Today during their annual General Assembly in Baltimore, the Bishops of the United States engaged in a canonical consultation regarding the cause for canonization of Dorothy Day, a pacifist and convert to Catholicism from New York City. This unprecedented canonical consultation was a procedural step in the process toward canonization. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and head of the Archdiocese of New York, was seeking the consultation of the full body of bishops. Dorothy Day already carries the title “Servant of God,” a designation awarded by the Vatican when it gave her cause a Nihil Obstat, that is, a formal declaration that the Vatican has no objection to the cause moving forward. This afternoon, the American bishops gave unanimous voice through their vote to proceed with the sainthood cause for Dorothy Day. Alleluia. Deo gratias.
Dorothy Day’s story captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her. I met her once at a rally in Rochester, New York, along with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times. She transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words. Born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labor unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love. Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. At the same time she experienced failed love affairs, a marriage and a suicide attempt. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamara in 1926. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.
For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all dependent entirely upon donations. She dedicated her life fighting for justice for the homeless in New York City and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried. She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, thirty-two years ago at Maryhouse in New York City, where she spent her final months among the poor. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.
In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote:
“It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a “gingerbread” saint or a “holy card” saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.”
The conversion of mind and heart that she exemplified speaks volumes to all women today on two fronts. First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.
Cardinal O’Connor said of her:
“…Like so many saints of days gone by, she was an idealist in a non-ideal world. It was her contention that men and women should begin to live on earth the life they would one day lead in heaven, a life of peace and harmony. Much of what she spoke of in terms of social justice anticipated the teachings of Pope John Paul II and lends support to her cause.”
In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, (Truth in Charity), the Holy Father addresses clearly the dignity and respect for human life:
“Openness to life is at the centre of true development.” “When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
Pope Benedict sums up the current global economic crisis in a remarkable way with these words:
“Human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs.” (32)
Such words were given flesh and blood in the life of the Servant of God, Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. She procured an abortion before her conversion to the faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life. May this prophetic woman of our own time give us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb. Dorothy Day, please continue to inspire us. Teach us to love the Word of God and live by it. Move us. Shake us up. Show us how to cherish the gift of human life. May we never forget that we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us. Lead us to love the poor in our midst. Pray for us!