Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dorothy Day

I thought of Dorothy Day (1897-1980) today when The Catholic Worker, a newsletter of the peace and justice movement she co-founded in 1933, arrived in the mail. It still sells for one cent.

Dorothy would be pleased that the price has remained the same and that her followers on the Lower East Side of New York continue her work, reporting on injustice in various parts of the world, helping the needy and generally doing work many people don't care to do.

I believe G.K.Chesterton once said that we cannot call Christianity a failure since it has never been tried. Well, Chesterton did not know Dorothy Day, whose life of radical poverty, pacificism, and prayer made her a saint-like figure.

She would be amused to read in the current issue of efforts, beginning in 1984 by then Cardinal-Archbishop O'Connor to promote her cause for canonization. She was a thorn in the side of the hierarchy and hated the idea of being considered a saint.

But if anyone in recent American history deserves this honor as a witness of what the Gospels really are about, it would be this tall, thin woman who was once called "the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism."
She did so with no official job--she was never a nun or a church employee--except to do what was necessary as a simple but eloquent laywoman, often at the cost of considerable suffering, to stand up to unjust power.

Day was shot at, jailed, and investigated by the FBI as a Communist; she called herself an anarchist and was opposed to all war and to predatory capitalism. She wrote, after reading about the lives of saints who helped the needy, "Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?" She wanted to do nothing less than change the social order since it too often led to poverty, crime, war, and other violence.

At a time when the American hierarchy supported the status quo, Day in her many writings and sit-ins represented the church of the people, most of them in New York at that time poor and oppressed. The sight of the poor attending Mass led her to convert to Catholicism and then to join with Peter Maurin, an activist, to establish the Catholic Worker Movement. It was not enough for her to set up a soup kitchen at the hospitality house on First St. (still there) during the Depression; it was not enough to live like the poor she served or to pray daily or to protest war: she wanted to change the causes of poverty and injustice.

I wonder what she would think of today's hierarchy, whose priorities have shifted after some promising decades of emphasizing peace and social justice. I know she would be pleased that her St. Joseph House and Maryhouse continue and that people like Robert Ellsberg, who worked there before his conversion to Catholicism, remain committed to non-violence in the face of social evils. (Ellsberg wrote a 1992 biography of Dorothy Day.)

To me Dorothy Day and her legacy are a dramatic reminder that in every age remarkable people at least try to live out the Beatitudes and keep Christianity alive.

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