Dorothy Day said we are all called to be saints. So why didn’t she want us to officially name her one?
Dorothy Day died 41 years ago yesterday at her beloved Maryhouse in New York City, surrounded by the poor whom she served for so many years in a life soon to be officially recognized as saintly. On Dec. 8 in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Timothy Dolan will preside at a Mass to commemorate the advancement of Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization to Rome. Though famously reticent to describe herself as one (“Don’t call me a saint,” she once said, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”), a saint is how many remember Dorothy Day today, even if it takes some time for Rome to get around to it. In addition to those who can testify personally to her holiness, her decades of direct service to the poor through The Catholic Worker movement and political activism have been chronicled in many a biography (here’s a primer from America), as well as in her own writings.
Dorothy Day: “We are all called to be saints, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name."
From 2012 to 2017, I worked as an editor at Orbis Books, the Maryknoll-sponsored publishing house devoted to publishing books on social justice, Christian liberation, and every emerging theological movement of the past half-century. My boss at Orbis was the publisher and editor in chief, Robert Ellsberg, who had been a close friend of Dorothy and the managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper in the late 1970s; among his many literary efforts has been a decades-long project to bring all of Dorothy’s writings to a larger public. We perhaps all know of her memoir, The Long Loneliness; but less often read are her diaries, her articles (including several for America; she will surely be the first saint to author a text on why Catholics don’t understand communism) and her other publications throughout her life. (She also joins Bruce Springsteen, Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor among authors we here at America just can’t get enough of.)
In 2015, Ellsberg wrote an essay for America on why he supported the canonization of Dorothy Day. “If I take the opportunity now to explain my reasons, it is not to change the minds of those who believe Dorothy Day is unworthy to be called a saint,” he wrote. “There are some, for instance, who believe that she was a heretic, a secret Communist or, in the words of the state senator from Virginia who felt compelled to warn the pope, a woman of ‘loathsome character.’ Those for whom I write are instead the many deep admirers and even followers of Dorothy Day who have no doubts about her holiness but are skeptical or suspicious of the process of canonization.” Why? Some of Dorothy’s followers fear that by naming her a saint the church will turn her into “a pious cutout—shorn of her prophetic and radical edges—or use her to promote some agenda that was not her own. Others question the investment of resources that might better be used for the poor.”
Dorothy Day: "The saint is the holy man, the ‘whole man,’ the integrated man. We all wish to be that.”
Part of Ellberg’s reasoning for supporting the cause—beyond his conviction that she was indeed a saint—came from his study of her own writings. “We are all called to be saints,” she had once written, “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.” Furthermore, she recognized the sad reality that many people no longer sought holiness in their lives: They, “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.” That is some food for thought for anyone who thinks a life of Christian discipleship is a hindrance to becoming a fully integrated person.
Dorothy also spoke truth to power—which is certainly why powerful men have stooped to calling her loathsome—and her targets were sometimes the princes of the church. “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,” she once wrote. “It is the saints that keep appearing all thru [sic] history who keep things going.” (NB: This quote may possibly not appear in Cardinal Dolan’s homily next week.)
A 4,500-passenger boat on the Staten Island Ferry line is named for Dorothy Day. It’s fitting, isn’t it—the Staten Island Ferry is that most communist of plots: a free public amenity.
In 2020, Mike Mastromatteo wrote a review for America of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, a new biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. “The same woman who attended Mass every day of her adult life, refused to hear any criticism of the Pope, and accepted Vatican teachings on all matters concerning sex, birth control, and abortion,” he quotes the authors, “could be blistering in her remarks about priests who lived in well-appointed rectories and turned a blind eye to racial segregation in their own parishes, bishops who were allies of the rich and powerful, and Catholic writers who viewed patriotism and faith as equivalent virtues, who were more concerned with the threat of ‘godless Communism’ than the needs of the poor.”
Diligent readers of America may recall that official recognition of Dorothy Day’s saintly life came from the mayor of New York City before it came from the Vatican: On March 25, 2021, Bill de Blasio announced that a 4,500-passenger boat on the Staten Island Ferry line will be named for Dorothy Day. It’s fitting, isn’t it—the Staten Island Ferry is that most communist of plots: a free public amenity.
For podcast listeners, more on Dorothy Day can be found in this bonus episode of the award-winning America podcast “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church,” in which Michael J. O’Loughlin visits a Catholic Worker House in Syracuse, N.Y., to explore how Dorothy Day’s movement responded to the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis.
Santo subito! And while we’re at it, ¡viva la revolución!
If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- Phil Klay sounds like Pope Francis
- Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is it Sally Rooney?
- Jonathan Franzen writes the American Middlemarch
James T. Keane