Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ellsberg On the Canonization of Dorothy Day, May, 2015

The Lamb Catholic Worker, Columbus, Ohio, Reprint

"Why I Support the Canonization of Dorothy Day" by Robert Ellsberg,
America Magazine. May 2015 also May 2015 NYC CW

In the early years of The Catholic Worker, the newspaper was largely
illustrated with Ade Bethune’s images of the saints. This was not just
for pious decoration. Depicted in modern dress, engaged in the works
of mercy, these figures literally illustrated what the editors were
trying to communicate through words and actions. The saints, as
Dorothy spoke of them, were our friends and companions, examples of
the Gospel in action. She devoted many years to writing a biography of
her favorite saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, exulting in the incredible
speed with which the Little Flower was canonized—a sign that she was
truly “the people’s saint.”

In discussing the saints, Dorothy always acknowledged their humanity,
their capacity for discouragement and sorrow, their mistakes and
failures, along with their courage and faithfulness. There is no doubt
she wished to take them off their pedestals, to show them as human
beings who nevertheless represented in their time the ideals and
spirit of the Gospel.

She was quite aware of the dangers of sentimental hagiography—the
“pious pap” that makes saints seem somehow less than fully human. She
quoted a text about the eating habits of the saints, which read,
“Blessed de Montfort sometimes shed tears and sobbed bitterly when
sitting at table to eat.” To this, she commented, “No wonder no one
wants to be a saint.”

She felt it was important that we tell the stories of “saints as they
really were, as they affected the lives of their times.” But it was
also important to underscore their radical challenge: how St.
Catherine of Siena confronted the pope; how St. Benedict promoted the
spirit of peace; how St. Francis met with the sultan in a mission of

When Gordon Zahn wrote about his discouragement with the bishops and
their failure to address the Vietnam War, she wrote: “In all history
popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power
loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the
saints that keep appearing all thru [sic] history who keep things

Above all, Dorothy believed that the canonized saints were those who
reminded us of our true vocation. “We are all called to be saints,”
she wrote, “and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the
name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is
some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting
off the old man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the
holy, the divine right there.” She acknowledged, sadly, that most
people nowadays, “if they were asked, would say diffidently that they
do not profess to be saints, indeed they do not want to be saints. And
yet the saint is the holy man, the ‘whole man,’ the integrated man. We
all wish to be that.”

One of the things that attracted her to St. Thérèse was that in her
Little Way she showed a path of holiness available to all people and
in all circumstances. Dorothy—who was born the same year that Thérèse
died—wished to make known the social implications of the Little Way:
“The significance of our smallest acts! The significance of the little
things we leave undone! The protests we do not make, the stands we do
not take, we who are living in the world.”

A New Kind of Saint

And what of the meaning of saints for the church? It is important to
recognize that in canonizing a saint, the church is not bestowing a
kind of posthumous “honor.” Canonization has no impact or import for
the saint herself. Canonization is really a gift the church makes to
itself. Through recognition of certain individuals—a minuscule number
compared to all those holy men and women known to God—the church is
challenged to enlarge its understanding of the Gospel, to provide new
models that people can relate to, examples who met the challenge of
discipleship in their own time and thus inspire us to do the same.

But as Simone Weil said, it is not nearly enough to be a saint; “We
must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment.” Early in
her life, Dorothy recognized the need for a new kind of saint. Even as
a child she noted how moved she was by the stories of saints who cared
for the poor, the sick, the leper. But another question arose in her
mind: “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding
it in the first place?... Where were the saints to try to change the
social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with
slavery?” It was a question to be answered with her own life.

In 1932, as she uttered her fateful prayer at the Basilica of the
Immaculate Conception, Dorothy sought an answer about how to integrate
her faith and her commitment to justice and the cause of the
oppressed. She prayed to make a synthesis of “body and soul, this
world and the next.” In effect she was seeking a model for how to
minister to the slaves while also working to do away with slavery.
Many saints had performed the works of mercy and poured themselves out
in charity. By combining her work for justice with the practice of
charity, Dorothy made an enormous gift to the church. No one coming
afterward would have to imagine what such a saint might look like.

But there are other gifts. By far the overwhelming majority of saints,
both in history and in recent times, have been priests and members of
religious orders. Of the 1,000 or so saints beatified or canonized
under Pope John Paul II the majority—apart from martyrs—were founders
or members of religious orders. Arguably, this reinforces the
stereotypical notion that religious life is a prerequisite for

Dorothy, in her deeply disciplined life of prayer and participation in
the sacramental life of the church, her embrace of voluntary poverty,
and her spirit of self-sacrifice and loving service, resembles many
saints who went before. Yet as a layperson, as a woman, as an
unmarried mother, as the founder and leader of a lay movement that has
always operated without any official authorization from the church, as
the publisher of a newspaper that presumed to take social positions
far in advance of the magisterium of her time, Dorothy Day represents
quite an unusual—and significant—candidate for canonization.

In her ecumenism, her commitment to liturgical renewal, her
affirmation of religious freedom and the rights of conscience, her
resistance to racism and anti-Semitism, and her prophetic
implementation of the church’s “preferential option for the poor,” she
anticipated so many themes of the Second Vatican Council and the
postconciliar church. And if there is now real thought about her
canonization, it is in part a reflection of how far the church has
traveled in catching up with her witness. That is something to

But there is more. Dorothy was inspired by the Gospel and the lives of
the saints to respond to the needs of her day—both the needs that
everyone could recognize (the Great Depression) but also the needs
that were overlooked by almost everyone else. Dorothy, more than
anyone, helped the church recover the forgotten peace message of
Jesus. She confronted war and violence in all its forms—not just in
words but in prophetic actions. In the purity of her vision and by her
courageous witness she continues to walk ahead, beckoning the church
to follow.

The Symbolism of Sainthood

There are inevitably symbolic or, if you will, political
considerations associated with the making of saints. There is always
the question, what lesson or message does the church wish to impart
through this canonization? The belated recognition of Oscar Romero as
a genuine martyr, and not just a pious churchman, is a significant
example. In naming Romero a martyr who died because of “hatred of the
faith,” the church acknowledges that he did not die for getting mixed
up in politics, as his ecclesial critics charged, but because he
faithfully followed the Gospel. Perhaps it is meaningful that this
pronouncement has awaited the pontificate of Pope Francis. In this
context, Romero walks ahead, beckoning us to fulfill the pope’s vision
of a church that is “poor and for the poor.”

By the same token, I believe this particular ecclesial season provides
a very special context for promoting the canonization of Dorothy Day.
Pope Francis, it seems to me, is the fulfillment of Dorothy’s dreams.
If she had let her imagination run free, she might have conceived of a
pope who took his name from St. Francis, who set out to renew the
church in the image of Jesus, promoting the centrality of mercy,
reconciliation and solidarity with those on the margins. So often she
criticized ecclesial trappings of power and privilege. How she would
have delighted in Francis’ gestures of humility, his call for
shepherds “who have the smell of the sheep,” his washing the feet of
prisoners (including women and Muslims), his tears on the island of
Lampedusa as he contemplated the deaths of nameless immigrants and
lambasted the “culture of indifference.” With her love for the Cuban
people, how she would have rejoiced in his role in overcoming decades
of intransigent enmity between the U.S. and Cuban governments. How, on
the eve of an imminent war with Syria, she would have eagerly
accompanied him in his vigil for peace. How moved she would be to
learn of his deep friendship with a Jewish rabbi, his love for opera
and Dostoevsky, and his exhortation to spread the “joy of the Gospel.”

Some have suggested that the new atmosphere under Pope Francis has put
wind in the sails of Dorothy’s canonization. But I would put it
another way. I think the cause of Dorothy’s canonization helps put
wind in the sails of the pope’s agenda. Support for her cause, in this
context, means more than keeping her memory alive. It contributes to
the ongoing program of renewal of the church—not for its own sake but
for the sake of a wounded world.

What of the concerns that canonization will cause her witness to be
watered down and homogenized? I think her full story—so inseparable
from her “message”—is clear and widely available. To be sure, there
has at times been a tendency on the part of some to put all too much
emphasis on her abortion, to make that experience a central feature in
the narrative of her journey from “sinner to saint.” In fact, as we
know, the driving force of Dorothy’s conversion was not shame over her
sins but gratitude for God’s grace. The turning point in her story was
not her abortion but the experience of becoming pregnant and giving
birth. In the end, I believe that canonization is the best insurance
that her story and the distinctive features of her holiness will be
remembered—not just in our time but far from now in the future. Just
as the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter lifts up the memory of his
“solitary witness,” so I believe the canonization process for Dorothy
Day will spread the story of her going to jail to protest civil
defense drills and the blasphemy of all preparations for nuclear war.
It will move her witness from the margins to the center of the
church’s memory.

The Making of a Legend

Of course, we regularly witness the domestication of radical prophets.
Francis of Assisi becomes the patron saint of bird baths. Martin
Luther King Jr. is universally remembered for his “dream” of a
post-racial America—but not for his critique of militarism and
capitalism. Dorothy Day is hardly exempt from this danger. Even while
she lived, Dorothy had to confront pious legend-making. She upbraided
Catherine de Hueck Doherty for promoting the myth that she shared her
bed with a syphilitic homeless woman. (Dorothy retorted, “I can’t even
sleep with my daughter, she wiggles too much!”) She was exasperated
with people who asked if she bore the stigmata or enjoyed visions.
(“Just visions of dirty dishes and unpaid bills!”) With or without
canonization, some people will always prefer the myth. The answer, I
think, is not to reject her canonization, but to assume the task of
proclaiming her story with all its radical edges, making sure that
nothing of her humanity is discarded.

But didn’t Dorothy say, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be
dismissed so easily”? I am astonished that so many people—even those
who would be hard-pressed to come up with another quote—can recite
those words (though their exact source is unclear). A real saint could
hardly have said otherwise. But in Dorothy’s case, this was more than
humility. She worried that people would put her up on a pedestal, that
they would believe her to be without faults, imagining that if she
performed seemingly difficult things, it was because they were not
really difficult for her—she, after all, being a saint. She felt this
was a way for people to dismiss her witness and let themselves off the
hook. She didn’t believe she was better than other people. She didn’t
believe people should set out to imitate her. They should look to
Christ as their model. All Christians were called to “put off the old
person and put on Christ,” to conform their lives to the pattern of
the Gospel, to respond to their own call to holiness—whatever form
that might take.

I once heard her say, “When they call you a saint, it means basically
that you are not to be taken seriously.” But when Dorothy used the
word saint, she certainly wasn’t indicating someone to be dismissed
easily; on the contrary, a saint was someone to be taken with the
utmost seriousness.

Still, there is a natural cynicism that arises in relation to this
process, with all its elaborate bureaucracy, protocol and, yes,
expense. Ken Woodward, in Making Saints, acknowledged this issue in
his chapter on Dorothy Day. Whereas the usual question with regard to
a potential saint is whether the candidate is worthy of the process,
in the case of Dorothy Day there is a suspicion that the process is
not worthy of her. Perhaps, some might say, it is better that she
remain a “people’s saint”—not an officially canonized figure.

Before initiating her cause, Cardinal O’Connor conducted a series of
conversations with people who knew her (sadly, many of them no longer
with us). I was privileged to be part of those discussions. I was
deeply moved by Cardinal O’Connor’s humility in discussing his
admiration for a woman he had never met. He took the discussion very
seriously, noting that if God meant for Dorothy to be called a saint,
he could not live with himself if he had stood in the way. But at the
same time he made it clear what it meant if we proceeded:
canonization, he noted, is a “process of the church.” If we weren’t
comfortable with that, he said, there was no point in going forward.
Those present, who included many of Dorothy’s close friends and
associates, listened to what he said; none of us raised an objection.

Since then it has become clearer that there are in fact significant
expenses involved in pursuing the lengthy process of
canonization—legal fees, the costs of official transcripts and such.
The Archdiocese of New York has made a sizeable contribution; other
funds will be raised by the Dorothy Day Guild, without any impact on
contributions intended for the Catholic Worker.

We may stand aloof from her canonization on the grounds that she is
“too good” for this process. But if we do, we should probably
recognize that this is not an attitude Dorothy would be inclined to
share. She certainly challenged and criticized the church for its
failings. It was, as she liked to quote Romano Guardini, “the cross on
which Christ was crucified.” But for her the church was the mystical
body of Christ, of which she was also a member. She had enough
knowledge of her own sins and failings to include herself among all
those called to penance and conversion.

The story of Dorothy is becoming known around the world. In the United
States she is undoubtedly more widely known and respected than at any
time since her death, or even in her lifetime. In recent years stories
about her have appeared in almost every Catholic magazine, and many
conferences have focused on her thought. Some may worry that Dorothy
is being appropriated by elements in the church that do not share all
her radical positions. It became clear to me long ago that Dorothy did
not “belong” just to the Catholic peace movement, any more than she
belongs solely to the Catholic Worker movement. I frankly welcome the
occasion she offers to unite disparate and sometimes polarized
elements in the church.

But ultimately the question of Dorothy’s canonization is not about
drawing greater attention to her, but whether, through her witness,
more attention will be drawn to Jesus and more people will be inspired
to comprehend and joyfully embrace his message of radical love. I
believe the answer is yes. That is why I support her canonization.

Robert Ellsberg is the editor in chief and publisher of Orbis Books.
From 1976 to 1978 he was the managing editor of The Catholic Worker,
where he served alongside Dorothy Day. This article is adapted from an
article in the May 2015 issue of The Catholic Worker.

Orbis Books
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Maryknoll, NY 10545
tel: 914-941-7636 x 2210