pius X in the splendid phrase, Restaurare omnia in Christo–to bring all things under the headship of Christ.”

I (Stanley Vishnewski) was sitting in the front row as I listened spellbound to Father Bradley. The crowd of people that had gathered was unusually quiet. I experienced a sense of religious awe. I felt a sense of unity and oneness with Dorothy, Peter, Mary, Margaret, Big Dan, Little Dan. I closed my eyes and realized a strong sense of Communion with the Black Americans, the Chinese, the Russians. All were my brothers and sisters. We were all one in Christ.

“The Liturgy,” (Mass and Sacraments) Father Bradley concluded his talk, “was once the supreme expression of Christian life and the instrument of the world’s conversion. And only through it–the celebration and application to men and women of the Redemption–can Christianity be revived.”

Father Bradley’s talk was like a Pentecost to all of us at the Catholic Worker. For the first time we became aware of the living reality that was our Faith. It was an awe-inspiring doctrine and we were so enthused–so drunk with new wine–that we wanted to go out on the streets and shout to all who would listen about the unity of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. I wanted to shout to the people on the streets that you are my brothers and sisters in Christ and that together we belong to the royal family of God.

What was consoling, to me, was the awareness that we were not alone in our apostolate. It was no longer a question of the individual soul and God. It was a question of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, praying to God the Father.

Fritz Eichenberg’s engraving depicts Dorothy Day’s understanding of
Christ in the poor from Matthew 25 in the Bible

The doctrine that we were one family in the Mystical Body of Christ transformed out lives and opened up to us new horizons of the Faith that stretched as it were into infinity. The old conception of the Faith, that I had known, was now transformed into a dynamic one. The Faith that I had known had been more of a personal and a rather narrow, negative one. It was only God and I that existed. It had been a bargain type of religion. Do this for me dear Lord and I will say these prayers for you. If you avert this tragedy I will make a pilgrimage. Dear Saint, I am going to light this candle in your honor but do come along and grant my request.

The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ made our Faith a living reality. The Church was not just a brick building that stood on the corner. The Church was not Father Paulauskas or Sister Perpetua. It was we who were the Church! The Church was all of us united under the Kingship of Christ. It was Christ who was our King. It was Christ, our Brother, who acted as our Mediator with God the Father.

If one of us suffered, then everyone suffered. If one of us was happy and rejoiced, then everyone was happy and shared, in a mystical manner, in the rejoicing. I would wake up in the middle of the night and joyfully reflect that at that particular moment I was sharing in the fruits of the Mass that was being offered up throughout the world. What a consolation it was to know that as I slept choirs of contemplative nuns and monks were chanting the Diving Office and that I as a member of the Mystical Body was sharing in their prayers.

I began to realize how important my actions and prayers were to the health and the well being of the Church. For the first time I understood what Dorothy had meant, that cold morning, when she told me that by missing Mass I was hurting the work.

I became aware that my prayers, my sacrifices, would and could contribute the necessary graces to keep alive the Faith of some poor prisoner locked away in a Communist or Fascist concentration camp. My prayers and good works also had the power to convert his captors. It was then that I understood the enormity of my sinful actions. My failure to cooperate with Grace not only hurt me, but at the same time withheld from some poor mortal the necessary Grace and strength to persevere. “We were our Brother’s keepers!” At the same time I was humbled by the thought that I in turn was being supported and strengthened by the prayers and sacrifices of my fellow member in Christ.

The thought that one carried Christ and that one was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” was a sobering one and helped keep one away from dangerous occasions of sin. I then understood that it was Christ who had called me to engage in the Lay Apostolate and the Catholic Worker, for when I thought of leaving (and the occasions were many), I could think of no place I wanted to go. I realized that I had more need of Christ and to do His Work than He had of me. I understood then that He had chosen me and that it was not I who had chosen to follow Him. This was an inspiring thought, but how unworthy it made me feel. The prayer came unbidden from my heart: “O Lord make me worthy of the trust that Thou hast placed in me.”

It was Father Virgel Michel, then Dean of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, who came to us one afternoon and told us about the relationship of the Mystical Body of Christ to society. Fr. Virgil told us that once people became aware of the spiritual life and their relationship to God that the problems of economics, of race would be solved. He emphasized strongly the need for liturgical prayers–the recitation of the Divine Office by laymen so as to bring their minds and thoughts into harmony with the Church.

As a result of Father Virgil’s visit the custom of reciting Compline was instituted in the Catholic Worker.

The Catholic Worker was like a cell of the Mystical Body of Christ. It was a “League of Nations” as well as an ecumenical movement. There were always people of different nationalities and various religious faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics staying with us. One did not have to be on the editorial staff.

Dorothy always loved to count the various nationalities that were represented at the Catholic Worker. “Here we are,” Dorothy said, “people of different nationalities whose countries are supposed to be enemies, but because we are all Catholic we are able to meet and be friends.”

Not always, I thought. There was plenty of fighting and bickering going on in the Catholic Worker. But people did seem to be friendlier in the Movement. I asked Dorothy about this.

“It is because of this dogma of the Mystical of Christ,” Dorothy replied. “Catholics may not allow their souls to be clouded with greed, selfishness and hate. They may not hate Black people, Jews, Communists. When they are guilty of prejudice, they are injuring the Mystical Body of Christ. It is as though they wielded the scourges in the hands of the soldiers who attacked our Lord. If a man hates his neighbor, he is hating Christ.”

What an account of the excitement and joy of the early days of the Catholic Worker (sixty years ago) and these great men of the liturgical movement (the Benedictine priests mentioned above) as they came together to a profound understanding of the Body of Christ and what that meant for their lives!

Dorothy Day often said through later years that the truth of the Mystical Body of Christ was the foundation that undergirded the entire Worker movement. She repeatedly stressed the implications of St. Thomas Aquinas’ view that all are members or potential members of the Body of Christ–and that devotion to Christ demands service to those in whom He dwells.

Dorothy often quoted Clement of Alexandria on the Body of Christ:

Why do the members of Christ tear one another? Why do we rise up against our own Body?

At Casa Juan Diego we are a living example of the Body of Christ at work. Members of the Body of Christ (whether as individuals or parishes) pray for our efforts and support our humble efforts, all of which we celebrate, at Mass, several times a week at Casa Juan Diego. Celebrating the liturgy, we are conscious of our bonds with all of those (many we have never met) who are united with us and our humble endeavors through prayer and sacrifice. And we are united with the poor and suffering members of the Body of Christ as they come to us as refugees and immigrants from a painful and devastating journey, as battered women with many bruises or from hospitals with broken bones.

Personalism, Personally Serving

Dorothy Day helps us with our concept of spirituality. She and Peter Maurin helped invent personalism and made it the hallmark of the Catholic Worker movement as a concept core to its being. This idea came also from Emmanuel Mounier, a French thinker who insisted on the primacy of the spiritual in all social action and transformation.

Making the choice to follow Jesus and what he asks of us in the Gospels–and for the Catholic Worker movement, particularly the Beatitudes and the Lord’s words about the Last Judgement and the least of the brethren–is, according to Dorothy Day, a free choice, a matter of love, which makes it voluntary, not compelled by fear or force. In this sense Dorothy Day was pro choice-committed to choosing the good each day.

This is a personal decision, to change our hearts, to respond personally to the call of Jesus, to give up all and follow Him and to love as He asks us to in the Sermon on the Mount. And the living out of this personal decision in the Catholic Worker expresses itself in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, with a commitment to serve the poor at a personal sacrifice, not relying on the state or other institutions to do this.

Day and Maurin taught us that Gospel personalism meant making “Christian love” the foundation of social existence. True love required, for them, first of all, taking responsibility for one’s self, then “love in action” in service to one’s immediate neighbors and then transforming society at large through the power of this love. It also implied a commitment to satisfying and socially useful labor, a rejection of all forms of violence and coercion, and a personal detachment from material goods through the practice of “voluntary poverty.” (Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread, Temple University Press, 1982, p. 97.)

This personalist commitment and way of life is in direct opposition to the me-first movements and some of the spirituality movements today.

Why choose obedience to the Church

Many people can understand and appreciate Dorothy Day’s work with the poor, her work for peace and nonviolence, her leadership in working for social justice. But they wonder about her orthodoxy and commitment to the Catholic Church.

The basis of Dorothy Day’s orthodox Catholicism lay in the Church’s custody of the sacraments, as well as her strong identification with the lives of the saints. The Church had credibility for her because it traced its roots back to the Apostles and thus provided the sacraments, established by Christ.

For Dorothy Day the Eucharist, and the material substances of bread and wine transformed in the Mass, in particular were the foundation of spiritual life, connecting the spiritual and material. Dorothy appreciated and celebrated the immanence of God – God with us, dwelling with us in the sacraments and sacramental presence of the Church and in His people.

She had begun attending daily Mass before starting the Catholic Worker and she continued the practice throughout her life.

Problems of Institutionalism

There are many today who spend much of their energy criticizing the Pope, bishops and priests–either from the point of view of the right or the left. Is there any hope for the institutional church? Should we stay with it? Some say, “No,” and sadly walk away.

We are amazed at the number of conservatives who don’t go to Mass. We already know that many of our liberal friends gave up long ago or go only occasionally if there is a beautiful liturgy somewhere.

Dorothy Day was very aware of the shortcomings of the human beings who make up the Church. She put it this way:

“I loved the Church for Christ made visible, not for itself, because it was often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said that the Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified. One could not separate Christ from his Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.” (Patrick Coy, editor, A Revolution of the Heart, New Society Publishers, p. 208)

With Pope Paul VI, Day knew that the Church was always in need of reform. But she did not believe in wasting a lot of time in blaming lack of success on the Church.

Day held to the view that Catholic religious owed obedience to their superiors and that lay persons should concentrate on positive social action rather than on attacking the Church and its leaders. When a group of activist Catholics in Los Angeles wrote her complaining of opposition from the hierarchy there, she replied:

“We must follow where the spirit leads. So go ahead, and don’t look for support or approval. And don’t always be looking for blame, either, or see opposition where perhaps there is none. It is judging the motives of others. Excuse my didactic tone, but I do have long experience. I beg you to save your energies to fight the gigantic injustices of our times, and not the Church in the shape of its Cardinal Archbishop there. It is a temptation of the devil to divert our energies, discourage us, sadden us, and neutralize all we would like to do.” (Breaking Bread, p.92)

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin gave their freely chosen obedience to the authority of the Catholic Church in the areas of faith and doctrine. But they took upon themselves and the Catholic Worker movement personal responsibility as lay Catholics to live out the Gospels, particularly emphasizing the beatitudes and Matthew 25:31 ff.

They studied and prayed to know how to do this.

While some may feel that the way to call the Church to more commitment to social justice and peace is to provoke confrontations and harshly criticize the Church, the Catholic Worker chose another way.

Mel Piehl, writing in A Revolution of the Heart, puts it this way:

“In effect the Catholic Worker attempted to change the church not by using the methods of politics, but by holding up from within the Christian community a working model of what the community professes itself to be. By freely practicing values learned within the church itself, without committing the church to a particular position that might be mistaken, the Catholic Worker has tried to move the Christian community by inspiration and example rather than by direct confrontation.” (p. 208).

Dorothy and Peter critiqued the Church by their lives.

People concerned about social justice sometimes question the Catholic Worker’s commitment to the Works of Mercy and call it band-aid work. They have said over the years: Change the structures! Don’t stop to try to help the poor person. We have heard this many times at Casa Juan Diego.

But the Catholic Worker has taken the unusual position of trying to do both–with a dual emphasis on social change and the works of mercy, trying to bring the “highest spiritual and ethical values of Christianity into public life…, proclaiming the supreme social relevance of the morally heroic evangelical (Gospel) counsels of perfection.”

The Catholic Workers’ hope is changing hearts and bringing Christians to struggle to live the radical teachings on love in the Sermon on the Mount.

According to Patrick Coy in A Revolution of the Heart, “The personalist philosophy offered by Day and Maurin did not expect change through and in social institutions, but rather looked for the creative changes in individuals as they elevated the Christian precept of active love to a place of practiced primacy in their daily lives (p. 159).

Day and Maurin tried to balance the incarnational (the Lord present within) with the eschatological (the risen Lord that is to come to us in death and at the end of time).

Inspiring Models from the Church

Dorothy Day’s and Peter Maurin’s spirituality had a kinship and much inspiration from some of the great people who had gone before them in the almost 2,000 year history of the Church. The example of women and men like some of the Western mystics, Saint Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, St. Therese of Liseux, and many others who tried to live with their faith and love of God at the center of their existence, helped to bring the Catholic Worker to both contemplation and action.

Dorothy Day loved literature and read widely and was considered an intellectual; she also followed the model of the saints whose illumination came from asceticism and prayer. Dorothy said of these great models, “They are the heart of Catholicism; they are its mystical core. After I had found them and studied them, I would not have left the Church under any persuasion.”

These great people of faith included St. Francis of Assisi, who lived out his faith in a very creative way, which revolutionized the Church of his time. And Francis was not a priest.

Francis did not put his hope in politics, did not work with politicians or committees or any organized group of dissidents, but was instrumental in effecting the downfall of an undesirable social system.

In an article in the New York Catholic Worker in 1953, Robert Ludlow wrote about the way of St. Francis as he developed his idea of the Third Order, which was for lay people as well as clergy:

“Francis struck at the iniquity of it (the undesirable social system) especially with two provisions of the rule of the Third Order. One was the provision that Tertiaries must not bear arms, the others was that Tertiaries must bind themselves with no oath, except where duly constituted authority rightfully required it. And it must be remembered that literally thousands of lay people joined the Third Order, so much so that feudal lords were beside themselves with wrath and appealed to Rome to stop this madness. This madness which deprived them of serfs because the Third Order members refused to bear arms or to take oaths of fealty to the Lords.”

The sixteenth rule of the Third Order is “They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.”

Believing that the Lord was present in our brothers and sisters, St. Francis felt that to kill someone was like committing suicide. Apparently, a canonized saint can get away with talking this way.

Can we imagine the revolution it would cause should this rule be enforced among members of the Third Order today, so that they would all, as a matter of course, become conscientious objectors?”

The attitude of St. Francis toward violence (he ignored the Crusades and went on his own unarmed to visit the Sultan), towards repression, is so much in advance of his times…, but for him was merely a reiteration of what was contained in the message of Christ.

Frances did not stop to argue theories about just and unjust wars, he simply stated that should people (clerical or laity) with to follow the path he laid down they simply did not bear arms.”

St. Francis did not respond to the mediocrity and corruption of the Church by breaking with the Church, as did the reformers several centuries later, but stayed with church structures to bring them to their proper function.

His commitment to peace and nonviolence, coming from the Gospels, strongly influenced the Catholic Worker, as did his commitment to voluntary poverty, another tenet of the Catholic Worker. The Catholic Worker, like St. Francis, did not so much oppose certain philosophical theories or ways the Church was currently responding to social problems, but their lives showed a new, creative way of expressing the Christian vision.

We can be grateful that the Bishops’ pastoral letter on peace has affirmed pacifism and conscientious objection as a valid response to Catholic theology. The bishops credit Dorothy Day in the development of their pastoral.

Robert Ludlow of the Catholic Worker raised some good questions and pointed us in the right direction in that article on St. Francis.

If the movements of the right and of the left are shallow, if they are too narrow to satisfy, if politics and political systems have demonstrated their uselessness in creating a just society, if all of these have demonstrated their own kinds of tyranny, is it not perhaps that we have yet to explore whole areas of thought and being?

If we have debased God to the point where what we call God is a chimera unworthy of the worship of free men and women, and if, because we know not what to worship, we worship the state or the race or our own compulsions, and if, in all these things we have found no happiness, and if we then realize that Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, St. Francis and so many other creative great people of the faith were profoundly happy, perhaps we, too, can be challenged to bring new life and creative approaches to the Church, new visions of ways to bring about the reign of God.

With the strength and grace of the Eucharist where we come to the Church to be transformed little by little, leaving aside our old self to be a new person in the risen Lord, in each of our hearts can grow the personalist revolution. Our hearts of stone can be replaced by new hearts, but according to the Scriptures, in the community of the Church.

As Dorothy Day said, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of the bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.”
We will have a much richer vision of the Church on various levels if we are conscious of the harmony of the shared voices of many generations as we look with hope towards the present and the future.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIII, No. 2, October 1993