Peter Maurin

(1877 – 1949)

Co-founder of the Catholic Worker

Robert Ellsberg

The future will be different, if we make the present different. Peter Maurin

Peter Maurin was born 9 May 1877 in the ancient Landuedoe region of Southern France. He was one of twenty-three children born to a peasant family who could boast to a claim to the land they farmed dating back fifteen hundred years. Educated by the Christian brothers, he had breathed in the atmosphere of Catholic populism, then in ferment in France, before sailing for North America in 1909.

For twenty years he drifted through America performing various kinds of hard manual labour. Like St Francis, he embraced Holy Poverty as his bride, dining in skid row beaneries and sleeping wherever he could find a bed. What little money he earned, he either spent on books or gave away to those in greater need. His mind was elsewhere. As he roamed the country, breaking rocks and mending roads, he was all the while engaged in his true work, an effort to devise a synthesis in the area of Catholic social philosophy.

The main problem with society, as Maurin saw it, was that sociology, economics and politics had all been separated from the gospel. In the process, society had lost any sense of the ultimate, transcendent purpose of human activity. Social life had come to be organised around the drive for production and the search for profits rather than the full development of persons. Human beings, rather than co-creators with God, had become alienated cogs in a machine. The Church, in Maurin’s view, had an answer to all of this, but it had failed to act on it. There was ‘dynamite’ in the Gospels, but the clergy preferred to keep it under lock and key. What was necessary was to ‘blow the lid’ off that dynamite.

Maurin’s programme was a ‘personalist revolution’, which called for ‘building a new world in the shell of the old.’ Rather than waiting for the correct ‘objective circumstances,’ one should begin to live at once by a new set of values. ‘The future will be different,’ he said, ‘if we make the present different.’

He had set his ideas in Easy Essays designed for street-corner acclamation: an example

The world would become better off

If people tried to become better.

And people would become better

If they stopped trying to become better off.

But with his thick French accent, shabby appearance, and visionary gleam, Maurin was considerably more successful at formulating principles than translating them into actions on a scale larger than himself.

All this changed however in 1932 when he was directed to meet a young journalist, Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert with a history of involvement in radical social movements. She had been seeking a sign as to how to combine her religious faith with her social vision. In Peter Maurin, who began to indoctrinate her within minutes of their first meeting, she believed she had found the answer to her prayers.

Maurin had a three-part programme, which involved starting a newspaper for ‘clarification of thought’; organising ‘houses of hospitality’ for the practice of the ‘works of mercy’ (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc); and the organisation of farming communes as the first step towards a decentralised, communitarian economy, the kind of society ‘where it would be easier to be good.’

With her background in journalism, Dorothy Day immediately responded to the first suggestion. The result was the Catholic Worker, first distributed in Union Square, New York, on May 1st 1933. The newspaper gradually evolved into a movement based on urban and rural communities across the land. Imbued with the radical spirit of the Beatitudes, the Catholic Worker promoted such themes as voluntary poverty, community, solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and gospel non-violence. As a prophetic voice in the American Church, the Catholic Worker movement exerted an enormous influence beyond the numbers of its subscribers and its committed activists.

Though the message of the movement came to be identified more with Dorothy Day, she always credited Maurin with its inspiration. In latter years, she would say “If he had said, ‘go to Madison Square Garden and speak these ideas’, I would have overcome all sense of fear and would have attempted such a folly, convinced that though it was ‘the folly of the Cross’ and doomed to failure, God himself would take this failure and turn it into victory.”

Peter Maurin lived to see his ideas put into action at last. But his years of activity in the Catholic Worker were limited. He died in 1949 at the age of seventy-two. In his last five years he had become mute and feeble, disabled by a stroke which had impaired his mind and left him, in his own words, ‘unable to think.’ Day considered the manner of his death instructive. Peter had been the poor man of his day. He had stripped himself of everything else, and finally he was stripped of everything he cherished. The man of vision had, in the end, to be dressed and fed like a child. Yet he never complained. He accepted his condition with grace and patience. Some years before his death, he gave the community a fright by disappearing for several days. When at last he returned, confused but apparently pleased with himself, he explained that he felt like going for a ride on a bus. Thereafter a note was pinned to his suit: ‘I am Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.’

Bibliography

Peter Maurin, Easy Essays, (Chicago, Franciscan Herald, 1977); Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, (New York, Harper and Row, 1952); Marc H. Ellis, Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century, (New York, Paulist, 1981).

(Taken from All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.)

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