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Dorothy Day: A saint for our time

September 11, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

Sometime soon we will witness the canonization of Dorothy Day. For many of us a canonization draws little more than a yawn. So why should there be interest around the canonization of Dorothy Day – who in fact protested that she didn’t want people to consider her a saint and asserted that making someone a saint often helps neutralize his or her influence?

Dorothy Day wasn’t the kind of saint who fits the normal conceptions of piety. She was born in New York in 1897 and died there in 1980. She was a journalist, a peace activist, a convert to Christianity, who, together with Peter Maurin, established the Catholic Worker Movement to combine direct aid to the poor and homeless with nonviolent action on behalf of peace and justice. She served too on the newspaper she founded, Catholic Worker, from 1933 until her death.

Her person and the movement she started have powerfully inspired Christians to try to more effectively take the Gospels to the streets. She is invoked today as the primary role-model for virtually everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, working in the area of social justice.

She, perhaps better than anyone else in her generation, was able to wed together the Gospel and justice.

Ernst Kasemann once commented that the problem in both the world and the church is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. He’s right. You normally don’t see the same person leading the rosary and the peace march. You normally don’t see the same person championing both the pro-life movement and women’s choice. And you don’t normally see the same person scrupulously defending the most intimate matters within private morality and having the same moral passion for the global issues of social justice. But that was Dorothy Day. She was equally comfortable leading a peace march and leading the rosary.

A second feature which characterized Dorothy Day and her spirituality was her ability to simply act, and to act effectively. She was a doer, she was able to institutionalize her faith and embed it into an institution, the Catholic Worker. There’s an axiom that says: Whatever we dream alone remains a dream, but what we dream with others can become a reality. Dorothy dreamed with others and made that dream a reality.

Finally, Dorothy Day can be an inspiration to us because she did the right thing for the right reason. Dorothy’s commitment to the poor arose not out of guilt, or neurosis, or anger, or bitterness toward society. It arose out of gratitude. Her route to faith, Jesus, and the poor was rather unorthodox. In the years prior to her conversion she was an atheist, a communist, a woman ideologically opposed to the institution of marriage, and a woman who had had an abortion. Her turning to God and to the poor happened when she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar Theresa, and experienced in the joy of giving birth a gratitude that seared her soul. In her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” she describes how, at seeing her baby daughter for the first time, she was so overcome with gratitude that a faith and love were born in her that never again left her. Her passion for God and the poor were fueled by that.

She was also an earthy saint. She will, no doubt, be the first canonized saint whose photographs show a woman with a cigarette in her mouth. She’s a saint for our time. She showed us how we can serve God and the poor in a very complex world, and how to do it with love and color.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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