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Dorothy Day: No Gingerbread Saint -- On the 30th Anniversary of Her Death

November 30, 2010
Thirty years ago, on November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day closed her eyes on this world.  I remember exactly where I was when I heard about her death. Her story had captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her.  I had met her and César Chavez several years before at a rally in Rochester, New York in support of farm workers who struggled for equality and justice.
Dorothy Day is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times.  Dorothy transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words.  She was born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. She 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.  The triggering event for Dorothy's conversion was the birth of her daughter.  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.  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 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 also 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.
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. The Servant of God, Dorothy Day, 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. On the thirtieth anniversary of her death, may she give us courage to defend the Catholic faith, and to to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb. May she intercede for us and inspire us to make a special place in our lives for the poor and to be passionate about justice and peace in the world today.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation