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Dorothy Day Remembered

 

Overcoming doubts and challenges, Catholic icon Dorothy Day lived a life that offers lessons in compassion and endurance

By Martin Doblmeier

 

November 29, 2020, marked the 40th anniversary of the passing of one of the most remarkable and inspiring figures in recent American history, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. In her 83 years, Day evolved into a prophetic witness who embodied both a pious, traditional expression of faith and an uncompromising – some would say radical – commitment to social justice.

When Pope Francis spoke to Congress in 2015 he listed Dorothy Day as one of four “great Americans,” including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. While many already considered Day a saint during her lifetime, the cause for her formal canonization is moving forward as the final documentation makes its way to Rome. At present she holds the title “Servant of God.”

 

Dorothy-Day-seated

© Bob Fitch

 

For a half-century, Day committed herself to hours of daily prayer and lived unreservedly the corporal works of mercy. Yet her canonization is not a “slam dunk.” Day had an abortion. She tried to commit suicide twice. Her only child, daughter Tamar, was born out of wedlock. She was attracted to communism and never fully abandoned her socialist leanings. She sparred with Church hierarchy, especially over the use of military force (Day was a hardline pacifist) and labor rights. And today some of her own ardent followers question spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance her canonization rather than using the money to care for the poor.

What is undeniable is that Day’s life offers a rich, complex example that enables Catholic educators to both challenge and inspire students. Her story prompts reflection about how best to impart values like mercy and compassion. Day is a significant figure not only in the history of Catholic Social Teaching, but also during the current environment of division and injustice.

A Winding Path Toward Vocation

Born in Brooklyn Heights, New York in 1897, Day was raised by parents who offered little guidance in terms of spiritual formation. When Dorothy was nine, the Day family was in northern California during the San Francisco earthquake that took 3,000 lives and left nearly a half million homeless and destitute. The image of neighbor helping neighbor through the crisis forged a lasting impression on young Dorothy.

In 1918 during the horrific flu pandemic, she trained as a nurse to serve the sick and dying. But her love of journalism took over and she began to use her pen to champion women’s rights and raise awareness of deplorable work conditions, the plight of immigrants, and widespread poverty. Chapter by chapter, Day’s life vocation was beginning to unfold.

When daughter Tamar was born, Dorothy opened herself to a God she knew little about but felt “haunting” her for many years. She turned to Catholicism because in her mind it was the faith of immigrants and the poor. She came to love the Church’s rituals and treasure the examples of the saints.

Yet Dorothy was convinced that to be a good Catholic required abandoning her social justice soul. That was until a curious Frenchman, Peter Maurin, entered her life. Maurin was a self-taught scholar of Catholic Social Teaching and the lives of the saints. With his guidance and reckless confidence that God would somehow provide, Day and Maurin launched a new effort that changed not only their lives but the lives of countless others.

On May 1, 1933, Day and Maurin began publishing The Catholic Worker newspaper. It sold on the streets for just a penny a copy. The first issues addressed child labor, workers’ rights, and rising anti-Semitism.

Dorothy-Day-standing

Dorothy-Day-picketing

Photos © Vivian Cherry

When the Worker published stories about the homeless, Day was confronted by a young woman who challenged her with a simple question: How can you write stories about homeless people and not provide homes for them? Day immediately went out and rented an apartment. It was the beginning of Catholic Worker houses of hospitality.

The Catholic Worker paper has now published continuously since 1933, a remarkable achievement in an industry where publications come and go. And the number of Catholic Worker houses has grown from 30 at the time of Day’s death in 1980 to well over 200 today.

 

Continuing the Movement

Dorothy Day will likely become a new American saint in the not too distant future. While sainthood will introduce her story to millions around the world, some fear canonization will place her high on a pedestal, making her challenging example even more remote.

For Catholic educators, Dorothy Day’s life offers a field rich for exploration and reflection. Her understanding of the message of Jesus Christ brought her to a form of pacifism that was absolute – some would argue extreme. During wartime, especially World War II, many of her closest followers abandoned her and the Worker. Over the years she challenged the Church’s own traditional just war theories but always did it faithfully. In so doing she deserves a chapter in any Catholic peace studies program.

More difficult is the question of how Dorothy Day developed a social awareness that instinctively propelled her to go where others dared not. How could she be drawn to human need when others turned away? What does Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement offer us today, at a time of deep social division and economic insecurity?

It is no secret that under Day’s management, Worker houses and the newspaper always seemed perched on an economic fault line. Yet she rarely talked about how to better manage the budget or develop campaigns for more funds. Her first concern was always how to live the community’s commitment more faithfully. Somehow, they sustained.

Dorothy Day herself would most likely resist any notion of program development that tries to “teach” compassion. She would point out that it is far more meaningful and lasting to model love than to teach it programmatically. Thankfully, young people today, as in Day’s own lifetime, seem open to serving others as they search for themselves.

At Xavier University in Ohio, the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice is now in its 11th year. Its various programs attracts more than 1,000 students annually, about 20 percent of the student population. Students are invited into service work both locally and nationally, and also participate in follow-up clarification discussions over the year. The students experience how large the Catholic tent is and how love of neighbor crosses denominational divides. In so doing, they come into contact with the power of community and relationship building, just as the Movement always intended.

In forming potentially life-shaping new relationships, both with one another and with those they serve, a wide range of students — Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, rich and poor, pious Catholics and young agnostics — discover common cause as they discover themselves. It is more than a program shift. It’s a paradigm shift, a change of lens through which a person sees those around them in a very different way.

Dorothy Day’s own life path was far from straight. There were many days of uncertainty and regret along the way. But as many saints would likely testify, it is not how straight the path, but where you end up that matters most. That is what makes Dorothy Day’s life and legacy well worth remembering.

 

Martin Doblmeier is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and director of the documentary Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, now airing on PBS stations. Visit www.journeyfilms.com for more information and companion educational materials.

Also contributing to this article were Rev. Abby King-Kaiser of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice; Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, professor of theology at Bellarmine University; and Adam Clark, associate professor of theology at Xavier University.