We live in an age caught between two cultures. Christendom died a number of years ago. What new culture will emerge remains to be seen, but the way is closed to the past. While some modern leaders are trying to bring the past back, the Holy Spirit is raising up new prophets who will speak God’s reality to our world in transition. Dorothy Day was such a prophet. Her words and life summed up the best of U.S. Catholicism and spoke it to a hungry world.
Born in 1897, she spent her young adult life working with the political left for social change. She became a Catholic when she was thirty, at the expense of the political work she loved. Five years later, after much anguish and prayer, she met Peter Maurin, who helped her find a new vehicle for responding to injustice and suffering. Together they began publishing the Catholic Worker newspaper and opened a hospitality house. She spent the last 48 years of her life as a Christian anarchist on the margins of society, where most prophets live.
In a church organized like a pyramid, military fashion, her Catholic Worker houses were small, informal, and decentralized. In a church obsessed with power and authority, she chose to confront issues, wherever possible, rather than authorities. “When I started the Catholic Worker,” she said, “I asked no permissions, expected no recognitions.” This approach took her down alternative paths where the church, weighed down with power and privilege, sometimes found it difficult to go. “The only way to live in any true security,” she would point out, “is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.”
“To read the Gospel with eyes wide open may be a perilous thing!” she admitted. She and her companions simply lived the Beatitudes, embracing voluntary poverty. Their poverty included bedbugs, roaches, and rats. She often spoke of foolishness for Christ’s sake, and, like St. Paul, called herself such a fool. “To attack poverty by preaching voluntary poverty seems like madness,” she said. “But again, it is direct action.”
Bishop O’Hara of Kansas City once told her, “You lead and we will follow.” Dorothy did lead. When bishops were wrong, she told them so. As prophet she opposed any use of religion as a prop for U.S. nationalism, capitalism, or militarism. “For twenty centuries, we have called ourselves Christians,” she said, “without even beginning to understand one-tenth of the Gospel. We have been taking Caesar for God and God for Caesar.” She and her companions were pacifists, beginning with the Spanish Civil War, through World War II, to Vietnam. “We are not going to win the masses to Christianity until we live it.”
A major source of suffering for Dorothy were church authorities, to whom she remained fiercely loyal all her life. Dorothy was well aware that the official church sometimes played harlot, but she never lost sight of the church as mother. Because her life was rooted firmly in the tradition of the church and its sacramental life, she was able to speak clearly to and for the Christian tradition.
“Don’t call me a saint!” she once said. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Dorothy died on November 29, 1980. Though Christians of many confessions recognize her as a saint and a prophet, the mark she left on the 20th Century remains more significant than that left by most of its popes and bishops. “Love is the measure by which we will be judged,” she said. Love was her life.