When I heard the news that the U.S. Bishops had heartily endorsed the advancement of the sainthood cause of Dorothy Day at their annual Fall General Assembly in Baltimore, my heart leapt for joy that this remarkable 20th century Catholic lay woman was at last being recognized as a true model of holiness. Since the year 2000, when Cardinal John O’Connor, then-archbishop of New York, first submitted Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization to the Vatican, she has been called a "Servant of God," a title she may have been a bit more comfortable with than "saint," though her humility would no doubt have resisted both.
In bringing forth her cause for sainthood to the whole body of Bishops at the annual Fall General Assembly in Baltimore, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a successor of Cardinal O’Connor, referred to Dorothy not only as a saint but as “a saint for our time.” Cardinal Dolan and the other Bishops who spoke during the consultation called Day’s sainthood cause an opportune moment in the life of the U.S. church.
I have found myself pondering what makes this so true, what makes this pronouncement so timely for us, as church, amid our present struggles and hopes? Like many others, I have long been inspired and challenged by Dorothy Day’s radical embrace of Catholicism in all its dimensions of belief, worship, discipleship and prayer, a faith-tradition she adopted after a tumultuous life that bore many of the scars of “the modern dilemma.”
Hearing her speak at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976, reflecting on her writings over the years, seeing her legacy continue through Catholic Worker kitchens, shelters and newspapers around the country today, sharing her labyrinthine journey with contemporary college students, who find her as captivating as I do—these are some of the ways that Dorothy Day’s spirituality has informed, inspired and stayed gracefully interwoven in my life.
But only more recently has it occurred to me, brought into special focus by the Bishops’ consultation, that Dorothy Day is, above all, a unifying figure, one whose life eloquently testifies to the spiritual power of her “complete Catholicism.” Dorothy’s way of holiness combined faith and life, contemplation and action, prayer and prophetic witness, eucharistic worship and social justice.
She heard the Psalmist’s call to "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10), thus nourishing her deep contemplative experience of God’s gracious love. She heeded as well the Prophet’s exhortation to "Act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8), thus living the works of mercy, standing in solidarity with the homeless and the worker, speaking out for justice and peace.
As we find ourselves too-often inundated by divisions and polarizations, Dorothy’s life reminds us of the small ‘c’ in our catholic tradition, a tradition that turns us away from “either/or” and urges us toward “both/and”—both Mary and Martha, both a spirituality of interiority and a life of service, both worship and works, both an openness to the grace of the sacraments and an awareness of the graces of the world.
Incredibly, tragically, this garment has been rent. Complementarity has given way to conflict, spawning competitive litmus tests of what church is, or is not. Dorothy Day shows us another way, a way of holiness and wholeness that is catholic as well as Catholic, seeking Oneness in both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the Cross.
Dorothy Day is indeed a saint for our time, a saint our time urgently needs.
Peggy McDonald, IHM