Marked for Life: an interview with Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Hildegard Goss-Mayr (Graz)
Hildegard Goss-Mayr

[published in the November 1988 issue of Reconciliation International, journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation]

During the past four decades, Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr have served the International Fellowship of Reconciliation as Travelling Secretaries, Vice Presidents and now, since the meeting of the IFOR Council in Assisi earlier this year, as Honorary Presidents. Several times they have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by others who have been awarded that honor.

In the nomination statement of Mairead Corrigan Maguire, leader of the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland, she writes: “Peace work has been a team effort for this French/Austrian couple since their marriage in 1958. The Goss-Mayrs are well known and admired for their courage, persistence and vision as they initiate and participate in nonviolence work. They have given nonviolence seminars in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and more recently in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Their lives and personal commitment to nonviolence are an inspiring example and a light of hope in a world where violence and militarism continue to sap the energy and hope of many. With their own lives, dedicated as they are to active nonviolence, they are planting the seeds which will someday create the disarmed, reconciled world so yearned for by millions in our world today.”

In 1986 I interviewed Hildegard in Alkmaar. The section that follows concerns crucial early experiences that contributed to the formation of her values. She is, in her own words, a person “marked for life,” both by the senseless destruction of war and by her father’s deeply-held pacifist convictions. (There is a book-length conversation with Hildegard and Jean conducted by Gerard Houver, Nonviolence: c’est la vie. It has been published in France, Italy, Austria and Brazil. In December, an English translation will be available in Britain from Marshalls.

—Jim Forest

Please tell me about your parents.

My father, Kasper Mayr, was born in 1892 in a village near Salzburg on the German side of the Austrian border. His father was a peasant farmer. When my father was ten, he left the farm to begin studies. At that time if you came from a village and you wanted to study, it was either to become a medical doctor or a priest—for my father the latter. After secondary school he began theological studies. When the First World War broke out, he was drafted. Eventually he was sent to the front near Verdun where hundreds of thousands died in the trenches. He was taken prisoner by the French and didn’t return home until 1919. The experience, first in the trenches, then in prison, was a tremendous shock. It led him to realize that war was unacceptable for a Christian. While in prison he met Father Max Josef Metzger, one of the first Christian ecumenists on the Catholic side.

After his release, my father went to Graz, southeast Austria, to join Father Metzger’s Community of the White Cross. This community tried to live in the example of St. Francis. It was something truly remarkable at that time, a nonviolent community of priests and lay people, some of them married. It was here that my father decided to marry and to devote his life to peace work. He met my mother and they married in 1923. They remained part of the community. My brother Richard was born there in 1924. Then they moved to Switzerland. It was here that my father first heard about the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Father wrote to the international office in London. From this contact he was appointed IFOR General Secretary.

Our family was in London from 1925 to ’28. At that time there were few Catholics in IFOR, but from the beginning it was ecumenical. At the time this was revolutionary. There were many new Christian groups that sprang up after the war, but I think IFOR was the only one that had both an ecumenical basis and a commitment to the way of nonviolence. In IFOR there was the conviction that, whatever differences exist among us, we have a common basis in Jesus Christ and we can and must work together. This perspective attracted my father. What also attracted him was that people in IFOR combined theological reflection with the practice of their faith—living out the faith in situations of friction and violence. In this IFOR was unique.

How had IFOR come to London?

A few British people had gone through a radical change and were willing to make it possible for this young movement to have a start. Lillian Stevenson was one of these. She became a close friend of our family. Another leading figure in IFOR was Muriel Lester. She had been well off but had put everything at the disposal of this new movement.

What were IFOR’s priorities in those first years?

Even then one of them was East-West relations. At that time there was the strike between Germany and Poland. With the IFOR movement it was realized that unless these two countries were reconciled, the conflict could start a new war. It was because of this that in 1928, two years before I was born, IFOR moved its headquarters to Vienna where it could more easily direct its work towards the other eastern European countries. There was a leadership team. My father and Donald Grant were among them. My father’s main task was to work for German-Polish reconciliation. He took many trips building up contacts in both countries. The discussions he helped arrange were both theological and political—in the latter case, for example, about practical matters such as access to the Baltic Sea. IFOR had proposals for the shared use of the harbor at Gdansk which we felt would greatly reduce tension in the region. My father established contact with Cardinal Pacelli, then the Papal Nuncio in Berlin, later Pope Pius XII. Father hoped to open him to the necessity of working actively for friendship between Germany and Poland. Pacelli was not unresponsive. He was a person who tried to understand. But we still don’t know what result my father’s contact with Pacelli may have had.

What of IFOR’s work in Poland?

There were several conferences in Poland between 1929 and 1933. But the Depression had grave consequences for IFOR. In 1934 it was necessary to close the Vienna office. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. That same year my father was stopped in Germany and his documents were taken away. He was on the “subversive” list—people that the Nazis did not like. The kind of work IFOR was doing in Poland was unacceptable. The Nazis insisted on viewing the Poles, and any people of “Slavic races,” as inferior, people to be annihilated.

Where did IFOR go after Vienna?

A small office in Paris with Henri Rosser as General Secretary. My father stayed in Austria working with the Catholic Action Movement. He was also a journalist with a religious-cultural periodical. It was an unstable time in Austria. The monarchy ended in 1919. The empire was gone and Austria was just a small country with a big capital. With the world economic crisis it became impossible. There was radicalization among the workers, many of whom were unemployed. At the same time the Christian Democrats came increasingly under fascist influence. The Nazis were actively infiltrating the government. In 1934 the Austrian Chancellor was assassinated. In 1938, there was a national election and Austria merged into the German Third Reich.

How well do you remember these events?

One of my first memories was the day of the assassination. I was standing under the veranda. Airplanes were flying overhead. There was an atmosphere of fear. I was four years old.

What was it like growing up in your family?

Because of my father, we always knew a great deal about politics. I can remember that we children made games out of political events, even the assassination of the Chancellor! And we played the Japanese-Chinese war! These were events being discussed in our home.

After the Austrian union with Germany, did your family have difficulties?

We were among those who were persecuted. Many friends died in concentration camps. It is astonishing that father wasn’t one of these. I vividly remember him saying to us, after the war started and all that terrible killing was going on, “We have the responsibility to strengthen those who are in the resistance against Hitler. We have to live the biblical shalom. We live that shalom with the people of God, which is to say, we live it with those who resist. We must try to strengthen and help each other.” He was giving us a theological formation.

There were always people in our house. My father was a stronghold for them, affirming everyone who stood against Hitler. But he insisted that resistance was not enough. He said that in a situation where everything is going to pieces, where so many are being killed, we have to give witness that God is the Father of us all. We must not only care for those who think as we do, but we must give witness to those who do not think as we do. How will the Nazis ever change if we do not give them a witness of truth and of respect? We must not respond with hatred to their hatred.

He showed us the oneness of all humanity. This oneness, he taught us, is God’s vision of us, but it cannot come into existence unless we live it. It was very difficult for us to live this, but this was the task he gave us—not to hate our colleagues or fellow students who were fascist, but to try to give a witness to them. Really, he asked us to love our enemy. We did not call it this at the time, but now I am very aware of this seed that he planted in our hearts. Our answer must never be hatred—it must be to challenge the adversary to become a new person.

We had to struggle hard with this because there was a great deal of bitterness within us. I remember we once did a solemn burning of a doll dressed in an SS uniform. We were careful that my father didn’t see it. It was natural for us to feel as we did; revenge is in the nature of every human being. But we knew my father’s conviction, with St. Paul, that the whole universe is awaiting salvation, that all human beings are included in the liberating act of Jesus, and that we must live this out ourselves. This really marked me. I had to grow, to undergo many ups and downs, but I was never able to give it up.

Did you ever see Hitler?

He came to Vienna when I was 12. All the students of the city were brought to one of the main roads to welcome him. I was one of those in that big crowd. The convoy of cars appeared and there was Hitler standing in one of them. Everyone around me was lifting their hands and shouting, “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” It was the first time that I felt that there really is a strength of evil, something that is stronger than any individual being. I experienced the fascination that came from Hitler, that manipulation of masses of people. Evil can have a tremendous attraction. I knew I was not allowed to lift my hand or to join in the shouting. I thought, “Even if they kill me, I am not going to lift up my hand.” It was extremely hard. It was a personal decision at that moment to stand against it. It was an important moment of struggle within myself, a struggle with violence, and a struggle with justice and truth and love.

It was a struggle that, in a way, wounded me. Not only that day but in the years that followed, this struggle continued with great intensity. When I was 17, I felt that I could not go on living if men behaved so terribly toward each other. It touched even my willingness to live. It marked my soul. From 17 until I was 19, I really had to struggle, to make a choice to go on living, to find the will to live. But then I could build on the little seed that my father had planted, his belief in the power of love, that God has given us the vision of the unity of life. But throughout my life I have been very sensitive to the force of evil and have had to struggle with despair. My temptation has been to despair.

What happened when the Russians took Vienna?

I left Vienna in September 1944. All the schools were evacuated. I went to my uncle’s farm, near a concentration prisoners. They came out to work and I saw them. I gave them news I had heard from the BBC.

When the Russians took over, my father and mother, along with one of my sisters and some friends who had sought refuge in our home, were still in Vienna. In April, 1945, there was a ten-day siege—German soldiers in the city, Russians around it, shooting from the other side of the Danube. Then the Russians moved in, taking one section after another, house by house. Our house is on the edge of the city. People in the city expected the worst. Here was a victorious army that would take revenge, that would rape its way to the center of the city. When the Russians approached and pounded on the door with their guns, father opened it and stood before them in a way they could not have expected. He pushed aside their rifles and gestured that they should come in. It was a gesture of hospitality. Of course a soldier’s attitude at such a moment is one of suspicion. He has seen six years of war and wants to survive. He is ready to shoot before he is shot. But they saw in my father’s gesture that perhaps their fear was not necessary. They looked in the house to see if it was a trap. They found it wasn’t. My father could see that they were relieved. They took off their rifles. And then my father called the others up from the basement. He was able to create an atmosphere of welcome, of trust, of love, of belonging. The soldiers could see how thin and hungry we were—the city had been cut off for quite some time. The soldiers shared their own food with our family and guests.

How different from what people usually do when they think they are in danger!

People often tell me that when you are attacked, you have to defend yourself. I agree, but then I point out that there are different ways to do that. I tell the story about what my father did. Without violence, without hatred, my father was able to protect everyone in the house. If he had used a weapon, the women in the house might have been raped and everyone killed. If my father had been armed, the Russian soldiers would have been affirmed in their fears. Instead, out of his inner strength and calm, he was able to affirm their humanity and to take them out of the terrible way of war. Nobody is an angel, and often war brings out the worst in people. My father’s approach made it more likely to bring out the best—but of course you can never know beforehand what will happen. Those soldiers might have acted violently no matter what my father did. Still, when you believe in the strength of truth and love, you must respond in this way no matter what the danger is. You have to prefer to be killed yourself rather than to kill another.

Another part of that story had to do with my brother, Richard, and the Russian icon that was on our wall. From the time Richard was six or seven, he had a great love of Russian culture and started to learn Russian when he was eight. He wanted to work for a closer unity between Christians of East and West. He was drafted and sent to the front in Russia. For Richard this was deadly. How could he fight against the Russians, whom he loved and whose language he knew? So he decided to desert. It was in 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad was over. The German retreat was underway. We don’t know how he was killed, whether he was shot for his desertion or if he was killed by partisans. He was 19 when he died. Before his death he managed to save a small icon of Mary and Jesus from a burning Russian house. It was sent to our home, and we hung it on the wall. When the Russian soldiers left that day, one of them stayed behind and prayed before the icon, bowing and crossing himself.

Your brother’s interests continue in you.

We were very close. I remember he used to say, “I will go and work for unity, and you will help me!” Later on, I was able to work for unity.

What came next for you?

I was still at the farm in Germany where we saw the last part of the German army break down. We lived between Salzburg and Munich where troops were passing in their retreat. It was the region of the last fighting. I remember American tanks on one side of us and German troops on the other. The German troops came out with the white flag, but the Americans thought it was a trick. They looked at everything with suspicion. I remember there was a boy on a neighboring farm who had been discharged from the army because of an injury but the Americans suspected him. They took him, and me because I was the only one who spoke English and so I became their translator. I was 14 or 15. An American officer accused him of having hidden weapons and he said, “Unless you give the weapons to us, I will shoot you.” I had to translate this to him! It was a long interrogation. Finally we were taken to a wood. They said that this was where they would shoot him, but in the end they released him. I succeeded in explaining to the officer the story of the boy. I remember that there was also an enlisted man, a Negro who was the officer’s driver. He must have noticed how upset I was, my fear about what was going to happen. The next day he came to our farm and gave me two bottles of wine!

Did you return to Vienna immediately after the American occupation began?

No. The Austrian frontier was reestablished so I had to wait from May until October until a transport of repatriated Austrian children was allowed. Finally I got home, went back to school, graduated high school in 1948, and went to the university. That is the part of your life when the child’s face is replaced by the adult face, and you have to undergo some real challenges. Together with many other young people, I was questioning the very sense of my life—because of all the destructive things I had witnessed. We had lived with death and a sense of complete powerlessness, just waiting for the bomb to fall which will kill you. This life-and-death struggle with the most fundamental questions is something that marks you for the rest of your life. It pointed me in the direction of active nonviolence and the work we have been doing within the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

* * *

Thomas Merton’s Struggle with Peacemaking

JF Merton bookletWritten by Merton’s friend Jim Forest and drawing heavily upon their extensive correspondence, this booklet explores Merton’s beliefs about Christians and war, his life as a monk and his reactions to world events. The text includes the now-famous letter in which Merton counsels Forest, “Do not depend on the hope of results…. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” First published in 1983, the booklet is now in its tenth printing.

Paperback, 44 pages; $2.50

Order from Pax Christi USA: http://paxchristiusa.3dcartstores.com/Thomas-Mertons-Struggle-with-Peacemaking-by-James-H-Forest_p_251.html

Dorothy Day: a saint for today’s world

DD-MilwaukeeBy 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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