Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 21, 2008
Dorothy Day would be a thorn in our side
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Catholic Worker movement, founded in the depths of the Depression in New York by the humble servant of God Dorothy Day. It is also the occasion of Pope Benedict's trip to New York and Washington, a news event that has pushed aside pretty well everything else in the U.S. Catholic press.
The events invite comparison. Dorothy Day was, above all, a Catholic, a woman of great piety whose devotion to Jesus was not the main thing, but the only thing. That devotion led her to set up houses of hospitality for the poor and to protest war and the nuclear arms race. A pacifist, she was arrested numerous times for acts of civil disobedience.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
For years, she had an uneasy relationship with local Church hierarchy. When gravediggers at a Catholic cemetery went on strike, Day and the Catholic Workers supported them and demonstrated with them. New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman was unimpressed, calling the strikers communists and saying he was "proud and happy to be a strikebreaker."
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
While Day was happy to live amidst the poor, to feed the poor and to be poor herself, she knew more was needed than what the Church had offered in the past. As a child, she had asked, "Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?" It was a question that provided the shape of her own holiness, her own struggle to be true to the Gospel.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
So where would Dorothy Day be during the papal visit to New York if she were alive today? Would she avoid the hoopla, continuing to feed the poor or would she join the throngs waving Vatican flags along a parade route?
Probably neither. She would find a way for the Catholic Worker to be a positive force during the papal visit. During a visit to Rome in the early 1960s, Day prayed at the tomb of Pope Benedict XV, whom she called "the pacifist pope." She would no doubt find much to admire in Benedict XVI, himself a former American POW, who has spoken often of the utter futility of war.
It would be no surprise to find Day and her friends demonstrating outside the United Nations during the papal visit there - demonstrating not against the pope, but against the war in Iraq and against the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons.
Nor would it be a surprise if the pope invited her to meet him and then blessed her and embraced her. Pope Paul VI did as much when he sent Day greetings on her 80th birthday, greetings that were personally delivered by Spellman's successor, Cardinal Terence Cooke.
But what if Day were not in New York today? What if she lived in Alberta?
Here, she would be a thorn in people's side, a challenge to the pervasive complacency. She would be with the poor, the drug addicts, those victimized by the gambling industry. She would stand with all those left to the side as the wealthy and the province's leaders blindly throw themselves into the headlong pursuit of "prosperity."
Like Peter Maurin, who co-founded the Catholic Worker with her, she would be keenly aware that a time of "bourgeois ascendancy" is also a time of spiritual decline.
There is little doubt that she would be visibly opposed to the utter disregard of human health and the natural environment represented by the unrestrained development of the Athabasca tarsands.
Dorothy Day was a pious follower of Jesus. Following Jesus, for her, meant daily prayer and daily Mass. It also meant witnessing against the horrendous evils of the time. Her prodding us to be all encompassing in our devotion to the Gospel would directly challenge our apathy. In no uncertain terms she would make it clear that to stand with Jesus means to take a stand.
- Glen Argan
Letter to the Editor - 04/28/08
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