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La Révolution du Coeur: Le Café Dorothy and The Catholic Worker in France

Dorothy Day
Marquette University Archives

More French-speaking guests have been arriving at Casa Juan Diego from Africa. We have been fortunate to have volunteers who speak French and some of our Catholic Workers who have never studied French have begun a study of the language. Last spring we also had a visit from Pierre from Paris, who told us about Le Café Dorothy there. When Bill Griffin’s article appeared (reprinted here from The Catholic Worker in New York), we were very  interested to know more of the growing presence and awareness of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker in France.

 Dorothy Day wrote:

“As you come to know the seriousness of our situation—the war, the racism, the poverty in the world—you come to realize it is not going to be changed just by words or demonstrations. It’s a question of living your life in drastically different ways”


“We want to change the world…. By crying out unceasingly for the rights of workers, of the poor, of the destitute…. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be con dent that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. “  

These quotations feature on two striking posters. One features a severe line drawing of Dorothy Day by an unknown artist. The second shows the famous Bob Fitch photograph of her last arrest on an United Farmworker Union picket line in 1973. I brought sets of these posters to Le Café Dorothy in Paris and to Le Café Simone in Lyons on a trip to France in June. The main occasion for this trip was to celebrate my uncle Joseph Bernardo’s ninetieth birthday. His older sister, my mother Marinette, died last November. The family gathering was very moving and the opportunity to visit the new French Catholic Worker-inspired experiments renewing. The opening of these centers accompanied the publication of a remarkable new biography Dorothy Day: La Révolution du Coeur. It is a cooperative effort and has three authors: Elizabeth Geoffroy teaches philosophy, Floriane de Rivaz is a library conservator; both are recent graduates of the École Normale Supérieure. Baudouin de Guillebon is a doctoral student in philosophy. Their well- written book emphasizes the importance of her Catholic faith and practice and presents a detailed and largely accurate review of Catholic Worker history. The contribution of Peter Maurin is given much deference but the clarity and the force of Dorothy Day’s defense of workers’ rights and her critique of racism are even more prominent. Their book merits translation into English for the fresh new perspective it provides.

The roots of the youthful communities around Le Café Dorothy and Le Café Simone spring from the milieu of Catholic university students. Both cafés have a municipal status as café associatif in the public interest and not as commercial under takings. However, it is the Catholic Archdioceses in Paris and in Lyons which have provided the roofs over their heads as far as I understand. Le Café Dorothy is located in the densely populated 20th arrondissement where there are encampments of homeless folks, often immigrants without papers. There is no soup kitchen but there are regular job-training workshops in plumbing and carpentry. These are directed by skilled, older volunteers allied with the university students and provided, free of charge, to the poor youth of the neighborhood. French youth unemployment is very high.

Le Café Simone in Lyons is named after Simone Weil (1909-1943). Trained in philosophy at the famous, École Normale Supérieure, Weil made the extraordinary choice to work in auto factories in the late Thirties after graduating. She drew from her long and harsh experience many profound insights. The Need for Roots, Gravity and Grace, and Waiting For God are writings in the current of Catholic Worker analysis. Le Café Simone is a co-working space for students and others grappling with the precarious gig economy, based on computer technologies. Two engaging graduates there spoke with me about their work using the internet to start recycling programs to help reduce the enormous waste of supermarket foodstuffs and electronic equipment. I learned recently that 400,000 cell-phones are disposed of each day in the US. Work which does not degrade the worker is a fundamental concern in both communities as it was for Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

I was privileged to attend two fascinating roundtable discussions at Le Café Dorothy. One was titled “Simone Weil: How to Think about Work.” The Weil specialist, a professor whose name I neglected to write down, anchored the exchange of ideas in a lively, thought-provoking way. Weil’s 1942 essay, “Condition Première d’un Travail Non Servile” is translated as “The First Condition for the Work of a Free Person” and is available in Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings. This essay was the key text for the discussion and is also available online.

Here is a brief inadequate summary: First, manual labor is in no way inferior to intellectual work. Under the proper circum- stances it can nurture attention, contemplation and prayer. However, the former has been degraded under industrialized hyper- production methods. Weil experienced the assembly line piece-work system, the Taylor system first imposed by Henry Ford in his US auto plants, as absolutely soul-crushing. According to Weil, under both US capitalism and Russian Communist collectivism, this production system is aberrant. The illusion of the former is endless profits while under the latter endless worker progress is the empty dream.

The basis of Weil’s condemnation of each system lies in each one’s refusal to face the limitations of the human condition. Monotony and boredom in both manual and intellectual work, like sickness and death in life will always be part of the human condition.

Weil’s remedy resembles Peter Maurin’s linking together of cult, culture and cultivation: “There is no choice of remedies. There is only one. Only one thing alone makes the monotony bearable, that is light from eternity; that is beauty…. Such poetry can only have one source. This source is God. This poetry can only be religion. By no trick, by no process, no reform, no upheaval, can finality enter into the universe where workers are placed by their very condition. But this universe can be completely linked to the only end that is true. It can be hooked onto God.” Weil wanted to abolish both the private capitalist and the collectivist profiteering industrial systems.

The second roundtable talk I was fortunate to be able to attend was given by Pierre Jova. He is a journalist at the weekly Pèlerin (The Pilgrim). He presented his investigative study, Les Chrétiens Face aux Migrants: Accueillir ou Rejeter? This title translates as “Christians Face to Face with Migrants: To Welcome or to Reject?” This in-depth study took him to the four corners of France. His aim was, above all, to, “touch the human reality” and bring out the complexities and nuances of the current severe crisis. He intentionally uses the word “migrant” to designate all political refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.

According to a June 2018 poll of French Catholics only 45% stated that they welcomed migrants. Twenty-two percent of the respondents voiced having an “ambivalent” attitude toward migrants. A solid 33% said that they are hostile to their arrival and reject their presence in France. The words and the spirit of Pope Francis’ exhortations to European Catholics to welcome migrants are rejected by fully a third of French Catholics.

The plight of drowning migrants crossing the Mediterranean has led Pope Francis to decry the “globalization of indifference.” His full-throated appeal to the economically prosperous and organizationally sophisticated European Union of some 500 million citizens to create humane structures for several million migrants is being rejected. The Pope is accused of being naive about the dangers posed by the Islamic faith of the majority of the migrants. Nothing is being said about US and European governments whose serial wars over the last twenty years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Mali and now Yemen have devastated those countries and forced men, women and children to flee. The destructive US-sponsored war in Central America throughout the 1980s is similarly a major cause of the migrant crisis today on the US southern border.

Pierre Jova’s investigation documents many small grassroots Christian efforts to intelligently and effectively aid the desperate migrants. These efforts are diverse, ranging from cultural immersion programs in French families, language instruction and assistance with finding employment and navigating the French bureaucracy which is a big challenge. Jesuit Relief Services stands out as excellent in what they accomplish. Other less official efforts include bringing material aid to the encampments of homeless migrants in the poverty-stricken northeast neighborhood near Le Café Dorothy.

This last kind of effort was promoted and is inspired by Fr. Benoist de Sinety. He contends that the French state is failing dismally to do its duty towards the migrants, so many of whom are weak and vulnerable. Formerly in charge of the Parish of St. Germain des Prés, one of the oldest churches in Paris, located in the Latin Quarter, he helped start Le Café Dorothy. He was chaplain to university students initially inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato ’Si and its critique of the ecological crisis resulting from the dysfunctional and polluting organization of work. He is now the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Paris and a very eloquent advocate for migrants whose cause is now central to his ministry.

Pierre Jova raises an important consideration in the current, intense polemical debates swirling around the migrant tragedy. He cites the concerns of Andrea Riccardi, the main spokesperson for the Sant’Egidio movement which is especially closely aligned with Vatican positions on war and peace. Riccardi has voiced the opinion that Pope Francis does not fully appreciate the depth of the “psychosis” (Riccardi’s word) of his more than thousand year-old European Catholic flock. He respect- fully characterizes Pope Francis as the product of recent twentieth century Italian emigration to Argentina. Riccardi holds that the Pope must deepen his analysis of concerns about national identity and culture. He must distinguish them from those of xenophobic, ideologically fascist and racist discourses. Riccardi calls for a new papal encyclical to clarify hearts and minds. Although the 2005 papal encyclical, Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, (The Charity of Christ Towards Migrants) spoke unequivocally, the situation in Europe now calls for fresh guidance and an exhortation from the Pope.

In conclusion let me cite Father de Sinety expressing the spiritual priorities of the com- munity around Le Café Dorothy which was so hospitable to me: “To defend life is to defend the child who is going to be born, the old person who is going to die and also that of the homeless, the unemployed person and the migrant. We cannot compartmentalize our combat for human life…. The Church is not here to govern people but to constantly recall for them the essential things. I am not saying that no conditions should be placed on migrants. It is normal for the state to guarantee national unity. But the Church is here to affirm that nothing can ever justify inhumanity in that process.”

It is remarkable that the vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin has found a renewed and quintessentially French incarnation today: the philosophy of personalism, a philosophy so old that it looks new. Both of the communities at Le Café Dorothy and Le Café Simone appreciated the posters.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, October-December 2019.