Saint Dorothy Day? A View from Down Under

p>Reprinted from The Common Good, No 64, Lent 2013

Jim Consedine

Whenever people suggested to Dorothy Day that she was a saint, she always replied, ‘Don’t call me a saint. You can’t get rid of me that easily.’ And indeed we can’t. Her prophetic reply has come back to haunt her legacy.

There are official moves afoot to have Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, canonized an official saint of the Church. Recently, all 230 members of the US Catholic Bishops Conference voted unanimously for that course to be pursued. Already she has been declared a Servant of God, the first step on the road to canonization. Given some powerful backers, it seems only a matter of time before she becomes Saint Dorothy Day.

One would imagine that Catholic Workers around the world would be delighted with such progress. Some may be but most it seems are not. So what’s the problem? Why are Catholic Workers generally at best indifferent, at the worst skeptical even hostile, about the possible canonization of their founder?

At its essence, the answer lies in the paradox that was Dorothy Day’s life. In life, Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic in matters of doctrine and morals, a daily Mass attendee, a great woman of prayer.

But her social analysis was anything but orthodox. She had a vision of the Gospel and what Church might mean that involved a radical commitment to the poor and a steadfast resistance to all forms of war and violence. Dorothy’s agenda was a meaningful application of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy as found in the gospels. ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Blessed are those who hunger for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Dorothy lived these beatitudes. She challenged others to do likewise.

She was committed to following the non-violent Jesus as revealed in the New Testament. Like the Christians in the early Church, she shared all she had with the poor and practiced pacifism to the point of rejecting all violence, all war.

Her analysis of capitalism was blunt and unequivocal. She called it ‘this filthy rotten system.’ She had no time for the modern consumer society and its materialist idols. The US national ideology of imperialism and war mongering was anathema to her.

The US bishops made no mention of these things in media comments after their vote. They highlighted her repentance after an abortion, her conversion experience and entry into the Catholic Church, her enforced celibacy when she couldn’t marry the man of her dreams, her prayer life and orthodox doctrinal views. These things do form an important part of the complex picture of Dorothy’s life.

However, they are not the first things that spring to mind when one considers her life’s work. Fifty years editing The Catholic Worker espousing justice issues comes to mind. Decades of serving in soup kitchens because people were too poor to eat. So does witnessing at countless vigils opposite police lines come to mind, nationwide speaking tours opposing injustice, and numerous arrests and imprisonment for direct action against war, racism and imperialism. These things come to mind. They speak loudly about her life. And her understanding of Church.

In her lifetime, she begged the bishops to oppose war and live the beatitudes more fully. Few took any notice. She was marginalized for her radical commitment to the gospel. When she died in 1980, dubbed the most ‘influential Catholic in America’, no bishop attended her funeral.

Dorothy Day was a woman of her time, yet before her time, a prophet in every sense of the word. As a single parent raising a child during the great Depression, she lived freely among the poor, identifying with their needs. She spent 50 years writing and speaking about the gospel ideals she practised to those who would listen. Her stance on non-violence and feeding the poor, on war and racism, on economic justice and homelessness, still give radical insight into the teachings of Jesus for today. Her open-house policy of hospitality ‘because it is where we meet Christ disguised,’ led to the establishment of more than 200 houses of hospitality around the world.

Dorothy lives on in her followers every day. She remains a prickly witness to the hard teachings of Jesus that mainstream churchgoers tend to ignore. She is no plastic figure, no candidate for a plaster-cast statue. Most Catholic Workers don’t want her as one, sanitized beyond recognition. They have already acclaimed her a saint, a holy iconic figure.

For them, canonization seems almost superfluous. Hence the indifference.

Jim Consedine has been a member of the Thomas Merton Catholic Worker, Christchurch, for the past 25 years.

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