Catholic convert and life-long social justice activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) famously said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nevertheless, her path to sainthood continues to advance. After grassroots support for the cause swelled in the years following her death, the process was officially initiated by John Cardinal O’Connor in the year 2000. This past November (2012), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to move forward her cause for canonization.
Day is best known for making a radical commitment to the preferential option for the poor coupled with her staunch espousal of pacifism.
It is difficult to dismiss Dorothy Day. Thankfully, she left volumes of diary entries, correspondence, newspaper articles, and books. An insight into the scope of her gospel-inspired life emerges through these resources.
She spoke frequently about poverty and its role in communicating God’s love for the world.
Sometimes her description of poverty was vivid:
Our poverty is not a stark and dreary poverty, because we have the security which living together brings. But it is that very living together that is often hard. Beds crowded together, much coming and going, people sleeping on the floor, no bathing facilities, only cold water. These are the hardships. Poverty means lack of paint, it means bedbugs, cockroaches and rats and the constant war against these. Poverty means body lice. A man fainted on the coffee line some months ago and just holding his head to pour some coffee between his drawn lips meant picking up a few bugs. Poverty means lack of soap and lysol and cleansing powders (Day, 1939).
Yet she recognized the importance of adopting and describing this type of lifestyle. It was a means to serve Christ and to evangelize. Without poverty, she asked, “How are we going to reach the unemployed, the organized and unorganized workers, and the destitute, with the teachings of the Gospel, the social teachings of the Church?” (Day, 1939).
Day’s life and witness continues to challenge both our human nature, which is constantly grasping after things, and our society, which is built on consumerism. She warned and reminded her readers: “You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment” (Day, 1963, p. 80). This grasping is unending.
She leveled the same warning to religious communities: women and men religious, priests of all rank. She wrote:
Over and over again in the history of the Church the saints have emphasized voluntary poverty. Every religious community, begun in poverty and incredible hardship, but with a joyful acceptance of hardship by the rank-and-file priests, brothers, monks, or nuns who gave their youth and energy to do good works, soon began to ‘thrive.’ Property was extended until holdings and buildings accumulated; and, although there is still individual poverty in the community, there is corporate wealth. It is hard to remain poor (Day, 1963, p. 80-81).
Insofar as Dorothy Day may be declared a saint one day, she will be counted among that number who “emphasized voluntary poverty” and she will be counted among the few foundresses whose legacy includes numerous communities that have stayed true to her vision of the preferential option for the poor. The Catholic Worker movement that she founded continues to thrive in many different forms all around the world.
Her life and her movement remain important reminders to everyone that authentic gospel witness, the “New Evangelization,” will be most compelling when it is joined to genuine poverty in service of the poor.
See the following works by Dorothy Day, cited above:
“Funds Needed to Carry on Work in N.Y.” The Catholic Worker (September 1939): 1, 4. To access this article and other resources on Dorothy Day follow this link.
Loaves and Fishes: The Story of the Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies