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Radical, Pacifist and Catholic: Dorothy Day on the Call to Be Saints

12/05/2012 02:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

On Dec. 1 National Public Radio led off its morning news program by referencing Dorothy Day, just the latest report by a news media fascinated that the U.S. bishops unanimously endorsed the canonization cause of this anarchist/pacifist/radical Catholic who famously said, "Don't call me a saint; I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

Leader of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day was a realist -- a journalist, a New Yorker impatient with saccharine sentimentality -- and she knew that people reflexively regard saints as plaster-cast paragons of perfection. But Dorothy Day also loved the saints, venerated the saints and wrote more than once that "we are all called to be saints." For instance, in 1974, she said,

When the Canadian Broadcasting Co. invited me to be on their "Man Alive" program last month and the subject they wanted me to talk about was Saints (and what it felt like to be on occasion termed a Saint), I groaned at first, reacted rudely, and then consented. ... Because I really do have plenty to say on the subject. St. Paul greeted people in his letters as "called to be saints," and the Quakers have a saying, "There is that which is of God in everyman." In other words, seeing Christ in each other, as He told us to do. "Whatever you did for one of my least brethren, you have done for me."

She cited the example of Catholic Workers who "so often apply these words to the works of mercy -- feeding, clothing and sheltering others," but then she added,

Those in trouble who come to the Catholic Worker do the same for us and each other. The "little" saints like Hans who taught everyone to bake bread, and Mike who was so knowledgeable about furnaces and water heaters ... What a variety of people are "called to be saints" -- crotchety, giddy, cranky ones, bibulous ones. It is no mean ambition -- to aspire to holiness -- to wholeness.

Dorothy Day made clear that she also turned for inspiration to the Church's official saints, adding, "I love to read about the saints. In all bad times of luxury and corruption in the Church, there was always a St. Francis, a St. Anthony, a St. Benedict, a Vincent de Paul, a Teresa and a Therese on the scene to enliven history." Today, meanwhile, many a dispirited Catholic looks to Dorothy Day to "enliven" a Church in deep crisis.

Still, the article soon returned to the theme of all being called to be saints. Day cited George Bernanos' aphorism, "There is only one sadness, not to be a saint," adding, "Pope John XXIII wrote to his family, 'The worst malady of all is sadness...'"

Then to us, her readers, she confided, "When I write like this, it is for myself, too, that I write, because this last month, after returning from my pilgrimage, my heart was heavy with the sufferings of little babies undergoing major operations -- that is hardest for me to bear."

Heart-to-heart she speaks to us, saying, "So let us pray for each other and 'rejoice' because we share in some way the sufferings of others, and in some mysterious way lighten our own as we pray that the sufferings of others be lightened."

Dorothy Day practiced a tremendous prayer life of daily Mass, devotions and meditation, and she often made note of the saint whose feast fell on a given day in the Church year. The saint whose day is Dec. 1, the date of that NPR report on her, happens to be Edmund Campion. In her December Catholic Worker column for 1968, Dorothy Day noted Campion's feast day, writing that the Jesuit "was, back in England in 1580, a true underground priest ... knowing that sooner or later he would be captured, tortured or killed."

This got her thinking about "Father Dan Berrigan, also a Jesuit, and his approaching martyrdom of three years in prison for destroying draft records," even as she acknowledged the controversy associated with this tactic, adding, "I will leave it to our readers." She urged them to read the book of saints' writings, edited by "a good friend of the Catholic Worker," that provided the Campion quote "which started me on this chain of reflection."

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Dorothy Day, speaking at an antiwar rally where draft cards were burned (mostly by Catholic Workers). She cited pacifist trailblazer A.J. Muste and St. Francis of Assisi.

[Photo by Diane Jo Davies]

Daniel Berrigan, S.J., now in his 90s, continued his nonviolent actions until a few years ago. And just this week, some Catholic Worker soul mates of Berrigan's were arrested in their ongoing protests of Drone attacks ("Anti-Drone Activists Could Get 7 Years for 'Irritating' US Air Force Colonel").

Meantime, Berrigan opposed the canonization idea when it was first raised a dozen years ago -- this out of concern that Dorothy Day's story would be distorted. And today it seems the bishops often emphasize her anti-abortion stance even though Dorothy Day spoke on issues of peace and economic justice hundreds of times more often, sometimes risking jail in the process.

But a saint cannot be put in a box. Take the case of Saint Therese of Lisieux: the subject of many a kewpie-doll statue, and initially dismissed by Dorothy Day herself. At first she preferred more outwardly heroic saints to this cloistered nun in the French provinces who died in her twenties, but she eventually came to see Therese as a towering spiritual figure.

In her only biographical book, "Therese," Dorothy Day aimed to bring to ordinary readers the message of this saint's Little Way: that we should try to do each and every act in the spirit of love. Or as Day herself put it in the conclusion of her spiritual memoir "The Long Loneliness":

The final word is love ... We cannot love God unless we love one another. And to love we must know one another. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet, even with a crust, where there is companionship.