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Young People of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose Except your Chains: Call to Destiny and Mystery of the Gospel

Two ND Grads

When we were on retreat recently talking with two young graduates from Notre Dame, they kept raising questions.

It was almost like Emmaus!

“Where are the ways of living out the Gospels and our Catholic faith in today’s world?” The young people asked.

“We’re afraid of getting into the rat race of making money and never being able to get out. We know a lot of young people who are looking for something, for an alternative. It seems that we are asking for bread and being given a stone. It is almost as if we were in chains.”

A young Catholic Worker recently reflected on the same questions and the pressures in our society, putting it this way: “We easily become slaves to what we want, which leads us to darkness where we give in to our base desires. A credit card, a mortgage and a car seem more important than your own person, than God.”

The young people from Notre Dame were delighted to discover that Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day presented a way out, where one could live out the Gospels, the faith, and Catholic social teaching.


What captivated them was the pristine vision of carrying out the philosophy and theology of Personalism together with voluntary poverty. “Young people,” they said, “love the idea of being liberated from the advertising world and constant harassment to buy. They feel oppressed by consumerism and the market place.” The graduates could hardly believe that it was possible to live today the way the Saints of the past like Francis of Assisi lived and proclaimed their faith.

Youth want a Challenge

Recently a prominent Catholic university decided to abandon classes that might be called, “How to be Catholic and Feel Good,” “How to be a Good Catholic and be Rich,” or “All that is Incorrect about the Faith Tradition” approach to offering a challenge. They called their course, “A Faith to Die For.”

Who in the world would want a course like that? Well, just about everybody. Now alumni have to pull strings or call Casa Juan Diego to see if we can get their son or daughter into this class (We cannot actually get students into this class, but some parents have thought we could).

There has been some trouble with the course because those advocating “academic freedom” objected to the content, fearing that the professor might be doing “catechetics” instead of theology. The youths did not understand the objection, especially since it was made in the name of academic freedom, all of which reminded them of the year 1984.

Reject Dogmas

One of the most difficult things for young people is dealing with the “dogmas” of our modern society. They want to be liberated from the oppressive institutions of society that promote greed and a hedonistic life style, but at the same time want to be accepted by their peers. The pressure is fierce and they fear succumbing. It is a form of enslavement.

The pressure to accept political correctness, for example, as the new bible is very strong, even though they see through its imperfections. A popular commentator on social and ecological issues, Wendell Berry, a Protestant, points out the actual lack of inclusiveness or care for others in what is called tolerance and multiculturalism: “Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people (Editors: “and immigrants”) and so on (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1993).

In addition, young people have begun to realize that they have unwittingly put more faith in what Dorothy Day called the infallibility and dogmas of Holy Mother the State than in the teachings of Holy Mother the Church.

New Narcissism: Spirituality vs. Religion

When young people came to us in past years to work at Casa Juan Diego, we were so pleased to hear them say they were interested in spirituality.

But we soon learned that their spirituality was very different from that of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

Theirs was a spirituality devoid of religion and faith. Religion was stereotyped as negative and rigid, having to do with rituals, externals, restrictive rules and doctrine. “Spirituality is something else,” they said.

Judaism and Christianity were seen by the youth of the ’60’s as bourgeois and powerless to correct society. The Church was blamed for the ills of society. Many looked to “spirituality” separated from these religions for fulfillment.

Shirley MacLaine proclaimed the new spirituality: “Each soul is its own god. You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For you are God. To love self is to love God.”

Marilyn Ferguson, announcer of the “New Age of Aquarius,” encouraged readers to abandon the “old” ideas and work toward a whole “new paradigm,” one that would reject all previous foundations for belief and affirm only the independence of the autonomous individual who could save himself by his own power. Her “spirituality” would rid the world of “certain key elements of Western thought,” not the least of which was God and the Church (Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy, 1980).

Young people are still presented with this idea that spirituality is good and religion is bad, that religion is dogmas and doctrines and therefore not creative and not free.

As Henri de Lubac, one of the periti (theological experts) of Vatican II, put it in addressing the problem of atheism and agnosticism: “In this matter of God it is never the proof which is lacking: The most distressing diagnosis that can be made of the present age, and the most alarming, is that to all appearances at least it has lost the taste for God. Man prefers himself to God. And so he deflects the movement that leads to God: or since he is unable to alter its direction he persists in interpreting it falsely” (Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of GodRessourcement Series Eerdmans, 1996.)

What we have now is not atheist humanism, but narcissistic atheism, young peoples’ faces buried in their navels, full of themselves, unable to appreciate the God of love and personhood.

Before Christ, people felt forced to follow certain beliefs against their better judgment, belief in the stars, in spirits and demons who weighed upon their souls with all their terrors, and controlled their destinies. Our age is similar to the time when Christianity burst upon the scene 2000 years ago.

From its earliest time the Church has taught and deepened the theme from the book of Genesis that each human person is made in the image and likeness of God. Each is a person of great dignity, being, and vocation, and in Christ, in spite of weaknesses or sins, lives in the freedom of the children of God. What a discovery for the ancient world! And now, “No more blind destiny! No more Fate!” Humankind was freed from the slavery of fate implacably controlling people’s destinies. Each now had a relationship of love with the “Ruler of the stars themselves.” (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, San Francisco Ignatius Press, 1995, pp. 21-23).

The Christianity of Dorothy Day and so many other saints of the two millenia of the Church was not bourgeois, not middle class conformity, not love of self. It was not marked by being like everyone else, seeking one’s own comfort and a fear of taking any risks. It was rather a gift of freedom and grace, of destiny, of engagement with the world through Christ.


There is a quiet revolt going on among people, a quiet revolution against materialism.

“Is this all there is?” they keep asking. Some young people feel like stuffed pigs weighed down with things.

The revolt is more widespread than imagined.

Even presidential candidates speak of compassion and justice.

At one university the students have set up an alternative campus ministry where they gather for rosary adoration, daily Mass, retreats, etc., as well as organizing projects for the homeless. These students describe the conversion process that many go through as they return to confession and reconciliation. They pray for one another instead of using apologetics and seem to prefer contemplation to dialectics.

One set of students advises others on what theology courses to take for faith deepening, without criticizing courses meant for part-time Catholics. There is a return to the study of philosophy as a basis for faith, without dualism.

The students know the risks of getting the wrong teacher: A mother complained bitterly to the authors about spending $25,000 per year to have her daughter lose the faith at a respected Catholic university. She may have lost it anyway. However, we have met those students. They were well trained in denigrating the Catholic faith, chapter and verse. On the other hand, one Catholic Worker student bragged that her professor at a Catholic university couldn’t get her to be against the Church.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, as a young college student, felt the same pressure as the students today, although in her day there were not the options. A professor she respected very much told her that religion was for the weak.

That took care of religion for her temporarily. She was encouraged in her departure from religion by Christians who saw no relationship between religion and human rights, and religion and concern for the poor. She flirted shortly with socialism, but that was short-lived, because she felt that post-World War I socialism and the left was too shallow.

Fortunately, Dorothy turned to Dostoevsky for religious thought and became a student of the great writer. He impacted her tremendously in her beliefs. The great themes in his writing of the discovery of God and the practice of active love found fulfillment in her conversion to Catholicism.

Drawn to C.W.

The Notre Dame grads were impressed that the ancient Works of Mercy could be the basis of the Catholic Worker movement and the key to living out the radical commitment of Jesus. They listened with great interest to the CW ideal of doing the Works of Mercy instead of the works of war.

Not everyone remembers the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy, not only feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, harboring the harborless, but also consoling those who are heartbroken and instructing the ignorant (Dorothy Day included publishing a newspaper and picketing under “instructing the ignorant”).

When we spoke of the washing of the feet, of taking seriously the Sermon on the Mount-what Peter Maurin called the “shock maxims” of the Gospel–as the way to live out the Catholic faith, they became excited: If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well…if someone takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit.

These maxims sounded different to their ears than the criticisms of Catholicism they had heard so often in the secular media and even at their Catholic university.

How different this concrete approach rooted in the Gospels of coming to know God Incarnate in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, and in the poor. It offered an alternative way of life and service.

Interestingly, de Lubac contrasts Nietzsche, Compte, and Feuerbach, who blamed the world’s problems on Christianity, with Dostoevsky who placed the devastation of the world precisely in the rejection of the Gospel.

Dorothy Day gave up on religious practice as a student, but she did not give up on the pursuit of Truth. As she sought the truth, she chose the path of Dostoevsky rather than that of Nietzsche and the others, all brilliant scholars. Dorothy, adopting the more mystical approach of Dostoevsky, quoted him throughout her life in her writings. In addition to the often mentioned theme of “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” from The Brothers Karamazov, she frequently quoted his: “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Dorothy entered into the adventure of becoming a pilgrim of the Absolute, of her destiny. She returned to Christianity and faith, which had fascinated her as a child, and became Catholic at the age of 30.

CW Catholic Spirituality

What did spirituality mean to Peter and Dorothy? Peter, Dorothy and the Workers were inebriated with the concept of the Body of Christ. They felt their unity with all believers and potential believers in the Body of Christ throughout the world in the Church. Their religion was not an institution, but a living, vital reality connecting them to people throughout the world. The Church, for them, was not simply a society and organization, but an organism, a living and life-giving organism, with head (Jesus Christ) and members.

With membership in the Body of Christ all are united in grace, and the prayers of one impacts the life of another. One’s sacrifices and prayers affect the whole Church for better or worse, and the whole Church affects the individual.

Sometimes we think of God’s Providence as already planned and complete, as if we had no role, almost like fatalism. Through the theology of the Mystical Body of Christ we know that God counts on our little participation in his great Providence. He calls us to collaborate in his ministry, appealing to our ingenuity, to the wisdom of our criteria, to our courage, our generosity, our untiring action. It is not enough to pray, it is necessary to work.

On Losing Your Chains

Catholic Workers have been instructors in “losing chains” at Casa Juan Diego. We write only of recent CW’s, as we go back 19 years.

Sue David has been a Catholic Worker for five years, does the paste-up for the paper to get it camera ready, lives at one of our women and children’s centers, drives women to their appointments and in many ways makes sure women and children have what they need. At present she is making, for the third time, the Father Hugo retreat so loved by Dorothy.

Andy Wright, a Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker in his fifth year here, entered medical school yesterday at Baylor University. As soon as medical school permits, he will be practicing Catholic Worker medicine at CJD clinics.

Blossom is Andy’s Catholic Worker wife–and expecting momentarily. She is a good writer and became Catholic through discovering the CW movement, or vice versa.

Megan Ferstenfeld went from part-time Catholicism to full-time Catholicism at Notre Dame to being a Catholic Worker to being a law student at the University of California at Berkeley. After law school, God willing, she will work in setting up legal services somewhere for the poor, with the help of Casa Juan Diego. Megan wrote an excellent article on the World Bank, structural adjustment and the debt of so many developing countries. (See HCW Vol. XIX, No. 1).

Mary Lavelle went from Fordham, her faith still intact, to being a Catholic Worker for several years to help her prepare to be a teacher in the inner city. She writes good articles (See HCW, XVII, No. 7, XVIII, No. 3, XVIII, No. 7). Mary will be a good theologian some day.
Laura Roberts graduated from the University of Dayton to being a Catholic Worker to going to law school to prepare her to work with farm workers. She just called.

David Fiore, of the daily Mass contingent (Some Workers attend Mass daily), went from the University of Arizona to being a Catholic Worker to enter-today-the Community of St. John in Laredo to become a priest. Having mastered Spanish, he must now learn French to enter the Brothers’ novitiate in France. The Brothers are always running out of space because they have so many candidates.

Antonio and Laura Butron, after being members of Casa Juan Diego support groups for 18 years, have returned to spend their last years in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Stephen and Lillian Lucas made the mistake of living next door to the Zwicks when they started Casa Juan Diego in 1980. They have been full-time Catholic Workers ever since, paying the bills, getting the newspaper out and keeping track of addresses, of which there are a lot.

John and Pam Janks have flirted for decades, even while Episcopalians, with the Catholic Worker movement. John has taken early retirement from Texaco so that he and Pam can coordinate Casa Juan Diego medical clinics and food distribution as full-time Catholic Workers.

Andy Durham has been a member of the Casa Juan Diego support group for 18 years and his wife Susan Gallagher did the paste-up of the newspaper for many years. Andy handles any legal problems that may emerge. He is ensconced in the Episcopalian tradition.

Marion Maendel has spent three years at Casa Juan Diego, bringing together the teachings of the Bruderhof, in which she was raised, with Catholic Worker principles-a happy wedding.

A young man named Christopher came to Casa Juan Diego saying there has to be more to life than what he has seen. Could he help us out?

Engagement with the World

Dorothy Day knew that in spite of weakness and sin, in spite of original sin which has wounded all humanity, Catholicism was alive and new because of the presence of the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit in the midst of the Church.

She knew that her religion was not bourgeois conformity, that it was not related to being tied to superstitions as the world was before the advent of Christ.

Dorothy knew that so many of her contemporaries (and ours) were locked into an economic and neo-Malthusian deter-minism and a belief that their fate was sealed in the same way that the world seemed to be tied to implacable fate before the dawning of Christianity. Catholic Workers, following in the philosophical footsteps of Mounier and personalism, might have phrased it as Enzo Piccini did in 1998:

“A taste for life is not denied to those who make mistakes, but to those who do not have a sense of the infinite, of destiny, of the ideal, of the present Mystery, because then the problem is not making mistakes or not making mistakes. A taste for living is not denied to those who make mistakes: it is denied to those who do not connect with the Destiny that makes all things, with the Mystery that is present” (from Traces).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 5, September-October 1999.