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From Union Square to Rome at Eighty-Five: New Foreward by Pope Francis to Dorothy’s Book

Dorothy Day
Artist: Angel Valdez

 Preservation of the Faith Press published Dorothy Day’s From Union Square to Rome on November 26, 1938, about eighty-five years from Orbis Books’ release of a new edition with a Foreword by Pope Francis.  In August 2023, the Vatican Press published an Italian translation with Pope Francis’s original Italian Foreword.

As with many authors, Dorothy was unhappy with her editor’s choice for the book’s original title.  She felt it portrayed her conversion to Catholicism as too dramatic a break with her past.  Most noteworthy about the Italian edition is its new title: Ho trovato Dio attraverso i Suoi poveri (I Found God Through His Poor) and subtitle Dall ateismo alla fede:il mio cammino interiore(From Atheism to Faith: My Inner Journey).  As the word cammino (road, highway) suggests, the new title emphasizes Dorothy’s conversion to Catholicism as a journey rather than a break with her radical past.  She remained a writer/editor with deep compassion for the poor, but these were taken up into a larger whole she came to call the Mystical Body of Christ.

Most readers will have heard of Orbis Books and perhaps the Vatican Press.  It’s a good bet, however, that most have never heard of Preservation of the Faith Press nor its young editor and Dorothy’s good friend, Joachim Benson, ST.  Thirty-four-years-old in 1938, Benson was a Missionary Servant of the Most Holy Trinity, a community founded by Thomas A. Judge, CM (d.1933) in 1921.  In 1934 Benson started a literary magazine entitled Preservation of the Faith.  The name comes from the motto Fr. Judge had given his fledging community, For the Preservation of the Faith.  By 1938 the editors of Orate Fratres called Preservation “one of the liveliest, militantly intelligent monthlies in America.”

From 1934-1941, Dorothy contributed frequently to Preservation.  In fact, twelve of the series of fourteen “Letters to an Agnostic,” addressed to her brother John as an apologia for her turning from radicalism to Catholicism, appeared in Preservation.  Along with a journal, she kept while living on Staten Island in the mid-1920s, these articles formed the core of From Union Square to Rome. 

Benson met Dorothy in 1934 when he was still a student at Catholic University, and she had just founded the Catholic Worker.  Their correspondence in the Marquette University Archives extends from 1935 to 1948 and attests to their close friendship.  Benson felt a strong affinity between the Catholic Worker and both Fr. Judge’s austere lifestyle and his commitment to the poor and abandoned.  Unfortunately, Benson destroyed Dorothy’s letters to him.

In August 1939, less than a year after From Union Square to Rome appeared, Dorothy’s friend Maisie Ward published her House of Hospitality with the well-known Catholic publisher Sheed & Ward.  Why then did Dorothy choose to publish her first book as a Catholic with Benson’s relatively unknown one-person operation, Preservation of the Faith Press?

Her friendship with Benson certainly played a role.  The main reason, however, concerns Catholic perceptions of Dorothy and her work and with her life before her conversion.  She had yet to become the historical figure she is today.  In 1938 many Catholic New Yorkers would have found it hard to imagine a pope referring to her before Congress in the same breath with Abraham Lincoln or her cause for canonization moving forward in Rome.  This would be especially true for regular readers of Patrick Scanlan’s Brooklyn Tablet with its many criticisms of the Worker.

In the face of such criticisms, Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York appointed Joseph McSorley, CSP, who was also Dorothy’s spiritual director at this time, as the Catholic Worker’s “approved adviser.”  In this capacity, McSorley fielded complaints about Dorothy, the paper, and Worker activities that came to the chancery office.  Remembered as the “Cardinal of Charities,” Hayes’s appointment of such a sympathetic figure was no doubt a sign of his support for the work.

Dorothy Day
Marquette University Archives

In Dorothy’s own words, McSorley “knew instinctively that as a woman, as a convert, I was filled with uncertainties, always coming away from engagements with the feeling that I was inadequate, had said what I had not intended to say, had talked for too long about irrelevancies, had not ‘made my point,’ as Peter Maurin would say.! McSorley’s advice to Dorothy was simply, “Go where you are invited.”

As these words suggest, Dorothy’s situation as a woman in a male-dominated church, who had not been a Catholic for very long, had a clear gender dynamic.  In the 1930s, she sought guidance and support from sympathetic priests who knew their way around writing and editing in the Catholic Church.  Among others, were McSorley, Paul Hanly Furfey, fiery young chair of the Catholic University Sociology Department, also a frequent contributor to Preservation, and, in the case of From Union Square to Rome, Benson himself.  All were strong admirers and supporters of Dorothy and the Worker and considered it their task to “protect” her from the criticisms that might come her way.

Dorothy wove together a draft for the book from previous articles and journal entries and put it in Benson’s hands to do with as he saw fit.  The big difference between this book and House of Hospitality is that the latter was clearly a Catholic book that begins with a dramatic account of Dorothy’s first meeting with Peter Maurin.  From Union Square to Rome was a more risky and potentially controversial project dealing with her early life on the radical left and deep sympathy for the communist cause on behalf of the poor.

With war looming and anti-communism on the rise, the correspondence among Benson, Furfey, McSorley, and others, makes clear that their main concern was whether Dorothy had sufficiently distanced herself from communism and made clear her loyalty to the church.  From a distance of eighty-five years, their fears could appear overblown.  One only need consult McSorley’s ringing defense of Dorothy in his review of the book in Catholic World.  Comparing Catholic Workers to the early Christians, it reads as a preemptive catalog of all the criticisms then being leveled at Dorothy and the Worker.

Despite such criticisms and fears, the book’s deep theological heart centers on the Mystical Body of Christ.  From Union Square to Rome should be read as Dorothy’s pursuit of very personal questions about whether her life was a journey or a break.   Concerned, both for the sake of her pre-conversion self and for former fellow leftists, she wanted to know whether we could love Christ without knowing him.  She found solace in Mt 25:40, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”

“Feeling as strongly as I did about this verse,” Dorothy asked, “is it any wonder that I was led finally to the feet of Christ?”  In explaining her rejection of communism, she invoked the Mystical Body: “We believe that all men are members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ and since there is no time with God, we must consider each man whether he is atheist, Jew, or Christian.”

Jacques Maritain, whose own journey to faith has similarities to Dorothy’s, greatly admired this book and arranged for a French translation to be published by Desclée de Brouwer, one of Paris’s leading Catholic publishers.  Benson and Desclée finalized the agreement on September 1, 1939.  Two days later, following the German invasion of Poland, France declared war on Germany.  In the ensuing chaos, Maritain’s proposal came to naught.  We now have an Italian translation with a Foreword by the pope and a title that better conveys Dorothy’s journey.

William L. Portier is Emeritus Professor at the University of Dayton and Theologian in Residence at Mount St. Mary’s University, MD.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vo. XLIV, No. 1, January-March 2024.