Dorothy Day set in motion a grand work of reconciliation that is still bearing fruit today in Catholic Worker houses and farms spanning the globe
Many people who hear the name Dorothy Day easily confuse her with the blonde-haired beauty, singer and actress Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, better known as “Doris Day.” Doris’ winning image was that of “the sweet all-American girl next door” with which she gained a large and devoted following in the 1950s and 60s. Though both Days were much admired, there is some distinction to be made between them.
Some years ago I met an old man who in his younger days was a devotee of Doris. Hearing she would be speaking in the area, he thought her appearance an event not to be missed. He learned upon his arrival, however, that it was Dorothy Day, not Doris, who was speaking. As disappointing as the loss of his much anticipated meeting with Doris was, he found himself pleasantly surprised to meet Dorothy Day. Here was the woman who, with Peter Maurin, co-founded “The Catholic Worker,” an adventurous lay initiative that began reaching out to the poor and workers with the social teachings of the Church in the dark days of the Great Depression.
The movement started as a newspaper but soon dared to live out its stated ideals that readers found in print. Through round table discussions for the “clarification of thought,” the establishment of urban “houses of hospitality” to meet the immediate needs of the poor, and through the propagation of Catholic farming communes, the fledgling Catholic movement began its mission. It sought to elevate a more economically just and sanctified social order by better exercising Catholic social thought, by daily practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and by getting “back to the land, back to Christ,” as Peter Maurin advised. Although a city girl at heart — Dorothy lived most of her life in New York City — she backed Maurin’s vision of a Catholic “green revolution” that would be an ideal harbinger of things to come.
The influence of Day has been farther reaching than might have been reasonably predicted. Pope Francis, in his September 24, 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, said of her: “In these times, when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, was inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” The pontiff then placed Dorothy alongside other Americans whose faith-filled vision in times of social stress might encourage a similar witness in us:
“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture that enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith, which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.” Shortly following the address, search engines were abuzz with inquiries, and Day was soon among the list of who and what was trending on the Internet.
Inquirers learned that Day spent a lifetime “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” She was born in November 1897 and died on the last day of the liturgical year in November 1980. In their 2012 meeting, the U.S. bishops voted unanimously to put forth her cause for canonization. If she is found worthy of the honor, she will be added to that still small yet remarkable group of saints born in the U.S. Although Dorothy rejected suggestions she was a saint, she often took her cues from their lives. She is incrementally gaining in the reverential acclaim accorded to them.
There is a quality in Day that might best be described as “perennial.” She was the editor of the movement’s penny-a-copy newspaper The Catholic Worker, which from the time of publication in May 1933 has remained “a penny a copy.” The movement’s message remains essentially the same, too — practice the works of mercy and abandon the works of war. Day went to jail repeatedly, first protesting the maltreatment of suffragettes in her youth, then refusing to take shelter during mandatory air raid drills in preparation for possible nuclear war in New York City. In her later years she stood beside Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union, seeking better conditions for agricultural workers in California.
In season and out, into the succeeding decades, Day held firm to faith, highlighting and imitating Jesus’ rejection of violence, embracing of the cross, and teaching that we love friend and foe. Her uncompromising pacifism put a dent in her popularity at times, but it also marked her as an especially steadfast spirit. Living in the slums with the poor, she, who had come to be loved by Christ, bore love for him by loving the hungry multitudes that came in droves to her door.
These were the “ambassadors of God,” as her mentor Peter Maurin described them, and she treated them as such. Her life among the involuntarily poor was setting a bold, even heroic, precedent for fresh Christian engagement in the world.
“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other” she taught. “We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”
How well, it seems, Day’s lived witness parallels Pope Francis’ vision “for a poor church that serves the poor,” one resembling a “field hospital” more than an “ivory tower,” its leaders knowing better the “smell of the sheep” and thereby more aptly heralding and mediating God’s wide love and mercy to them.
Her journalism and books still stir the Catholic Church’s conscience. They still invite believers drawn to her into equally holy labors of their own. She continues to affect great social change that retains considerable appeal to that which is joyful and hopeful in her readers.
As a convert, she is personally exemplary, especially for those who feel adrift in a self-absorbed culture. She herself was drawn to faith as a worldly, yet disenchanted bohemian. Reeling from sexual and youthful excesses, Dorothy was so moved by the unexpected grace of giving birth that she needed someone to thank. Her happiness surely stemmed from the fact that God had given her another chance, but it was the sheer gratitude to God for life’s joys and redeeming mercies that is her winning image.
Today Dorothy is that “sinner with a past and likely saint with a future,” as Oscar Wilde mentioned, that can educate a Church currently emphasizing mercy. With unvarnished love, extended to those for whom life is often a bitter struggle, she set in motion a grand work of reconciliation that is still bearing fruit today in Catholic Worker houses and farms spanning the globe. From the tiny “mustard seed” a mighty tree has grown.