Dorothy Day’s Life of Heroic Virtue

Dorothy Day’s life was one of heroic virtue, in which she created the Catholic Worker movement.

It can be hard to think of the term “saint” in a contemporary context. We think of saints as the greats that lived centuries ago. Saints are the inspired theologians and courageous martyrs, the ones who relentlessly and gracefully paved the way for our faith. Saints are from another time, another world.

Of course, there are exceptions — Mother Teresa, known now as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and Pope Saint John Paul II, for example. However, a successor of Saint Peter and a sister who received global recognition for her work doubtless still seem very far removed from the lives we live.

Religious life is not a condition for sainthood, nor is a life free of flaws or doubts or regrettable mistakes. One does not become a saint because of the mistakes they’ve made. They are elected to sainthood because of the way in which they’ve made a difference despite their human imperfections.

In 2016, Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York, initiated the next step in the canonization process of a woman who was both far from perfect and an incredible witness of God’s love, Dorothy Day.

Who was Dorothy Day?

Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897 to a Protestant family. Though she grew up in Chicago, she moved back to New York with her family when she was eighteen, and it was there she began her work as a journalist. Driven by pacifist ideals and a firm sense of solidarity with the poor, Day wrote primarily for socialist newspapers. She actively participated in protest movements and even faced multiple arrests as a result of her involvement.

In the midst of her social activism, Day was also actively wrestling with her faith. Her family did not regularly practice their faith, so Day’s experience with religion primarily came from the example of others.

For a while, she rejected organized religion. Day felt that not enough work was being done by the churches to help the poor, and that the two, religion and the oppressed, were in conflict with one another. Day identified with the masses, and in her eyes, the masses were out in the streets, not in the pews of a grand cathedral.

However, through her questioning and doubting, she continued to seek God out again and again. She eventually became engrossed with Scripture, and through various experiences (one of them being the birth of her daughter), Day ultimately found the fulfillment she had been searching for in the Catholic faith.

Converting to Catholicism was a loaded decision for Day, in a large part due to her common-law marriage with the man she loved, who was a staunch atheist. However, shortly after having her daughter baptized, Day made the decision to follow suit and converted, resulting in her separation from Tamar’s father.

Her baptism into the Church did not offer a simple solution to her struggles. On the contrary, once she was a Catholic, she questioned even more how her faith fit into the social movements she was so passionate about. It was through Day’s encounter and eventual life-long friendship with a French immigrant named Peter Maurin that she found answers.

The Catholic Worker movement

Day credits Maurin with the idea behind the Catholic Worker movement, but it was through their combined efforts that the movement came alive.

By studying the social teachings of the Church with Maurin, Day discovered the intersection between faith and social activism that she had been searching for. The more she and Maurin worked together, the more Day saw the Catholic Church as a beacon for the impoverished. The call of Catholicism was to reach out to and take care of the masses, the very people Day devoted her life to advocating for.

The movement that Day and Maurin created was essentially a form of grassroots level activism, with a focus on voluntary poverty and pacifism. Together, they laid out a “program of action” that included four parts, one of which was the Catholic Worker newspaper (that continues to sell for a penny a copy today) and another was the houses of hospitality.

Today, there are over 200 Catholic Worker houses across the nation, with a few scattered in other countries, which is fairly remarkable considering they receive no public funding and rely primarily on donations. These houses are open to everyone and anyone in need. They offer food, clothing, shelter, and most importantly, a community to all who walk through the door.

These houses were, and continue to be, an essential aspect of the program Day co-founded, because they practice the very message she believed the Gospel preached. Day looked to Scripture not just for inspiration and comfort, but for instructions and guidelines on how to live.
Dorothy Day was instrumental in getting the Catholic Worker movement going.

A legacy that lives on

Dorothy Day was not perfect, but she was passionate. And that genuine desire to love and care for others is exactly what our world so desperately needs now.

In speaking on Day at an event in New York this January, Cardinal Dolan shared that “her very life is a sense of journey…it was a constant conversion of heart that she was never finished with.”

We are called to that same constant conversion of heart today. Day is a saint for our time, because the causes that she rallied for, poverty and war and the rampant influence of ignorance and hate, continue to prevail in our world.

We must take notice of what is going on around us and react to it. By looking to the example Day set, we can face the suffering in our world armed with the tools by which to heal it. We can each be a testament to the truth that saints are as much alive today as they were in the past.

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