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Dorthy Day

.. d that, in contrast with most charitable centers, no one at the Catholic Worker set about reforming them. A crucifix on the wall was the only unmistakable evidence of the faith of those welcoming them. The staff received only food, board and occasional pocket money. The Catholic Worker became a national movement.

By 1936 there were 33 Catholic Worker houses spread across the country. Due to the Depression, plenty of people needed them. The Catholic Worker attitude toward those who were welcomed wasn’t always appreciated. These weren’t the deserving poor, it was sometimes objected, but drunkards and good-for-nothings. A visiting social worker asked Day how long the clients were permitted to stay. We let them stay forever, Day answered with a fierce look in her eye.

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They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some justified their objections with biblical quotations. Didn’t Jesus say that the poor would be with us always? Yes, Day once replied, but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God’s, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change. The Catholic Worker also experimented with farming communes.

In 1935 a house with a garden was rented on Staten Island. Soon after came the Mary Farm in Easton, Pennsylvania. This a property, was eventually given up because of strife within the community. Another farm was purchased in upstate New York near Newburgh. Called the Maryfarm Retreat House, it was destined for a longer life. Later came the Maurin Peter Farm on Staten Island, later moved to Tivoli and then to Marlborough, both in the Hudson Valley.

Day came to see the vocation of the Catholic Worker was not so much to found model agricultural communities as rural houses of hospitality. Pacifism caused Day the most trouble. A nonviolent way of life, as she saw it, was at the heart of the Gospel. Like the early church she too seriously the command of Jesus to Maurin: Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. For many centuries the Catholic Church had accommodated itself to war. Popes had blessed armies and preached Crusades. In the thirteenth century St.

Francis of Assisi had revived the pacifist way, but by the twentieth century, it was unknown for Catholics to take such a position. The Catholic Worker’s first expression of pacifism, published in 1935, was a dialogue between a patriot and Christ, the patriot dismissing Christ’s teaching as a noble but impractical doctrine. The fascist side, led by Franco, presented itself as defender of the Catholic faith. Nearly every Catholic bishop and publication rallied behind Franco. The Catholic Worker, refusing to support either side in the war, lost two-thirds of its readers.

Those backing Franco, Day warned early in the war, ought to take another look at recent events in [Nazi] Germany. She expressed anxiety for the Jews and later was among the founders of the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, Dorothy announced that the paper would maintain its pacifist stand. We will print the words of Christ who is with us always, Day wrote. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount. Opposition to the war, she added, had nothing to do with sympathy for America’s enemies.

We love our country… We have been the only country in the world where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. But the means of action the Catholic Worker movement supported were the works of mercy rather than the works of war. She urged our friends and associates to care for the sick and the wounded, to the growing of food for the hungry, to the continuance of all our works of mercy in our houses and on our farms. Not all members of Catholic Worker communities agreed. Fifteen houses of hospitality closed in the months following the U.S. entry into the war.

But Day’s view prevailed. Every issue of TheCatholic Worker reaffirmed her understanding of the Christian life. The young men who identified with the Catholic Worker movement during the war generally spent much of the war years either in prison, or in rural work camps. Some did unarmed military service as medics. One of the rituals of life for the New York Catholic Worker community beginning in the late 1950s was the refusal to participate in the state’s annual civil defense drill.

Such preparation for attack seemed to Day part of an attempt to promote nuclear war as survivable and winnable to justify spending billions on the military. When the sirens sounded June 15, 1955, Day was among a small group of people sitting in front of City Hall. In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb, a Catholic Worker leaflet explained.

Day described her civil disobedience as an act of penance for America’s use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities. The first year the dissidents were reprimanded. The next year Day and others were sent to jail for five days. Arrested again the next year, the judge jailed her for thirty days. In 1958, a different judge suspended sentence.

In 1959, Day was back in prison, but only for five days. Then came 1960, when instead of a handful of people coming to City Hall Park, 500 turned up. The police arrested only a few; Day was conspicuously not among those singled out. In 1961 the crowd swelled to 2,000. These times 40 were arrested, but again Day was exempted. It proved to be the last year of dress rehearsals for nuclear war in New York.

Another Catholic Worker stress was the civil rights movement. As usual Day wanted to visit people who were setting an example. Therefore she went to Koinonia, a Christian agricultural community in rural Georgia where blacks and whites lived peacefully together. The community was under attack when Day visited in 1957. One of the community houses had been hit by machine-gun fire and Ku Klux Klan members had burned crosses on community land.

Day insisted on taking a turn at the sentry post. Noticing an approaching car had reduced its speed; she ducked just as a bullet struck the steering column in front of her face. Concern with the Church’s response to war led Day to Rome during the Second Vatican Council, an event Pope John XXIII hoped would restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth. In 1963, Day was one 50 Mothers for Peace who went to Rome to thank Pope John for his encyclical Pacem in Terris. Close to death, the pope couldn’t meet them privately, but at one of his last public audiences he blessed the pilgrims, asking them to continue their labors. They had reason to rejoice in December when the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was approved by the bishops. The Council’s described as a crime against God and humanity any act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants. The Council called on states to make legal provision for conscientious objectors while describing as criminal those who obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless.

Acts of war causing the indiscriminate destruction of .. vast areas with their inhabitants were the order of the day in regions of Vietnam under intense U.S. bombardment in 1965 and the years following. Many young Catholic Workers went to prison for refusing to cooperate with conscription, while others did alternative service. Nearly everyone in Catholic Worker communities took part in protests.

Many went to prison for acts of civil disobedience. Probably there has never been a newspaper so many of whose editors have been jailed for acts of conscience. Day herself was last jailed in 1973 for taking part in a banned picket line in support of farmworkers. She was 75. Day lived long enough to see her achievements honored. In 1967, when she made her last visit to Rome to take part in the International Congress of the Laity, she was one of two Americans — the other an astronaut — invited to receive Communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI.

On her 75th birthday the Jesuit magazine America devoted a special issue to her, finding in her the individual whom best exemplified the aspiration and action of the American Catholic community during the past forty years. Notre Dame University presented her with its Laetare Medal, thanking her for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Among those who came to visit her when she was no longer able to travel was Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who had once pinned on Day’s dress the cross worn only by fully professed members of the Missionary Sisters of Charity. Long before her death November 29, 1980, Day found herself regarded by many as a saint. No words of hers are better known than her abrupt response, Don’t call me a saint.

I don’t want to be dismissed so easily. Nonetheless, having herself treasured the memory and witness of many saints; she is a candidate for inclusion in the calendar of saints. The Claretians have launched an effort to have her canonized. If I have achieved anything in my life, she once remarked, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God. I think that Dorothy Day is a good example of what people are capable of doing.

I was interested in this topic because of that nice couple that came to class. I was really interested in what they had to say. It is amazing how people can commit their life to God and his will of charitable services to those in need. I find their devotion to there vocation most inspiring. I only hope that I too will find my calling in life, and pursue it with as much vigor.


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