Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 8, 1897. While she was still an infant her family moved clear across the country to San Francisco. Bad idea! For in 1906 the city by the Bay experienced the traumatic and devastating earthquake, but she survived and the family had had enough of the temblors, packing up and heading back towards the East Coast. But they stopped in Chicago where the family settled down in a tenement flat on the windy city's south side. Her father John Day was devastated for he had used up most of the family savings with the moves and there were no jobs to be found. Her mother never gave up hope, praying constantly and her prayers were answered when Dorothy's father landed a job as sports editor for the Chicago Tribune. Eventually the family moved into a more comfortable, larger abode on the nicer north side of the city. But Dorothy never forgot the poor and oppressed times she had experienced. Rather than putting it behind her and enjoying the good life, she was moved by the Gospel and made a point to return often to the streets of the south side to be with the downtrodden in an effort to empathize and help.
She earned a scholarship to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in 1914 and, like her father, had the gift of the word. But her concern for helping others surpassed her desire for a degree and she dropped out of college in 1916 and migrated back to New York. There she took a job as a reporter for the city's major socialist daily paper The Call. It was during this period of her life that she formulated the social issues that she would translate into how the Gospel should be applied. Her writing attracted the editor of The Masses, a publication that strongly opposed America's participation in World War I. The Government went after the publication, shutting it down and Dorothy, along with forty other women retaliated by protesting against the despot measures being taken. They marched in front of the White House in 1917 protesting the fact women could not vote. She was arrested but, after a well-publicized hunger strike, they were released by President Woodrow Wilson. Dorothy had made a name for herself, but that was not her intent. She wanted to make a solid show for representation for the oppressed.
Dorothy returned to New York but felt disillusioned by journalism and turned to a profession in nursing to help the poor and downtrodden. During her experience here she began to realize that the Catholic Church was the faith of the immigrants and of the poor and she was enthralled by Catholic spiritual discipline. An Episcopalian by birth, it didn't take long for her to embrace the Catholic Faith. This was helped by her association with three nurses she roomed with in Chicago in 1922 after she had moved back to be closer to her parents. She was offered a journalistic job in New Orleans she couldn't refuse and thus accepted. In the Crescent City she began going to Benediction services each evening furthering her intent to eventually join the Church. In 1924 she returned to New York where she married Forster Batterham before a justice of the peace. Her husband would have none of her spirituality and this greatly troubled her. She became pregnant while she continued to write with more and more of an inclination toward spirituality in her words. After her husband left her in the lurch, walking out on her because he had no desire to bring children into such a violent world, her daughter Tamar Theresa Day was born on March 3, 1927 and Dorothy received permission to have her baptized in the Church. Later that same year, Dorothy also was baptized becoming a Catholic on December 28, 1927 at the age of 30.
She capitalized on her new faith, latching on as reporter for Commonweal and the Jesuit publication America. In the winter of 1932 she was covering the Hunger March as a large, angry crowd amassed outside the White House with President Herbert Hoover hiding behind the window. Day realized that this march had been organized by subversive communists and this bothered her greatly. Though she herself had leanings toward socialism and communism in her earlier years, she realized that communism was a threat not only to capitalism but also to the Church. Torn over how to deal with it, she made a visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The date: December 8, 1932, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary's feast. There, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament and a statue of Our Lady, she recalls, "I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor." As a God-incidence she returned later that night to New York and the next day an older man knocked on her door. He was Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother from France who had embraced poverty in the spirit of the Franciscan creed. His greatest talents were teaching and persuasion. He was able to convince Dorothy to begin a publication that would better educate readers to the Catholic social teaching and promote ways to effect a peaceful transformation of society as a whole.
After locking in a deal with Paulist Press to print 2,500 copies of an eight-page tabloid paper, The Catholic Worker became a reality on May 1, 1933. She personally handed the first editions out in Union Square, offering them for one cents a copy so all could afford it. By December 1st she was printing 100,000 copies a month. By 1936 the circulation was 150,000. Siding strongly with labor unions and human dignity of the worker, it criticized the structure and norms of society, asking for response from Catholics and others. Within a few years people were responding in kind to the poor. Special Catholic Worker centers were established throughout the country to house and feed the poor. When some disgruntled employees asked how long the poor should stay, Day replied "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 become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ." When some challenged her with Christ's words that the poor we will always have with us, she retorted, "But we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God's, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change."
From that point on that's what she effected, revolutionary change. She advocated non-violence to the tee and this philosophy came into conflict with America's involvement in World War II after Pearl Harbor. As the country rallied to war, she was one of the lone voices advocating pacifism. She had already paid dearly for her belief in pacifism during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 when Generalissimo Franco, a Fascist, set himself up as a defender of the Catholic Faith. Day disagreed, but the majority of American bishops sided with Franco and The Catholic Worker suffered a two-thirds decline in circulation. During World War II fifteen Catholic Worker houses were closed but Day persisted as the United States government tightened the grip against her. She railed at the government for its unjust ways including promoting nuclear testing and spending billions of dollars on military buildup. When the government ordered A-bomb exercises for everyone to go to the air-raid shelter once the siren sounded, she and a group of resisters sat on the steps of City Hall in New York City refusing to go. When questioned, she replied that people should not be drilled into fear, saying, "We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb." She justified her disobedience to her country as an act of reconciliation and penance for America bombing Hiroshima and other Japanese cities that killed millions of innocent people. Her credo was "War is not the answer!"
Throughout her life Day spent her share of single days in jail, not as a hardened criminal but rather out of protest. She always looked at her arrests as an opportunity to reach out to those she was incarcerated with in the cells. In her late fifties and sixties she showed no signs of slowing down, turning the focus of The Catholic Worker to the civil rights movement in helping African Americans gain both respect and legal rights guaranteed both by God and the Constitution of the United States.
In 1963 she turned her attention to Rome, journeying to the Eternal City where, as one of fifty "Mothers of Peace" she was able to personally thank Pope John XXIII for his encyclical released earlier in the year on April 11 - Pacem in terris. It would be his last but possibly most important for it dealt with universal peace in truth, justice, charity and liberty. Two years later, with John XXIII having passed away and Pope Paul VI the new Sovereign Pontiff, she returned to Rome during the Second Vatican Council where she took part in a fast outside St. Peter's in trying to call to the attention of the Council Fathers and Bishops the plight of the poor and to put the sword back in the sheath and embrace peace. Her intent in this fast, which she called her "widow's mite" was to show her support for the unity of the bishops so that they would speak with a pure, peaceful voice for and to the world.
Yet the war in Vietnam continued and she, along with many members of the Catholic Worker houses and centers were arrested time and again for civil disobedience, but always in peaceful protest. This is where she disagreed with the likes of Daniel Berrigan, the radical Jesuit who destroyed so many draft records in a show of rebellion. She never let up in her peaceful assault on humanity to put away the sword and pick up the plough. Even at the age of 75 she was arrested a final time marching with Cesar Chavez for human and civil rights for farmworkers.
Her greatest thrill in life, was to receive Holy Communion from Pope Paul VI on her final visit to Rome after being invited to participate in the International Congress of the Laity. In 1973 the magazine she once wrote for, America devoted a special issue dedicated to her, proclaiming her a modern saint and the American who best exemplified the "aspiration and action of the American Catholic community over the past forty years." This was followed by receiving the prestigious Laetare Medal from Father Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame University where again she was alluded to as a modern-day saint which she promptly dismissed, saying. Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily!" She often said, "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God." She shared that with another modern-day saint Mother Teresa who visited her late in her life and bestowed on her the special cross worn by the professed members of the Order founded by Mother - the Missionaries of Charity. It was a special honor that brought tears to the eyes of the aging Dorothy Day to be in the presence of such holiness as this "saint of the gutter" who shared many of the same ideals.
Dorothy Day died on November 29, 1980 in New York City, totally penniless, but Cardinal Terence Cooke assumed all responsibilities and held her funeral for a packed congregation at St. Patrick's Cathedral with the Archdiocese of New York covering all expenses. His successor Cardinal John O'Connor remarked about Dorothy Day's legacy, "She died before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had an impact on my life, even though we never met...for to me Dorothy Day was the Mother Teresa of Mott Street [Philadelphia]. I thank God for the privilege of spending my childhood with Dorothy Day, truly a saint for our time. Hardly a seminarian of my era escaped her influence. Rare was the young priest untouched by her life. Whether or not we honored in our own lives her passionate commitment to the poor, or followed even distantly in her footsteps, she worried us. That was her gift to us [priests and bishops], a gift I still cherish as I try to maneuver my own perilous way among the accoutrements and 'practicalities' of life as a Cardinal Archbishop of New York."
Her cause for canonization has been introduced to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints by the Claretian Order. There are those who have objected to this, claiming that she began her adult life as a Communist, but they fail to realize she was always seeking religious truth and ended her life as a strong and influential Catholic influenced by pure communeistic ideals - the same ideals that comprises so many religious orders. She was the thorn in the side of commercialism and capitalism, always prodding consciences to not forget the poor and the downtrodden as Christ commanded all to do. Let her canonization process commence.
We're engaged in warfare ourselves, every day, every moment of our lives. That's why we are called the Church Militant, because we are still struggling. Against whom? Call To Action? Dignity? Secular Humanism? Yes, to a point, but in many ways, these are only the forces we see. Just as the American GI was fighting the German soldier, the real enemy was the person or persons directing those forces.
"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
For some, this 'war' is waged against the agents of these 'powers and principalities'. Priests, nuns, brothers, theologians, and apologists to name a few. They hope, by God's grace, to blunt the attacks of the enemy against Him and His Church. And they use His weapons, the weapon of love. You see, if we use the enemies' weapons against him, the only winner is the evil one. But if we follow Christ's example, we win.
"And when those who were about Him saw what would follow, they said, 'Lord, shall we strike with the sword?' And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, 'No more of this!' And He touched his ear and healed him" (Luke 22:49-51).
"Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked Him and beat Him; they also blindfolded Him and asked Him, 'Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?' And they spoke many other words against Him, reviling Him" (Luke 22:63-65).
"The high priest then questioned Jesus about His disciples and His teaching. Jesus answered him, 'I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.' When He had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, 'Is that how you answer the high priest?' " (John 18:19-22).
"'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears My voice.' Pilate said to Him, 'What is truth?' (John 18:37-38).
We could go on and on. Christ never raised His voice or struck out (with the exception of the Temple merchants and even then, He only wanted them out of the Temple, not their destruction or harm). We can also point out the many martyr's, from St. Stephen onward, who spoke for Christ. They knew what their testimony, their actions, would mean, but they could not simply let it go. In order for the truth to be heard and survive, they had to do it.
They remind me of the soldiers on D-Day going ashore, knowing that the odds of their survival were almost nil. But these are the actions of the heroic 'soldiers' for God. Just as every soldier is backed up by an 'army' of support people, so most of us are called on for support. St. Francis of Assisi founded an Order based on the Gospel rule of poverty and humility, as were the Poor Clares. But not everyone was called to such asterity. Many simply simplified their lives in accordance with the Rule of St. Francis.
Some outside of the Church seem to think that since Christ has won, there is no need for us to struggle, to continue to fight. "Once saved, always saved" they say. Others, even some in the Church, feel that God is so loving that we can be lax and enjoy, the 'war' being over. And just as that thinking helped bring about the Battle of the Bulge, so to, it can lead to a 'spiritual' setback which the person may not recover from.
St. Paul said it best. "I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it" (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
But the enemy uses all sorts of tactics. Fear, intimidation, false compassion, etc. For our enemy, there is no sweeter irony than to use religion to draw us away from God and His mercy, His mission.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out, as early as the early 20th century, that it seemed that the only 'religion' Christians weren't to be tolerant of, was their own.
So we see the modern dictum that all religion is good, but to be a Christian is to be ignorant, hateful, and foolish. Ted Turner said that Christianity was for wimps. But G.K.Chesterton makes two points relating to that. One was that it wasn't that Christianity had been tried and found wanting, but rather it was tried and found difficult. The other thing he wrote was: "People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad . . . The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable . . . It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob . . . It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to avoid them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the Heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect." (Orthodoxy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1908, pp. 100-101)
Our enemies may attack us with slander, innuendo, etc., but that's to be expected. "If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on My account, because they do not know Him Who sent Me" (John 15:18-21).
So the war rages around us. But for most of us, the battle isn't from without, but within. This is the one battle we are all called to engage in, the personal war, the war within ourselves. It's the war between what we want to do and what we need to do. It's the battle with noisy, misbehaving children. Unruly neighbors, and unthinking relatives. Traffic jams and slow grocery lines. And like any battle, we may lose some. For as Christ said, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." We struggle, we fall, and, hopefully, we get back up and try again. For it isn't losing the battle that's all that important, but losing the war. So, we must put on the 'entire' armor of God. As St. Paul writes: "Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:13-17).
So armed, we are given even more protection, by God's mercy, by staying secure in the fortress which is His Church. " And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16: 18).
But if we venture out of that Church, we are left to fight alone. And the enemy, with tricks and enticements, may well strip us of the rest of our armor. They have taken way the protection form our loins by saying truth is relative, they try to shatter our breastplate by saying we have sinned, they have unshod our feet by making the Gospel irrelevant, and, finally, taken away the shield of faith by saying any 'faith' is good.
Yes, it's a war, but not like any war that man knows, just as the peace that man gives can't compare to the peace we receive in Christ. To paraphrase a poem popular in the 60's, IF we keep to Christ and His Church, we may keep our heads, our lives, while the world spins in turmoil and others lose theirs.
And if we do this to the best of our ability, hoping in His mercy and love, we may well hear our Lord say, "Come, O blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25:34).
Then, no longer part of the Church Militant, we will join the Church Triumphant, and rest in His love and glory.
Pax Christi, Pat