US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Let's canonize Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, canonization, saint, Salt magazine, Claretians, Henry Fehren

By Father Henry Fehren | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
With this 1983 article Claretian Publications began a grassroots effort to promote the official declaration of Dorothy Day as a saint.

Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cypnan, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmos and Damian - remember them? For centuries they were listed in the canon of the Mass. They are still part of the canon (eucharistic prayer) Number 1, but their names may be omitted. Although the names were repeated millions of times, I doubt that they meant much to the worshipers.

A few saints survive over the centuries, but others are no longer an aid to devotion. Just as different truths of the faith are emphasized in different times of the church's history, so some saints seem to be suited for certain times. Certainly a saint for our time and place is Dorothy Day.

So let's canonize her now.

In 1939, when I was a sophomore in college, I spent a week at the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Minneapolis. I had been reading The Catholic Worker paper for some years (it began publishing in 1933) and admired Dorothy Day's ideas and her work. I first met her in 1949, at the Catholic Worker house in Chicago when I was on a trip to New York. When I arrived in New York she was back there, for Peter Maurin had died. The sight of her sitting in prayer in the dim light before Peter's coffin late at night is a picture I can never forget.

Since then I have visited her and the Catholic Worker houses frequently-until just before her death on November 30, 1980. She had been a guest in my rectory and had spoken to my rural parish. I always considered her a saint.

What impressed me most was her perseverance-year after year living an austere life in the grimmest of conditions, being jailed again and again, never giving up in doing the works of mercy, never getting cynical, never letting her love of God and people dissolve. Anyone can be saintly for a week or two, or even a year, but to persevere from youth through old age, to remain on the cross until death-that is a mark of true holiness.

Of course, I did not live in the house or work side by side with her. Close associates can tell whether a person is a saint or not. As Stanley Vishnewski, who lived in the New York house, used to say, "Each of our communities is comprised of saints, and the martyrs who must live with the saints." But those who worked day by day, side by side with her consider her a saint—"fun to be with," said one associate.

But I would not have her canonized just because she is a saint. There were and are many saints around, holy people quietly following in the footsteps of Christ. And we read daily of all the martyrs in communist countries or living under fascist dictatorships in South and Central America, the Philippines, etc. Saints.

I am for the canonization of Dorothy Day now because it would keep her memory alive and because more people would learn about her and be inspired and strengthened by her. St. Augustine said that funeral customs were more for the living than for the dead; and canonization also is not to benefit the dead but the living.

Dorothy is a saint for our times because she is a laywoman. Most of the canonized saints and saints by acclamation are nuns, brothers, priests, and bishops; yet the church is almost entirely made up of laypeople, and the emphasis in our time is on the work and responsibility of the laypeople in the church.

But more important than that, Dorothy was an independent layperson. She did not ask church officials for permission to do her works of mercy. She published a monthly paper, called it The Catholic Worker, and never submitted the text to the chancery office for censorship. She was always loyal to the church but always responsible to Christ. The Holy Spirit came upon her as much as he did upon any church officeholder.

Nor did she found a religious order, as so many holy women of strong character had in the past. She didn't organize and she didn't make rules and regulations. She lived with the freedom within the church which every Catholic should have. She was at Mass and Communion every day no matter what liturgical change took place. She was a mature Christian who meditated on the gospels and made her own decisions.

She is a saint for our time because of her thorough opposition to war and the means of war. When she opposed military conscription at the time of World War II, her popularity decreased greatly and subscriptions to The Catholic Worker dropped precipitously; but she stuck to her guns (a phrase she would abhor!). She was totally opposed to the Vietnam War and we see her wisdom now. As we prepare to spend more billions for the military we need her now. Even the American bishops have finally issued a pastoral letter in opposition to nuclear war. They need her for a patron!

And we need her as a saint now, a contemporary of ours, to assure us that we too can be saints-now. When people told her that she was a saint, she said that she did not want to be dismissed that easily. She did not want to be thought of as having special graces, as being able to do things that other merely human beings could not do. Distance lends enchantment, and in the past we thought of saints as somehow more than human. It excused us from being saints. But Dorothy lived in our age, with the same fragilities, fears, weaknesses, doubts, and problems that we all have. We need her for a realistic ideal.

"How to love," she wrote in one issue of The Catholic Worker, "that is the question." She answered that question by her life.

In ancient times some saints were declared such by acclamation by the people. Later on it could take a hundred years and more for Rome to declare someone a saint. Others, more recently, such as Therese of Lisieux, Maria Goretti, Dominic Savio, Mother Cabrini, and Maximilian Kolbe, were declared saints in much less time.

Religious orders often promoted the canonization of "holy mother foundress" or other members of the order. Dorothy's followers, obviously, have neither the money nor the organization to promote her cause. But on January 25 Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic constitution, followed by two documents on February 7, which allows laypeople to promote canonizations. A Vatican representative said that the new procedure will allow a candidate to achieve, a church declaration of sainthood in as little as ten years.

While on a trip through Poland a few years ago I saw pictures of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who gave his life for another prisoner in a concentration camp, in every church I visited. (We could do likewise with Dorothy's picture.) His subsequent canonization last year made his name and deeds known throughout the Christian world. For our good, Dorothy's life, thoughts, and deeds, her way of following Christ in our time need to be more widely known. Canonization would ensure that.

I have heard that the saintly, courageous Jesuit, Father Daniel Berrigan, prays to her. Let's join him.

Saint Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Originally published in the September 1983 issue of Salt magazine, ©Claretian Publications.