US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The gifts of Saint Dorothy Day: An interview with Robert Ellsberg

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Dorothy DayYou have spoken out strongly in favor of canonizing Dorothy Day. How is she a saint for today?

Dorothy herself had a tremendous veneration for the saints. Her daily speech and her writings were filled with references to many saints. To her they were not superhumans but constant companions and guides. It was through working with her at the Catholic Worker that I was first exposed in any depth to the stories of the saints. She talked about saints as if they were members of her family or community, and I believe it is perfectly natural to speak of her in that company.

The life and example of Dorothy Day speaks to our time in a very special way. Through her combination of a passion for social justice and peace and devotion to the church she can be a saint of common ground for the church today.

What are the special gifts a Saint Dorothy Day would bring to the church and the world today?

The first one is her life's vocation of combining charity with justice. She remarked once how as a child she had been drawn to stories of saints, especially how they fed the hungry and performed works of mercy. But she had also wondered, "Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?"

Dorothy didn't just serve the poor, but asked why we have a society that creates so many poor people and set herself in opposition to the structures that result in so much injustice.

Her second gift, I think, was her rediscovery and commitment to the ideal of gospel nonviolence. She took the command to love your enemies seriously, not just as a counsel of perfection for a select few, but as a standard for Christian discipleship, which put her very much at odds with the mainstream.

For years and through one war after another, she maintained an almost solitary witness of peace that challenged and enlarged the conscience of the church. To a great extent she has helped the church to recover its ancient, venerable tradition of pacifism, so that today in the United States as well as in the universal church it is again recognized and honored as a gospel-inspired option for Christians.

Her third gift, which may not seem so remarkable today but was certainly so in her own time, is her example of lay leadership and lay apostolate in the church. She pioneered a new understanding of the call to laypeople to reflect on, live out, and witness to gospel values in their day-to-day personal, social, and public lives. She did not ask for any consent or permission from the hierarchy but simply invented her own way of just going out and living the radical implications of her faith.

The list of canonized saints is notoriously weak on presenting models of holiness among the laity. And when the church has occasionally canonized laypeople, they often tended to be quasi-monks or nuns. In Dorothy Day we have a saint who truly experienced the joys and sorrows of family life, motherhood, and life in a somewhat raucous community. She is a saint whose conversion was prompted by the experience of pregnancy and the joy of love.

Dorothy did not believe that holiness was to be achieved just in the cloister, but that holiness was right there around the kitchen table, right there chopping vegetables for the soup, right there dealing with people in your community complaining, and right there in your child who is mad at you. So the fact that she consecrated those options is very important.

Underlying all that, I think if you want to look at Dorothy Day as a teacher for our time, a Doctor of the church, she showed us with her life the radical implications of the Incarnation, the radical consequences of our faith that God really became a human being and entered into history so that everything has a sacramental dimension. That had many implications for social justice, but she expressed it not just in her service to the poor, but it was also a dimension she brought to welcoming people at the door, to writing, to cooking, or to just sitting on the beach.