In Ages Past
Dorothy Day: Comforter and Afflicter
Surprisingly, given her identification with the poor, Day's favorite saint wasn't Francis of Assisi, but Thérèse of Lisieux, whose "Little Way," an approach to holiness that concentrates on doing small things with great love, Day adopted. Former Catholic Worker Jim Forest writes:
A visiting social worker asked Day how long the "clients" were permitted to stay. "We let them stay forever," Day answered with a fierce look in her eye. "They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they are members of the family. Or rather they were always members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ."
From the start, Day's movement attracted idealistic young people. Tom Cornell, a longtime Catholic Worker, learned about Dorothy in college. "Here," he said, "was the Gospel being lived."
Not everyone liked what she was doing. Her pacifism (a position adopted long before her conversion) irked many, Catholics included. Conservatives considered her too left-leaning, and her support of a Catholic cemetery workers' strike in 1949 didn't endear her with local Church leaders.
But far from seeing Catholicism as limiting, Day considered it the source of her freedom. In 1950, she talked about meeting with Archbishop (future cardinal) James McIntyre of Los Angeles, an arch-conservative, if there ever was one. These two sure didn't see eye to eye on lots of issues, yet in her diary, she talked about how the meeting "increased my devotion to the church and the hierarchy."
By the '60s, the country was catching up with Dorothy Day as she marched for numerous causes: Civil Rights, world peace, workers' rights. And she still got arrested, no light matter. A co-worker recalled an occasion when Day, then in her 70s, was subjected to degrading physical and sexual abuse from female guards who taunted her with obscenities as they strip-searched her.
In 1972, Notre Dame awarded her its prestigious Laetare Medal for "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." Toward the end of her life, she said: "When you start asking, 'Lord, what you have me do?' you always find yourself doing a lot more than you thought you were going to do."
Nothing irritated her more than pious comparisons. One Catholic Worker remembered a local woman calling her a saint, to which Dorothy replied, "Bullshit!"
After her death in 1980, historian David O'Brien called her "the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism." Robert Ellsberg, who edited Dorothy's diary, writes:
She challenges the reformers and social activists to maintain their love for the church and the gospel. She challenges conservatives to be attentive to the radical social dimensions of the gospel. She challenges both sides to resolve differences with mutual respect and love, for the benefit of the world.
"Don't call me a saint," Dorothy famously remarked. "I don't want to be dismissed so easily." The day may soon come, however, when she won't have a say in the matter anymore.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.