Called to Be Saints: Why I support the canonization of Dorothy Day
Cardinal John O’Connor announced in 2000 that the Vatican had accepted his petition to initiate the cause for the beatification and canonization of Dorothy Day. With this approval, she received the title Servant of God. Progress on her cause continued under Cardinal Edward Egan, who established the Dorothy Day Guild, and even more under Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Along with soliciting support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he has recently taken a number of steps to advance the process, including the initiative of personally commending her life and writings to Pope Francis.
I have supported this cause. 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. 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. Some worry that in making Dorothy Day 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. Still others feel that the whole process violates her own wishes; after all, didn’t she famously say, “Don’t call me a saint...”?
I can identify with such concerns, some of which I have heard from friends and people I respect. Before addressing them, I would begin by reflecting on what saints meant to Dorothy and on what, I think, the process of saint-making means for the church.
Drawing Out Love
It would be hard to exaggerate the role that saints played in the life of Dorothy Day and the origins of the Catholic Worker. Peter Maurin told her that the best way to study Catholic history was through the saints—those who most faithfully embodied the spirit of Christ. Inspired by Peter Maurin and her reading of lives of the saints, Dorothy was emboldened to launch the Catholic Worker with the means at hand, not waiting for funding or any official approval. Constantly she invoked the saints as patrons and intercessors, “picketing” before St. Joseph when funds ran dry, calling on the assistance of the Blessed Mother in coping with the problems in her Catholic Worker family. The saints cropped up constantly in her speech and writings, almost as if they were personal acquaintances: the “perfect joy of St. Francis”; the exuberance of St. Teresa, who said, “I am so grateful a person that I can be bribed with a sardine”; the mystical ardor of St. John of the Cross, who said, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw love out.”
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 reconciliation.
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 going.”
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 holiness.
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 celebrate.
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.