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The Cause of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day
Artist: Angel Valdez

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’”  – Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes

There is a lasting bond created among the volunteers at Casa Juan Diego. I find myself still connected to most of the full-time staff that have passed through during my time here, following their careers, celebrating their marriages, graduations, childbirths. This lasting connection is easy to understand. Working together as a community, doing our best to carry out the Works of Mercy, sharing our lives with each other and with our guests, these moments tie us together, irrevocably.

 What is harder to understand is the connection I feel to the larger community of Catholic Workers, most of whom I have never met, and will never meet.

I did however meet quite a few last December in New York City, at a series of events celebrating the send-off of the Cause for Canonization of Dorothy Day to Rome, celebrations which culminated in a formal Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her mammoth case for sainthood, all the documents – her writings, those of her biographers, countless statements of those that knew her personally – were presented during the Mass before being sent to the Vatican for the next stage of the process to proclaim her a Saint. More than 50,000 pages, gathered over the last twenty years, it all weighed 2/3 of a ton!

No one really knows what Dorothy would say about all this, but I am certain she would have felt right at home with the Catholic Workers gathered at this celebration. We were a group of artists, writers, dropouts, protestors, felons, manual workers, reporters, religious and former religious – a mixed bag indeed. We did seem a bit out of place amid the grandeur of this magnificent Cathedral (Cardinal Dolan remarked after the Mass that he couldn’t help thinking that Dorothy would have been embarrassed by all the attention and fuss), yet this was a great moment of unity for all of us.

But what was it that united us? In looking at the group, some of us were deeply involved in activism and justice issues, others were more concerned with direct contact and service to the poor. Some of us were traditional in our theology, others were “spiritual, but not religious,” some were secularists. But as I gazed at this very motley group of Workers and supporters, in what must be one of the most impressive Cathedrals in the world, I realized that there was one thing we had in common, one thing shared by Catholic Workers the world over. We are bonded together by Dorothy’s vision: Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality as models of how to live, serving the poor, yes, but at the same time working for justice, together, as a community.

A visionary, Dorothy was not held back by the cultural and political obstacles of her time. She lived and served and provided opportunities for people to serve others in a way that made the Gospel always attainable, even in a complex and divided world. Dorothy showed us that by giving up our status, turning our back to the things that are so important in the eyes of the world, and joining with the low and destitute, the unwelcome and unwanted, you find actual power to heal, grace to share, and joy to sustain you. In this relationship with the excluded and suffering, you become more than the food, clothes, or shelter you share. The relationship itself becomes the instrument of healing, of grace, of love. This relationship of service and solidarity is the path she followed and the road map she left for us to pursue.

Is Dorothy a Saint?

Those of us working for her canonization sometimes forget just how unlikely a candidate she was. Formerly a heavy drinker, arrested for prostitution (a trumped-up charge, as the Chicago police could not arrest people for socialism, her real crime in their minds), open about having had an abortion – not most peoples’ image of a 20th Century saint.

While there are many canonized saints who were serious sinners before coming to God, what people sometimes miss is that Dorothy was the same radical person after her conversion as before. Her passion for social and economic justice had not changed at all, what was different was the solution. Many of her pre-conversion secular friends had advocated a revolution modeled after the then-recent Russian revolution. Dorothy came to see that the way for her to address the inequalities of her time was by creating communities that would draw closer to the suffering of the poor, physically as well as spiritually.

She discovered and modeled a different kind of revolution, a revolution that happens in the hearts of people. This revolution of the heart, as Dorothy called it, does not come about through a battle between opposing sides, but through solidarity, service, and love. In right relationships with the other person, where equality is purposely and intentionally modeled, people are transformed. Like Dorothy, they become an instrument of healing, healing of both themselves and of others.

We see this every day at Casa Juan Diego. The subtle but steady power of solidarity to shore up and reinforce a traumatized migrant person, that shows them that they are valuable and valued, is most of what we do. Our willingness to live in community, to share in their lives amid the suffering and crisis of migration, helps a new arrival find the strength to carry on in their individual journeys.

But really, in the morning when I walk over to the Women’s House and make sure breakfast has been served, that all the pilot lights on our aging stove are lit, and check that the milk hasn’t been left out and gone bad, it is me that benefits the most–me that gains a softened heart with each act of care and service, no matter how small, in this community we share.

A while back a veteran Catholic Worker who had lived at Casa Juan Diego a decade ago was hosting a dinner party for our newly arriving Workers. During the evening, she said something that I will never forget. She told the new Workers, as if it was the most important thing to know about what they were about to experience, that “Casa Juan Diego haunts you.”

I think she was correct. I have come to realize over the years that what really haunts you is Dorothy. For the rest of your life, she reminds you of the time when you were the most free, most connected to the suffering of your sisters and brothers. It will always be for them, as it still is for me, the closest they come to the kingdom of heaven on this earth.

If this is not a cause for sainthood, I don’t know what is.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLII, No. 1.