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29 May 2021

Dorothy Day, the Discourse of the Beatitudes as a manifesto


“We will print the words of Christ who is always with us. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and slander you, so that you may be a child of your Father in Heaven, who makes the sun rise on the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”.  The author of these words is Dorothy Day, the American libertarian, activist and politically committed journalist. It was 1942 when she penned the following indelible lines in an editorial in the Catholic Worker, “We are still pacifists. We will continue our pacifist Christian resistance. Our pacifism is the Sermon on the Mount, so we will not take part in armed wars or in the production of munitions, nor will we buy government bonds to prosecute the war, nor will we urge others to make such efforts”.

For decades in the last century, Dorothy Day was the most troublesome figure in American Catholicism. According to the historian David O’Brien, she was even “the most important, interesting and influential figure in the history of American Catholicism”, in fact, so important that the FBI considered her to be dangerous. Dorothy Day became a Catholic in 1927, and in 1935, together with Peter Maurin, she founded The Catholic Worker, a Catholic periodical that in two years grew from 2,500 to 150,000 copies. The journal is still published today and has become the epicenter of the vast Catholic Worker movement. The perspective was not only editorial, but founded on two levels of intervention; the first, the clarification of thought through the press; the second, the creation of houses for the poor, and agricultural communes after taking on the features of a community dotted with solidarity centres. This was a movement that wanted to serve the poor, the discarded and, at the same time, challenge the hierarchies that were the cause of so many inequalities. This was paralleled with the pacifist commitment on various fronts, whether it was the cold war, nuclear terror, Cuba, or Vietnam.

Born on 8 November 1897 at 71 Pineapple Street in Brooklyn, a stone’s throw from the famous bridge, Dorothy Day remained a woman of action throughout her life. She never stopped protesting against social injustice and did so as a Catholic believer, and as a mystic. She is the one who was cited by Pope Francis in 2015 in Washington at the Congressional seat among the figures who “have shaped fundamental values and will remain forever in the spirit of the American people” along with Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Trappist Thomas Merton. In addition, she probably represented the greatest commitment to the application of the teachings on economic and social justice and the evil of the arms race. A militant believer, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the unemployed and homeless. Consistently at the side of the vulnerable, the numbers of which soared following the economic crisis of 1929 and the Great Depression. Here is Dorothy Day, a sort of radical conscience of the American Catholic Church and not only of that time, and who did not slow down even with advancing age. A life of action and thought, marked by the dynamism of charity, and by a mystical dimension of a constant relationship with Christ that ended at the age of 83.

Imbued with the discourse of the Beatitudes, hers is an adventure not to be forgotten. A woman of faith who was not exempt from restlessness; however, she never doubted the faith that calls everyone to service.

Dorothy Day began this adventure in 1927 when she was going through a profound crisis. She found herself caught between a yearning to live her faith by dedicating herself to the victims of social injustice and a Catholic Church that did not seem to uphold this as a priority, almost as if it were afraid of getting its hands dirty with the lowly. On December 8, 1932, she went to the sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and prayed. The response was not long in coming. The next day, on her return to New York, she found a certain someone waiting for her. That person was Peter Maurin, a Catholic of French origin who came to her with the idea of creating a Catholic social movement in the United States, and who was looking for a person who could write well and share his ideas and the project. It was from this providential meeting that the Catholic Worker Movement was founded, and its periodical made its debut: First distributed May 1, 1933 in Union Square in Manhattan, at the height of the Great Depression. The newspaper was sold at the symbolic price of one cent and has remained at the same price to this day, and has as its pursuit a line of support for workers and trade unions by referring to the first social encyclicals. With its strong realism and farsightedness, in anticipating the times, it is strongly critical of certain aspects of waste-producing industrialisation and consumerism contrary to the healthy formation of the person. At the same time as the homeless were being accommodated in the Manhattan house, a number of farms were acquired where, in a community of families, manual work and contact with nature were promoted. Following the rapid spread of the newspaper to the various dioceses and parishes, other homes were opened throughout the United States.

In the 1960s, Dorothy Day visited Italy three times, twice during the Second Vatican Council in 1963 to support the Council Fathers’ call for a strong stance in favour of peace, and once in 1967 when she received communion in person from Paul VI. As proof of the esteem in which she is held in the American Catholic world, in 1976 she gave a speech at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, and the following year, on her eightieth birthday, she received personal greetings from Paul VI . In 1979, she received a visit from Mother Teresa of Calcutta in New York.

In her autobiography she wrote, “When I die I hope people will say that I have tried to remember what Jesus told us - his wonderful stories - and I have tried to live according to His example and also following the wisdom of writers and artists like Dickens, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who lived always thinking of Jesus”. A saint for today’s times? “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily”, she once said.

The cause for canonisation supported by the diocese of New York is currently underway. As Cardinal John J. O’Connor said when he prepared the cause in 2000, “I don’t want to have it on my conscience that I didn’t do something that God wanted me to do”. However, he does not seem to have made any progress since then.

In the Staten Island cemetery chapel, on the stained glass windows depicting American saints, her profile is already there. Dorothy Day certainly remains a credible witness, an example to look up to in a world where the division between rich and poor has reached even more insane disproportions than when she denounced it.  A prophetic witness in the light of the latest encyclicals Laudato si' and Fratelli tutti of the current Successor of Peter. Above all for having the Beatitudes at her side in whatever she did.

On November 29, 1980, while suffering from a heart condition, Dorothy Day died in Maryhouse, the women’s home in New York. Many journalists were present at her funeral. One of them said, “She lived as if the truth were actually true”. Another asked Peggy Scherer, editor of the Catholic Worker, whether the movement would continue without its founder, “We have lost Dorothy,” she replied, “but we still have the Gospel”.

Dorothy Day was buried on Staten Island in an oceanfront meadow not far from the beach where her conversion took place. On the small tombstone, decorated with a design of loaves and fishes that had often been used for the Catholic Worker, are engraved the only two words Dorothy chose: Deo Gratias.

By Stefania Falasca
A Journalist for the Italian national newspaper, Avvenire