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Dorothy Day, a Catholic for All Americans

Why would a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church recommend for sainthood a woman who was a radical socialist and pacifist, a divorcee who had had an abortion? Why would he recommend for sainthood a woman who had had affairs and spent her nights in bars drinking and reading poetry with the likes of Eugene O’Neill?

Why would a Cardinal of the Church recommend for sainthood a woman who was dismissed by the head of the theology department of the most prominent Catholic university in the United States as being perhaps devout but irrelevant to American life and so marginal as to have founded an esoteric sect called the Catholic Worker movement?

Why would a Cardinal recommend for sainthood a woman who was accused by a prominent Catholic writer of “breaking with the mainstream tradition of American Catholicism and its views of the American experiment?” In this he classes her with St. Francis, apparently in his view also a marginal character outside the mainstream in the Church.

Why would a woman who was often dismissed as a dreamy pacifist, who lived in the slums in conditions which sometimes did not provide the basics of practical necessities be considered for sainthood?

Unquestionably a Woman of the Church

Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, goes to the heart of the matter and breaks through the rhetoric of the right and the left. He says forcefully that Dorothy Day was “unquestionably a woman of the Church.” To the response of the writers of the left and the right he responds: “I put no stock in labels.”

This “woman” is Dorothy Day, who with Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933.

When she became a Catholic, Dorothy Day went from a very bohemian lifestyle to a life based on the Gospels, the great Catholic traditions and the social teaching of the Church.

The Cardinal chose to participate in the sainthood process because the canonization of Dorothy Day would “speak to a great number of women and others and remind them that God is very merciful.”

Cardinal O’Connor stated that the experience of Dorothy Day “showed the great mercy and grace of God in a way that might not have been revealed otherwise.”

Dorothy was the first to reject being called a saint herself. But that’s fairly normal. Saints who were later canonized never proposed themselves for canonization.

But Dorothy’s rejection of being canonized while she was still alive went much deeper. She thought that being called a saint was a way of dismissing the Catholic Worker movement, of passing her off as some special person and not an ordinary person calling others to commitment and holiness.

Her response to “Dorothy-the-saint” was, “All this talk about saints is a very subtle way of attacking the temporal aims of the Catholic Worker…dis-missing us as quite beyond anyone’s acceptance or imitation: ‘Oh, they are all saints down there on Mott Street.'” (James Hanink, National Catholic Register, Apr. 20-26, 1997, p. 6).

Dorothy Calls All

Admirers of Dorothy Day are very familiar with her radical commitment to the poor, demonstrated in houses of hospitality, in soup kitchens, bread lines, in all the works of mercy. They know her prophetic stand on pacifism, know she went to jail for refusing to participate in air raid drills. They know she and Peter founded and visited houses of hospitality across the country. And many have imitated her and continue to imitate her in these things, protesting war and oppression or working day after day in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.

Fewer are familiar with the depth of spirituality upon which the Catholic Worker movement is based and which guided Dorothy’s whole life. Many are unaware that much of her writing was dedicated to living out the Gospel call to holiness and what this struggle involved. Both she and Peter Maurin spoke of finding a synthesis for the Christian life, a synthesis which would bring together the great traditions of the Church, a way to radically follow Gospel teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25, and contemporary Catholic social teaching. They sought a correlation of the material and the spiritual which called Christians to work toward transforming the social order.

For Dorothy, this search for a synthesis, a way to live out the Gospel that might also address problems of poverty and war, had begun early in her life. A book which documents this and the depth of Dorothy’s Catholic spirituality is Brigid O’Shea Merriman, O.S.F., Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day; University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Dorothy’s coming into the Church was followed five years later by her meeting with Peter Maurin, who brought to her so much of the tradition, the idea of making the papal encyclicals “click,” and his program of houses of hospitality, farming communes and clarification of thought.

Their search for and implementation of this synthesis found expression in the Catholic Worker movement. The movement began in the depths of the Depression with the newspaper. Its editors quickly found that they were called to provide the hospitality (giving shelter in the Lord’s name) and works of mercy that the paper had called for.

Throughout the years, Catholic Workers were expected to live the Gospel in a radical way, giving home to those without a home, washing the feet of the poor, going the extra mile, rejecting racism, seeking peace in a violent world, living what Peter Maurin’s father had called the shock maxims of the Gospel.

The Worker movement was embraced by the Catholic Church in North America. Many distributed the paper each week in parishes and schools. Many schools, universities and parishes clamored to have Dorothy come and speak to them. Many Protestants during World War II were drawn to the Worker movement as an oasis in the midst of conflict. Dorothy and Peter practiced ecumenism before the word was common parlance. Priests today tell us that as seminarians or college students they liked to go the Catholic Worker for Vespers. Older people tell with enthusiasm about hearing Dorothy speak at Duquesne in 1939 or Peter Maurin at the Basilian university in Canada in the late thirties. Even Cardinal McIntyre, who was painted as a real right winger, always had the greatest admiration and respect for Dorothy and defended her to the New York hierarchy.

But Dorothy was also a mainstream Catholic. She worshipped daily with the average Catholic at the local parish each day, went to confession each week in the parish, adored the Blessed Sacrament in the same. She recited the Rosary and the Divine Office and did spiritual reading each day. She said the Church was her home and she did not want to be homeless.

Structure vs. charism

How can one understand the role of a movement like the CW or many other interesting movements in the life of the Church?

A recent issue of Communio (Fall 1998) reflects on the contribution of various movements to the universal Church and on the institution and charism, hierarchy and prophecy. The article points out that it is clear that the action of the “Spirit of the Risen Lord” in the sacraments is the foundation of the Church. But the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, also acts in other ways, “irrupting” where he will in history, in prophecy.

Noting that the Church “must constantly check its own institutional structures in order to keep it from taking on too much weight-to prevent it from hardening into an armor that stifles its real spiritual life,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains the special contributions of movements within the Church using as one of the outstanding examples of the Holy Spirit irrupting in history the ‘evangelical movement’ that exploded with St. Francis of Assisi. He emphasizes that “In the case of Francis, he had no intention of starting a new order, a community apart. He wanted simply to call the Church back to the whole Gospel, to gather the ‘new people,’ to renew the Church with the Gospel” (p. 495).

Cardinal Ratzinger in no way places people like Francis on the margins, as people led by intuition alone.

Dorothy’s writings make it clear that she and Peter also meant the Catholic Worker movement to be a movement for the whole Church. Those who see her as out of the mainstream do not understand that mainstream American secular life or mainstream comfortable, well-to-do life in any country was not her model, just as it is not the ideal of the Sermon on the Mount. She wanted to share the Gospel with everyone. The Catholic Worker movement, like others which have influenced the Church so much, called Catholics to live the Gospels in their fullness and radicality at the same time as they participate intensely in the sacramental life of the Church.

It would be difficult to understand Dorothy Day without understanding the Retreat that was so much a part her life and of the movement. The eight-day silent retreat was created by Fr. Lacouture, a Jesuit with roots in Ignatian spirituality, to capture the core of what it means to be a Christian. Fr. Pacifique Roy, Fr. Louis Farina and Fr. John Hugo gave the retreat to Catholic Workers and others to lead them to a total commitment to Jesus and the Gospels, including the gospel of peace.

Brigid Merriman quotes many of Dorothy’s letters and notes from the retreats, which give much insight into her hopes, prayers, and her spiritual life. Merriman reminds us that Dorothy and Peter had embraced voluntary poverty as a part of their synthesis, along with so many other aspects of living the Sermon on the Mount, living from the first days of the Catholic Worker in the midst of the poor in order to minister to them. “For Dorothy, the Retreat confirmed their insight and provided her with a larger theological vocabulary with which to express it.” (p.145)

One quote after another from Dorothy’s letters and reflections emphasizes that we must become saints, we must lead others to become saints, we must transform our world in Christ, that only that which we do in and for Christ is of lasting value: “What we are aiming at is to bring men back to Christ, and it is presumption and effrontery and arrogance, if we try to do it without looking after ourselves first….”(p. 144) “The only purpose for which we were made is to become saints; we are to strive for a hidden sanctity, in which penance and prayer play an important part.” (p. 146) “Our work is to sow thoughts of the Gospel in the mind of others.” (p. 148) “Where are our saints to call the masses to God? Personalists first, we must put the question to ourselves.” (p. 173)

In her book, On Pilgrimage (1948, p. 113), Dorothy writes, “I realize that I must go further, go deeper, and work to make those means available for people to change themselves, so that they can change the social order. In order to have a Christian social order we must first have Christians.”

In Dorothy’s last decade she wrote in the Catholic Worker, quoting Rosemary Haughton, of the greatness of the saints as her models and our models: “It is this earthy spirituality that Christians need to recover if the Church is to be prophetic, wild and holy, and not merely socially enlightened…it is time to take the lid once more off the well of truth from which the mystics and saints drew.” (“On Pilgrimage,” The Catholic Worker, January 1972, p.1)

Therese Mainstream Saint

One of Dorothy Day’s favorite saints was St. Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who entered the convent at age 15 and died there at age 24, never having left, even once.

St. Therese is patroness of Catholic missionaries throughout the world.

In her early Catholicism, Dorothy was put off by the spirituality of St. Therese. She felt it was saccharine. She much preferred St. Teresa of Avila, a more dramatic saint and one of the great Catholics of the Church, as well as a Doctor of the Church.

But Dorothy Day, after years in the Catholic Worker movement, changed her mind. She looked to what is called St. Therese’s “Little Way,” fidelity to the Gospels in the daily and hourly and minute by minute living out of the Faith rather than waiting for the big moment of glory-(not to confused by activists with Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame). St. Therese thought her piety was for everyone and so did Dorothy. Catholic Workers are called on to be faithful in the humdrum details of existence as they constantly are in touch with the poor.

Dorothy loved St. Therese’s approach to daily life so much that she wrote a book on her and her Little Way.
Dorothy, a Woman for All Seasons

With her background of being formed by the saints-she was a frequent reader of the lives of St. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, St. Francis and others-her study of Catholic social teaching in the papal encyclicals and her study of the history and charisms of religious communities, Dorothy knew that the Catholic Worker could not be just a special group. She knew it must be open to all Catholics or interested people, especially those who could comprehend the values drawn from Church teaching.

Thus the Catholic Worker is a mainstream movement. It has influenced many American Catholics.

Dorothy, in the tradition of St. Francis, “never intended to found a religious community.” She, as he, “wanted simply to call the Church to the whole Gospel, to gather the ‘new people,’ to renew the Church with the Gospel.”

Dorothy felt that just as there was a need for the Gospel in the time of Francis, so there was a need for the Gospel today. She believed as he did that the Gospel counsels are for everyone, that we are all called to perform the works of mercy, to forgive, to go the extra mile, and at the same time proclaim the Gospel.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 1, January-February 1999.