Saint Dorothy?

by Jim ForestDorothy Day head and shoulders 1968 (small)

Long before her death, many people spoke of Dorothy Day as a saint. It made Dorothy uncomfortable and sometimes irritable. If people knew her better, she insisted, they would see her in a far more critical light. She staunchly resisted being regarded as a model Christian. She famously said, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” On the other hand she aspired to sanctity and was impatient with those who regarded saints as a breed apart. “We are all called to be saints,” she often said, paraphrasing Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Sanctity isn’t for the few but for the many, not for the exceptional but for the ordinary. But no sane person looks in a mirror and sees a halo. One certain indication of someone being far from sanctity is imagining themselves being portrayed on a holy card. Actual saints seek recognition only as great sinners.

What Dorothy could not see in herself, many others, including people who knew her well, perceived. In September 1983, the Claretians, a Catholic religious order active in sixty countries, took the first step in promoting recognition of Dorothy Day as a saint. Their campaign was launched with the publication of an article by Father Henry Fehren in a Claretian journal, Salt. Canonization would, Fehren argued, make Dorothy’s life known to generations to come with the result that “more people would learn about her and be inspired and strengthened by her. Saint Augustine said that funeral customs were more for the living than for the dead; and canonization also is not to benefit the dead but the living.”

What impressed him most about Dorothy Day, he wrote, “was her perseverance — year after year living an austere life in the grimmest of conditions, being jailed again and again, never giving up doing the works of mercy, never getting cynical, never letting her love of God and people dissolve. Anyone can be saintly for a week or two, or even a year, but to persevere from youth through old age, to remain on the cross until death — that is a mark of true holiness.”

The Church calendar, he continued, needed more lay people, women especially. “Most of the canonized saints … are nuns, brothers, priests, and bishops; yet the Church is almost entirely made up of lay people, and the emphasis in our time is on the work and responsibility of the lay people in the Church…. Dorothy Day did not ask Church officials for permission to do her works of mercy…. Nor did she found a religious order, as so many holy women of strong character had in the past…. ‘How to love,’ she wrote in one issue of The Catholic Worker, ‘that is the question.’ She answered that question by her life.”

The Claretians solicited prayers and testimonials and also printed cards with a drawing of Dorothy Day on one side and a prayer on the reverse: “Merciful God, you called your servant Dorothy Day to show us the face of Jesus in the poor and forsaken. By constant practice of the works of mercy, she embraced poverty and witnessed steadfastly to justice and peace. Count her among your saints and lead us to become friends of the poor ones of the earth and to recognize you in them.” Over the years, tens of thousands of the cards, plus similar posters, have been distributed — the Claretians have lost count of how many. Part of their website is devoted to Dorothy Day.

In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, took the first steps in launching the actual process of canonization. For those who recalled the military dimension of O’Connor’s background, it must have come as a surprise. In 1952, seven years after his ordination as a priest, O’Connor joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain. He often entered combat zones, first in Korea, later in Vietnam, to say Mass and administer last rites to the wounded. In 1975, he was appointed Chief of Navy Chaplains with the rank of rear admiral. In all, he spent twenty-seven years with the military before he was appointed Bishop of Scranton in 1983 and then, the following year, Archbishop of New York.

A bishop who is also an admiral, one might have imagined, is 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,” he wrote. “The clergy back home, the academicians in their universities, the protesters on their marches are not the only ones who cry out, ‘Why?’”

As a bishop, O’Connor not only opposed abortion but capital punishment, and was also outspoken in his critique of war and militarization. In the 1980s, he condemned U.S. support of counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces in Central America, opposed America’s mining of the waters off Nicaragua, questioned spending vast sums on new weapon systems, and in general advocated caution in regard to American military actions around the world. In 1998, he questioned whether U.S. missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan were morally justifiable, and, in 1999, during the Kosovo War, declared that NATO’s bombing campaign of Yugoslavia did not meet the Church’s criteria for a just war. “Does the relentless bombing of Yugoslavia,” O’Connor asked, “prove the power of the Western world or its weakness?” He was also known as strongly pro-labor. Had she lived to know Cardinal O’Connor, Dorothy would have applauded his stands on many issues, no doubt recalling how uncritical of American military actions Cardinal Francis Spellman had been.

In a homily given at Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on November 9, 1997, a day after the hundredth anniversary of Dorothy’s birth, O’Connor said he was considering proposing Dorothy Day for canonization and invited responses to this idea from any interested persons. She was, he said, “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 would soon be meeting with persons knowledgeable about Dorothy’s life, he announced, including some who were present as his invited guests at Mass that day.

O’Connor 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.”

Dorothy Day, he continued, “saw the world at large turned into a huge commercial marketplace where money means more than anything else. She saw people turned into tools of commerce. She saw the family treated as a marketplace. She reminded us frequently enough that the Church herself could become simply a marketplace. She loved the Church, and she was immensely faithful to the Church. She had no time for those who attacked the Church as such, the Body of Christ. She loved the Holy Father. But she recognized that we poor, weak human beings — people like you, people like me — could turn the Church into nothing but a marketplace.” The more reading he had done about Dorothy Day, he said, “the more saintly a woman she seems to be.”

He noted that Dorothy had often been severely criticized. “She suffered in many, many ways. Some of the sufferings, she herself would say, she brought on herself. Others came from enemies. Most of her suffering came from seeing the sufferings of Christ in the poor.”

Praising Dorothy for all she had done to draw attention to Saint Therese of Lisieux, he read aloud the final paragraphs of Dorothy’s book about “the Little Flower”:

So many books have been written about Saint Therese, books of all kinds, too, so why, I ask myself again, have I written one more? There are popular lives, lives written for children, travelogue lives following her footsteps, lives for the extrovert, the introvert, the contemplative, the activist, the scholar and the theologian.

Yet it was the “worker,” the common man, who first spread her fame by word of mouth. It was the masses who first proclaimed her a saint. It was the ‘people.’

When we think of the masses, we think of waves of the sea, of forests, of fields of wheat, all moved by the spirit which blows where it listeth. When we think of the people we think of the child at school, the housewife at her dishpan, the mother working, the mother sick, the man traveling, the migrant worker, the craftsman, the factory worker, the soldier, the rich, the bourgeois, the poor in tenements, the destitute man in the street. To a great extent she has made her appeal to all of these.

What was there about her to make such an appeal? Perhaps because she was so much like the rest of us in her ordinariness. In her lifetime there are no miracles recounted, she was just good…

What did she do? She practiced the presence of God and she did all things — all the little things that make up our daily life and contact with others — for His honor and glory. She did not need much time to expound what she herself called ‘her little way,’ which she said was for all. She wrote her story, and God did the rest. God and the people. God chose for the people to clamor for her canonization.

Noting that, prior to her religious conversion, 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: “Her respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving. Indeed, those of us who grew up knowing her recognized early in the game that she was 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 approach of Dorothy’s hundredth birthday, he said, had inspired a number of people to send him letters urging her canonization. O’Connor read several of them aloud, including one written several years earlier by Robert Coles, a physician on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School who had come to know Dorothy when he was a medical student:

Fourteen years ago my wife started getting some numbness in her left side. I took her to a prominent doctor, who, after a diagnostic work-up, told us that she had a brain tumor and she had six months to live. The doctors were absolutely definite about it…. I wrote to Dorothy; I told her. And I started getting a letter or a postcard a day from her with her prayers and her messages. She didn’t contradict the doctors, but her letters were different in nature — full of encouragement and love. After the months turned into years, the doctors started talking about a ‘miraculous recovery.’ They said that my wife somehow had “made it.” … The only one who didn’t tell me my wife was going to die in six months was Dorothy Day.

“I wish I had known Dorothy Day personally,” O’Connor concluded. “I feel that I know her because of her goodness. But surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbor, it was Dorothy Day! Pray that we do what we should do.”

O’Connor’s decision to formally begin the process quickly followed. On February 5, 1998, he invited various people who had known Dorothy well (among them Tom and Monica Cornell, Eileen Egan, Robert Ellsberg, Jane Sammon, Frank Donovan and Pat and Kathleen Jordan) to come to his office for an unhurried discussion that started at 4 P.M. and lasted until 6:30. O’Connor sat on the couch for the meeting, Tom Cornell recalled, “joking about how a cardinal should sit higher not lower.” Thanks to the notes taken by Robert Ellsberg, I have a detailed account of the meeting.

“The purpose of the present meeting is to reflect on whether this is really God’s will,” O’Connor said at the outset. “Is it in the best interest of the poor, of the Church? What should we do in this matter? … Cardinal Newman said, “The tragedy is never to have begun.’ So now we are beginning. If we decide to go forward it will be a lengthy and complicated process. I presume it will not be completed in whatever time I have left.’

Responding to the issue of whether the time was right, Ellsberg pointed out that “Dorothy is a real saint of what Cardinal Bernardin called ‘common ground.’ She challenges the reformers and social activists to maintain their love for the Church and the Gospel. She challenges conservatives to be attentive to the radical social dimensions of the Gospel. She challenges both sides to resolve differences with mutual respect and love, for the benefit of the world.”

Pat Jordan, another former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, said he felt it was important that the light shed by Dorothy’s life “not be hidden under a basket.” He stressed her purity, her modesty, her hope, her ability to go on even when things seemed hopeless, and doing so without institutional help. Her greatest sacrifice was “not being able to put the needs of her family first — she died totally to self to try to respond to Christ’s love. She had to struggle, to forgive seventy times seven. She knew all the spiritual traps. She challenged us always to care for the weak, to love our enemy, yet she never claimed that everyone had to do it her way. In this materialistic society, she showed us the simple beauty of sharing and of community.”

O’Connor asked Jordan what Dorothy would think about being called a saint? “She would have none of it,” he replied. “She knew that some people during her life wanted to call her a saint. She thought it was a way of letting themselves off the hook — Dorothy could do these things because ‘she’s a saint.’ But she really took seriously the idea that we are all called to be saints. She wasn’t embarrassed about saying that. She often quoted Leon Bloy, ‘There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.’”

Was her objection to being called a saint due to humility, O’Connor asked. “Dorothy had a strong sense of her own sins, her weaknesses and failures,” Jordan responded. “Her standards were so high that her failures stood out all the more sharply. But she had all the more sense of God’s grace, of what it means to be forgiven. Her gravestone has the words ‘Deo Gratias,’ as she had requested. She had such a sense of gratitude, a sense that what she had done was because of grace. This was one reason she didn’t like to be called a saint, which implied that she deserved the credit for what she had done. She believed she was responsible for her failures. Everything else was due to God.”

O’Connor noted that some people objected to the archdiocese seeking Dorothy’s canonization because it would cost a great deal of money that could better be given to the poor. “I don’t know where this idea comes from that a lot of money is involved,” said O’Connor. “It’s really a very small amount. The process of seeking the canonization of Pierre Toussaint [a Haitian-born New Yorker of slave descent], which has progressed now to the point of awaiting a miracle, has cost the archdiocese no more than three or four thousand dollars, including the cost of sending someone to Rome. [In 1996, Toussaint was beatified by Pope John Paul.] If the money were given instead to the poor, we wouldn’t be giving them very much money.”

Eileen Egan, Dorothy’s friend of many years as well as a key figure in Catholic Relief Services, saw Dorothy as someone who “shows that ordinary people can live by the Sermon on the Mount. She tried to relate the Sermon on the Mount to everything she did. This makes her a tremendous inspiration for lay people. Most saints appear to be hedged in by vows or life style, but Dorothy wasn’t hedged in by anything.”

O’Connor wondered if canonization might trivialize Dorothy’s memory — would it merely serve as a “superficial aggrandizement of the Catholic Worker movement? Would it let us off the hook? Would it be a way, as she said, of dismissing her too easily? Turning her into a holy card? Would it attract more people to know this life? The issue here is the holiness of her life. Holiness is expressed in a thousand ways.”

Jordan said that Dorothy had taught him “how to see Christ in every person. This didn’t come easily or naturally. It reflected tremendous effort. She was not always an easy person to get along with. There were times when I felt miffed by her decisions. But there was no question in my mind about her holiness. I’ve never met anyone like her. I doubt that I will ever meet anyone else like her.”

Ellsberg commented that, “if Dorothy Day was not a saint, it is hard to know what meaning that word should have.”

O’Connor said that the discussion had made it even clearer that “here was a holy woman” and that he would be failing in his duty if he were not to begin the canonization process. “I don’t want to have on my conscience that I didn’t do something that God wanted done.” It seemed to him that the campaign the Claretians had begun in 1983 should now be taken up by the diocese Dorothy had belonged to all her Catholic life.

As he said goodbye, O’Connor remarked, “You are all so warm — you must have gathered around a wonderful fire.”

The group met again in March, this time augmented by Catholic Worker artist Ade Bethune, Geoff Gneuhs (who, as a Dominican priest, had presided at Dorothy’s funeral), Dorothy’s friend and correspondent Nina Polcyn Moore, Phillip Runkel (curator of the Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University), long-time Catholic Worker Dorothy Gauchat, George Horton of Catholic Charities, and Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, representing the Claretians. Tom and Monica Cornell were absent; they were at the Vatican for a meeting with Cardinal James Stafford, then head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, who would have to approve Cardinal O’Connor’s application to introduce Dorothy’s cause in Rome.

The decision to begin the process having already been taken, the focus this time was on identifying next steps. In the coming months, O’Connor would send a letter to the prefect heading the Congregation for the Causes of Saints proposing Dorothy’s canonization. Next would come the formal appointment of a postulator in Rome and a vice-postulator in New York who would interview people who knew Dorothy or were acquainted with her life. Next, a commission would write a historical report on Dorothy’s life which would then be handed over to a theological commission. Finally a recommendation would be made to the pope that, as soon as there is a documented miracle linked to her, Dorothy Day be declared Blessed. A second miracle would open the way for her official recognition as Saint Dorothy.

In September 1998, O’Connor wrote to those involved in the meetings to let them know how things were coming along: “I have written to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints asking that the process for her canonization be initiated. Included in my submission are the letters submitted by those who attended our meetings in the spring. I have received an invitation to meet with the Prefect of the Congregation during my next trip to Rome. I may have more information for you following that visit.”

Rome is well known for moving slowly. It wasn’t until March 2000, eighteen months later, that Cardinal O’Connor announced the approval of the Holy See for the Archdiocese of New York to open the cause for the beatification and canonization. With this approval, Dorothy received the formal ecclesiastical title, “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

By then O’Connor knew he was living in sight of his grave. Two months later, on May 3, he died of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was eighty years old. A spokesman for the archdiocese said the cardinal’s death was “the result of the tumor and the cancer that he was suffering from.”

O’Connor’s successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, formally established the Dorothy Day Guild in 2005 to advance the cause. (One way to join the guild is via its website: His successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, enthusiastically supports the cause, which is headquartered in the New York Archdiocesan Offices.

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 a hundred and sixty — might be regarded as a monument to Dorothy Day, though Dorothy would stress 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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This an extract from All Is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day, published by Orbis Books. The text is copyright and may not be reprinted or posted on the web without the author’s permission.
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