Dorothy Day: A Saint for Today’s World?

portrait of Dorothy Day by Geoffrey Gneuhs

By Jim Forest

Who was Dorothy Day?

First of all, she was not Doris Day, though Dorothy sometimes got letters addressed to the film star. But Dorothy did have, if only for a few months, a little Hollywood in her past. Just at the time of the Wall Street crash that inaugurated the Great Depression, she was working for a Hollywood studio as a script writer. With Wall Street in ruins, she was among the millions who was soon out of a job.

Dorothy was born in Brooklyn on the 8th of November 1897. She lived an exceptionally colorful life, every part of which, from early adulthood on, would be scandalous to one group of people or another, including the life she led following her conversion to Catholic Christianity when she was thirty. As a university student she had been a member of the Socialist Party — and soon afterward, very briefly, a member of the IWW: the Industrial Workers of the World. Though never a Marxist, she maintained friendships with a number of Communists and other radicals until the end of her life — giving rise during the Cold War to sharp criticism from many of her fellow Catholics. After her reception into the Catholic Church in 1927, she described herself a Christian anarchist, by which she meant a person whose obedience is to Christ rather than to Caesar.

A journalist, editor and writer, she made her main mark on history as founder of the Catholic Worker, originally a newspaper of that name but one that quickly grew into a movement best known for its many houses of hospitality — small communities scattered across the United States and a number of other countries that center on actions that in various ways are a response to Christ’s declaration that “What you have done to the least person you have done to me.”

The result is not just what might be called charitable activities, such works of mercy as hospitality to the homeless and other forms of practical assistance to people who have been pretty much abandoned by society. Dorothy pointed out that the works of war are the polar opposite of the works of mercy. Most people are willing to appreciate people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, provide hospitality to the homeless, care for the sick and visit those in prison, but you quickly get in real trouble if you challenge the social structures that cause hunger, thirst, destitution, homelessness, illness and imprisonment.

Dorothy raised the question: Why undo with one hand the good you did with the other? Clothing the naked one day — and burning people alive the next? Giving drink to the thirsty on Monday only to destroy the water works on Tuesday? Housing the homeless, then bombing towns? The Catholic Worker way, Dorothy said again and again, was the way of the Cross, not the way of the crucifers. “War is the continuing passion of Christ,” she wrote, “and Christ did not come down from the Cross to defend Himself.”

So, on the one hand, you have in Dorothy Day someone who inspired the founding of a great many houses of hospitality and, on the other, someone who got in trouble over and over again for protesting a wide range of injustices.

She was arrested quite a number of times in her life for acts of civil disobedience. The first, in 1917, when she was only nineteen, was for being part of a group of women who stood in front of the White House protesting the exclusion of women from the voters’ lists — and the last was in 1973, when she was seventy-five, for taking part with farm workers in a banned picket line in California.

Dorothy came from a very conservative family. Her journalist father was an unabashed racist who also hated Jews and Catholics and probably would have had no moral objection to slavery had it not been abolished, but her voracious reading as a young woman drew her in the opposite direction. Reading Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, set in very poor immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side made her leave her quite comfortable house and walk, pushing a pram with her baby brother in it, into those South Side neighborhoods near the stock yards. Those long walks in areas most people avoid marked the beginning of her vocation.

One of Dorothy’s major gifts was a talent for finding beauty in the midst of urban desolation as well as in the human face. Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. “Here,” she said, “was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Dorothy was a bright student but a reluctant scholar. When she was seventeen, having gotten a full-tuition scholarship, she started her studies to the University of Illinois in Urbana but — eager to get on with the adventure of life — dropped out when she was eighteen, went to New York and got a job reporting for one of America’s few socialist newspapers, The Call. She covered rallies and demonstrations and interviewed people ranging from butlers and to labor organizers and revolutionaries. She next worked for The Masses, a radical magazine edited by socialists who opposed American involvement in World War I. In September 1917, the journal’s mailing permit was cancelled. Federal officers seized back issues, manuscripts, subscriber lists and correspondence. Five editors were charged with sedition, a major felony, but as her name had only recently been put the masthead, Dorothy wasn’t arrested and managed to get out the last issue.

Her closest friends included many of the literary figures one thinks of from that period, including the playwright Eugene O’Neill. She often put him to bed but seems to have declined his offers to join him there. She was part of a circle of artists and writers who frequented a bar in Greenwich Village officially named The Golden Swan but more often called the “Hell Hole.”

Though she had been baptized in the Episcopal Church — the Church of Our Saviour in Chicago — as a child, she wasn’t a religious person in this period of her life but, like Eugene O’Neill, someone haunted by God. Across the table from Dorothy, O’Neill sometimes recited Francis Thompspn’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” There was a Catholic church — Saint Joseph’s — in the neighborhood whose doors were open late into the night. Dorothy would sometimes drop in to sit in the quiet while others prayed. There was something about being with people quietly at prayer which she needed even if she didn’t understand or share their faith. Sometimes she would find someone sitting in the winter cold on the church steps and bring him back with her to The Golden Swan for a drink and to thaw out.

Dorothy didn’t know much about the Catholic Church and was well aware of the anti-Catholic views of many of her friends, yet she was inspired by Catholics who were serious about their faith. It was clear to her that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication … were the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life.” When an atheist friend, noting Dorothy’s’ tendency to slip into churches, gave her a rosary, Dorothy was very touched. She had no clear idea how to use it but it was a very significant gift.

During World War I, she decided being a journalist was not an adequate response to the wholesale suffering going in the world — not only was the most destructive war ever fought going on at the time but there was a world-wide influenza epidemic that took fifty-million lives between March 1918 and June 1920. Dorothy became a student nurse working twelve-hour shifts at a Brooklyn hospital.

Despite having lived a “bohemian” life, it wasn’t until she fell in love with Lionel Moise, an orderly she met at the hospital that she fell very incautiously in love and became, as we now put it, “sexually active.” Unfortunately the man was the sort who isn’t interested either in marriage or children; he was a Lone Ranger/Marlboro Man type who enjoys sex minus consequences and resists marriage because it would impede his freedom. When Dorothy became pregnant, he urged an abortion. There was no way, he said, that he would take on fatherhood. With desperate sorrow she had an abortion, but, as so often is the case, he left her anyway.

She had lost both her child and the man she wanted to live with. It was a hard time in her life. Not long afterward she attempted suicide but luckily a neighbor smelled the gas in her apartment and saved her life.

The turning point in her life came several years later when she became pregnant once again. As before, the man — Forster Batterham — wanted sex without children, but this time Dorothy was determined that the young life in her womb was not going to die before birth if she could help it. Her pregnancy seemed to her nothing less than an experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness — a true miracle.

Her daughter, Tamar Theresa, was born on the 4th of March 1926. Given the gratitude that overwhelmed her, Dorothy decided that she wanted for her daughter something she had hardly dared want for herself, baptism in the Catholic Church. “I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered,” she wrote her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. “I wanted to believe, and I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to the Church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the Saints, then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic.”

She was very much in love with her partner, though Forster Batterham was the kind of man who saw the world as too destructive a place for children. Even so, to his credit, he fell in love with his daughter once she was born. The problem now was that Dorothy was powerfully drawn to the Catholic Church, an institution he utterly despised. In his view, if you were going to make a list of things wrong with the world, the Catholic Church would be high on the list. He was also a convinced atheist. Dorothy’s response — “How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things” — cut no ice with him. Their discussions tended to become heated arguments. One night he stormed out of Dorothy’s little beach house on Staten Island. This had happened before, but, when he came back this time, Dorothy wouldn’t open the door.

It was a very hard time for her. She still loved Forster, but she had reached a point of clarification in her life that it was time to become a Catholic. Tamar had been baptized soon after her birth. Dorothy’s own entrance into the church occurred on the 29th of December 1927. No friends were present except her godparent, Sister Aloysia Mary Mulhearn, the nun who had helped Dorothy understand the catechism.

The long-awaited, costly event gave Dorothy no consolation. As she wrote later on, “I had no sense of peace, no joy, no conviction that what I was doing was right. It was just something that I had to do, a task to be gotten through.” At Mass the next day, she felt wooden, like someone going through the motions. “I … shuddered at the thought of anyone seeing me,” she wrote. Was she not betraying the oppressed and the radical movement? “Here I was, going over to the opposition, because the Church was lined up with property, with the wealthy, with capitalism, with all the forces of reaction.”

She knew, as a human institution, that the Catholic Church was no paradise on earth. It pained Dorothy to see “businesslike priests” who seemed, as she put it, “more like Cain than Abel,” most of whom ignored the poor and never said a word about social injustice. She would have been disgusted but not amazed had she learned there were priests sexually molesting children and bishops who did little or nothing about it while shifting such priests from parish to parish. What was most important to Dorothy was her access, via the Church, to the Eucharist. She took comfort in knowing that there were other priests who lived poorly and “who gave their lives daily for their fellows.”

If only, Dorothy thought, it was less a Church of charities, fine as they were, and more a Church of social justice. As she wrote in The Long Loneliness, “I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum of Catholic institutions…. How I longed to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next.”

The five years following Dorothy’s entrance into the Catholic Church centered on her search to find something that didn’t yet exist: a way of supporting herself and Tamar through work which linked her religious faith, her commitment to more just, less violent social order, and her vocation as a writer. It was a journey in the dark.

Late in 1932, Dorothy was commissioned by Commonweal and America magazines to report on an event called the Hunger March. On November 30, six hundred jobless men and women departed from New York’s Union Square heading for Washington. For most of the way, it was a march only in a figurative sense — the participants traveled in vans plus several three old cars while Dorothy followed by public bus. The popular press treated the event as evidence of Red revolution. Little attention was given to the marchers’ proposals: jobs, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, relief for mothers and children, health care and housing for those who had lost everything. Hostility along the way reached a crescendo in Wilmington, Delaware where police hurled tear gas canisters through the windows of a Protestant church which had bravely opened its doors to the marchers. Those escaping the gas were clubbed down and the suspected leaders were thrown into police vans and taken to jail. Despite delays and injuries, the Hunger March pressed on.

When the swelling assembly reached the edge of Washington, they found barricades had been put across the highway. The demonstrators had been barred from entering the capital. Refusing to disband, the marchers camped out for three days and nights, despite bitter weather and encirclement by heavily-armed police.

Dorothy was struck by the contrast between what she witnessed and newspaper reports. Headlines warned of a Communist menace bearing no resemblance to the actual unarmed people who had endured insults and violence to dramatize the hardships and needs of the unemployed. “If there was not a story, the newspapers would make a story,” Dorothy recalled. “The newspaper reporters were infected by their own journalism and began to beg editors to give them gas masks before they went out to interview the leaders of the unemployed marchers.”

Such alarmist press reports shaped the response of the guardians of Washington. In one of her reports, Dorothy described the preparations that had occurred within the city — Marine riot drills, special guards at the White House, Capitol and Treasury. Protecting the city from the Hunger Marchers were the police force, the National Guard, 370 firemen, even American Legion volunteers. Weapons at hand included machine guns, tear gas, nauseating gas, revolvers, shot guns, night sticks and lengths of rubber hose.

On December 8, after a Washington federal court ruled in the marchers’ favor, the police reluctantly removed the barricades and stood aside. In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy described the last leg of the march:

“On a bright sunny day the ragged horde triumphantly with banners flying, with lettered slogans mounted on sticks, paraded three thousand strong through the tree-flanked streets of Washington. I stood on the curb and watched them, joy and pride in the courage of this band of men and women mounting in my heart.”

She felt bitterness as well. She knew the Hunger March had been organized not by Christians but by Communists and that the differences between the two groups were such that as yet she had no deep friendships with Catholics and was regarded as a traitor by many radicals she had once been close to. She had a religious faith and a social conscience, but no community. She could only watch and admire those campaigning for social justice — “I could not be out there with them.”

Dorothy felt useless. “How little, how puny my work had been since becoming a Catholic, I thought. How self-centered, how ingrown, how lacking in a sense of community! My summer of quiet reading and prayer, my self-absorption seemed sinful as I watched my brothers in their struggle, not for themselves but for others. How our dear Lord must love them, I kept thinking to myself. They were His friends, His comrades, and who knows how close to His heart in their attempt to work for justice. I remembered our Lord overthrowing the money-changers’ tables in the temple…. [What] divine courage on the part of this obscure Jew, going into the temple and with bold scorn for all the riches of this world, scattering the coins…”

The banners passed, and the marchers who had ignited such hysteria disbanded peaceably, no doubt wondering who was changed or what structures of life might be improved by their appeal and the hardship they endured along the way.

December 8 is a “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Following the march, Dorothy went to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University in northeast Washington. As the upper church was still under construction, she went into the crypt beneath, with its low vaulted ceilings, mosaics and dark chapels lit with the flickering of vigil candles. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” This hidden event, Dorothy’s prayer of tears, marks the real beginning of the Catholic Worker.

Dorothy returned to New York the next day, December 9, eager to be with Tamar and to share news of the Hunger March with John and Tessa. They were all at home, but there was a stranger waiting for her as well, a man who had arrived earlier and whom Tessa had invited to stay for supper. His unpressed suit bore the wrinkles of having been slept in. He could easily have been among the marchers Dorothy had admired in Washington. His face seemed as weather-beaten as his clothing. However, the visitor wasn’t down-and-out in his welcoming smile. His whole manner communicated gentleness, vitality and intellectual energy. When he spoke, his calloused hands were as lively as his thought. “I am Peter Maurin,” he said

Peter Maurin was a French immigrant and former Christian Brother twenty years her senior. It was no love affair this time — in fact she was still in love with Tamar’s father, sending him love letters in which she practically begged him to marry her. Maurin — a man who had much in common with St. Francis of Assisi — was in search of someone who could help him launch a movement and had some very definite ideas about what Dorothy could do with her talents, one of which was to found a radical Catholic newspaper. It was an idea that Dorothy took to with enthusiasm — if there was one thing she knew about it was journalism and newspapers. It was in her blood. The first issue of The Catholic Worker was published five months later.

By now the Great Depression was in its fourth year. Industrial production in America was barely half what it had been in 1929. In a population of 123-million, more than 13-million workers were unemployed. The majority of America’s banks — ten thousand of them — had collapsed, while those which survived were busily repossessing houses, shops and farms whose owners couldn’t make mortgage and loan payments. Hoovervilles — shanty towns built by the homeless made of tin, cardboard, canvas and scrap wood — had sprung up in vacant lots all over the country. No Social Security program yet existed. There was, practically speaking, no social net. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” was being played on every radio. When people talked about “hard times,” it was an understatement.

On May 1, 1933, when the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out at a rally on Union Square in New York, it was a paper that met a pressing real need. Few publishing ventures meet with such immediate success. Only 2,500 copies had been printed of the first issue. By December, the number had risen to 100,000. Readers found a unique voice in The Catholic Worker. It expressed dissatisfaction with the social order and took the side of labor unions, but its vision of the ideal future, neither marxist or capitalist, challenged both urbanization and industrialism. It wasn’t only radical but religious. Its revolution was green rather than red. The paper didn’t merely complain but called on its readers to make personal responses.

For the first eight months it was only a newspaper, but on December 11, 1933, a young woman knocked on the door of Dorothy’s apartment — also the editorial offices of the paper — and told Dorothy that she had heard “you have a house of hospitality.” Dorothy responded that the little group of people involved in the paper had been writing about it but had not yet actually started one. The visitor explained that she and a friend had been sleeping in subways, but that her companion had, in desperation, thrown herself in front of a train. “That very afternoon,” Dorothy recalled, “we rented our first apartment and named it the Teresa-Joseph Cooperative — Teresa for St. Teresa of Avila, Joseph after the foster father of Jesus.” They moved in some beds and began a work that continues to this day. God only knows how many men and women have been housed or helped in some way by Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in years since then. In 2013, the movement will be 80 years old.

If the Catholic Worker were just a movement providing hospitality to the down-and-out, it would be much admired and excite very little controversy, though some would still be annoyed. The Ayn Rand types, among others, would regard help to the poor as a major waste of time.

Ultimately what got Dorothy into the most trouble was her refusal to endorse war. For Dorothy war was simply murder wrapped in flags. A nonviolent way of life, as she saw it, was at the heart of the Gospel. The total number of people killed by Jesus and the Apostles is zero. She took as seriously as had Christians in the early Church the command of Jesus to St. Peter: “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” But by the twentieth century, it was rare for Catholics to take such a position.

The Catholic Worker’s first expression of pacifism, published in 1935, was a dialogue between a patriot and Christ, the patriot dismissing Christ’s teachings on conflict as a noble but impractical doctrine. Few readers were troubled by such articles until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The fascist side, led by Franco, presented itself as defender of the Catholic faith. Nearly every Catholic bishop and publication rallied behind Franco. The Catholic Worker, refusing to support either side in the war, lost two-thirds of its readers. Those backing Franco, Dorothy warned early in the war, ought to “take another look at recent events in [Hitler’s] Germany.”

Despite Dorothy’s disgust with fascism and Nazism, following the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, Dorothy announced that the paper would maintain its pacifist stand. “We will print the words of Christ who is with us always,” Dorothy wrote. “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount.” Opposition to the war, she added, had nothing to do with sympathy for America’s enemies. “We love our country…. We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression.” But the means of action the Catholic Worker movement supported were the works of mercy rather than the works of war. She urged “our friends and associates to care for the sick and the wounded, to the growing of food for the hungry, to the continuance of all our works of mercy in our houses and on our farms.”

Not all members of Catholic Worker communities agreed, but Dorothy’s view prevailed. The young men who identified with the Catholic Worker movement during the war generally spent much of the war years either in prison or in rural work camps while others did unarmed military service as medics.

The world war ended in 1945, but out of it emerged the Cold War, the nuclear-armed “warfare state” with its military-industrial complex, and a series of smaller wars in which America was often involved.

One of the rituals of life for the New York Catholic Worker community beginning in the 1950s was the refusal to participate in the state’s annual civil defense drill. Such preparation for attack seemed to Dorothy part of an attempt to promote nuclear war as survivable and winnable and to justify spending billions on the military. When the sirens sounded June 15, 1955, Dorothy was among a small group of people sitting in front of City Hall. Refusing to go down into the subways “In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb,” a Catholic Worker leaflet explained. Dorothy described her civil disobedience as an act of penance for America’s use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.

The first year the dissidents were reprimanded. The next year Dorothy and others were sent to jail for five days. Arrested again the next year, the judge jailed her for thirty days. In 1958, a different judge suspended sentence. In 1959, Dorothy was back in prison, but only for five days. Then came 1960, when instead of a handful of people coming to City Hall Park, 500 turned up. The police arrested only a few, Dorothy conspicuously not among those singled out. In 1961, the year I joined the community, the crowd swelled to 2,000. This time forty were arrested, but again Dorothy was exempted. It proved to be the last year of dress rehearsals for nuclear war in New York.

Another Catholic Worker emphasis was the civil rights movement. As usual Dorothy wanted to visit people who were setting an example and therefore went to Koinonia, a Christian agricultural community in rural Georgia where blacks and whites lived together. The community was under attack when Dorothy visited. One of the community houses had been hit by machine-gun fire and Ku Klux Klan members had burned crosses on community land. Dorothy insisted on taking a turn at the sentry post. Noticing an approaching car had reduced its speed, she ducked, not an instant too soon, just missing being shot. It was as close as she ever came to a martyr’s death.

Concern with the Church’s response to war led Dorothy to Rome during the Second Vatican Council, an event Pope John XXIII hoped would, as he said, restore “the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.” In 1963 Dorothy was one of 50 “Mothers for Peace” who went to Rome to thank Pope John for his encyclical Pacem in Terris. As he was dying of cancer at the time, the pope couldn’t meet with them privately, but at one of his last public audiences blessed the “peace pilgrims,” asking them to continue their labors.

In 1965, Dorothy returned to Rome to take part in a fast expressing “our prayer and our hope” that the Council would issue “a clear statement, ‘Put away your sword.’” Dorothy saw the fast as a “widow’s mite” in support of the bishops’ efforts to speak with a pure voice to the modern world.

The fasters had reason to rejoice in December when the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Guadium et Spes, was approved by the bishops. The Council described as “a crime against God and humanity” any act of war “directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants.” It was the Council’s one and only condemnation. The bishops called on states to make legal provision for conscientious objectors while describing as “criminal” those who obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless.

Acts of war causing “the indiscriminate destruction of … vast areas with their inhabitants” were the order of the day in regions of Vietnam under intense U.S. bombardment in 1965 and the years following. Many young Catholic Workers went to prison for refusing to cooperate with conscription, while others did alternative service. Nearly everyone in Catholic Worker communities took part in protests. Probably there has never been a newspaper so many of whose editors have been jailed for acts of conscience.

Dorothy lived long enough to see her achievements honored. In 1967, when she made her last visit to Rome to take part in the International Congress of the Laity, she found she was one of two Americans — the other an astronaut, Neil Armstrong — invited to receive communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI. On her 75th birthday the Jesuit magazine America devoted a special issue to her, finding in her the individual who best exemplified “the aspiration and action of the American Catholic community during the past forty years.”

Among those who came to visit her when she was no longer able to travel was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who pinned on Dorothy’s dress the crucifix worn only by fully professed members of her order, the Missionary Sisters of Charity.

On the 29th of November, 1980, Dorothy died, a quiet death with her daughter Tamar at her side. She is buried at Resurrection Cemetery on Staten Island. The small grave stone bears her name, the dates of her birth and death, and two Latin words, Deo gratias — thanks be to God.

“If I have achieved anything in my life,” Dorothy once remarked, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”

She also said, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Now the question: Should Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint?

Long before her death, Dorothy found herself regarded by many as a saint. No words of hers are better known than her brusque response, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nonetheless, having herself treasured the memory and witness of many saints, she is a now candidate for inclusion in the calendar of saints. Cardinal John O’Connor of the Archdiocese of New York initiated the effort in 1997, the hundredth anniversary of Dorothy’s birth.

A bishop who also member of the military for 27 years, who held the rank of rear admiral and had been chief chaplain of the U.S. Navy, might seem an unlikely candidate to seek the canonization of a woman who had spent much of her life encouraging people not to go to war. On the other hand, someone who has seen the reality of combat would not be last in line to appreciate Dorothy’s hatred of war. “No priest can watch the blood pouring from the wounds of the dying, be they American or Vietnamese of the North or South, without anguish and a sense of desperate frustration and futility,” O’Connor wrote. “The clergy back home, the academicians in their universities, the protesters on their marches are not the only ones who cry out, ‘Why?’”

In a homily given in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, O’Connor described Dorothy as “a truly remarkable woman” who had combined a deep faith and love for the Church with a passionate commitment to serving the poor and to saving lives. He acknowledged that some might object to his taking up the cause of Dorothy Day because “she was a protester against some things that people confuse with Americanism itself,” but this was a view he completely rejected. Others, he said, might argue that she was already widely recognized as a living saint and therefore formal canonization is not needed. “Perhaps,” O’Connor said, “but why does the Church canonize saints? In part, so that their person, their works and their lives will become that much better known, and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps — and so the Church may say, ‘This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life.’” Dorothy was, he said, someone who believed that a person is “a temple of God, sacred, made in the image and likeness of God, infinitely more important in its own way than any building…. To Dorothy Day, everyone was a cathedral.”

Noting that Dorothy had aborted her first child, O’Connor said, “I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion, including perhaps someone or several in this church, would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same. But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day’s sorrow but to know always God’s loving mercy and forgiveness.”

Dorothy’s gratitude for the Church, despite every human shortcoming and sin, warranted O’Connor’s admiration. She was, he said, “a radical precisely because she was a believer, a believer and a practitioner. She, in fact, chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn’t take the Church seriously enough, and didn’t bother about getting to Mass.”

The canonization process has begun. The Vatican has already given Dorothy the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

Whatever comes of the canonization effort, the Catholic Worker movement is alive and continues to grow. Each house of hospitality that identifies itself with the Catholic Worker movement — currently there are more than two hundred — might be regarded as a monument to Dorothy, though Dorothy herself would stress that they are first and foremost a response to the words of Christ: “What you did to the least, you did to me.”

There is also the more hidden testimony of the countless people who lead more hospitable and more peaceful lives, thanks in part to Dorothy Day.

Who could count them all?

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

jhforest /at/

Jim & Nancy Forest

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