Yesterday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops enthusiastically endorsed the canonization of Dorothy Day, the American-born co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day’s “cause,” as it is known in church circles, was first introduced by John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Archbishop of New York. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the current archbishop, was required under the terms of a 2007 Vatican document to consult with the regional bishops conference (in this case the USCCB) on the advisability of pursuing the canonization of Day, whose ministry was based in New York City. The bishops approved the proposal by a voice vote, after a brief discussion in which bishops praised the woman who admirers refer to simply as Dorothy.
It is exciting news. If anyone deserves to be a saint it’s Dorothy Day, not only because of her decades of direct service to the poor, her critique of the systems that kept people in poverty, her heartfelt invitation of thousands of people to participate in the corporal works of mercy, and her moving writings; but also for her personal piety and generosity. The publication of her journals and letters over the last few years, which detailed her compassionate approach to everyone in her life—from her daughter Tamar to a homeless man just turned up on her doorstep--only added to her luster. Canonization will bring more millions more people to her provocative writings, raise interest in the Catholic Worker movement, and challenge believers to meditate on her simplicity of life and her lifelong advocacy for the poor and marginalized.
But there is a problem. And that problem is a quote attributed to, of all people, Dorothy Day. “Don’t call me a saint,” she is often said to have said. "I don’t want to be dismissed that easily." That quote is probably the biggest barrier to her canonization. Not that it would deter the Vatican, since the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints is used to dealing with the humility of prospective saints. But the quote sets up a kind of spiritual roadblock for many of her admirers. Many believe she is a saint, but balk at supporting her canonization. Given that quote, would Dorothy really want to be canonized? Oddly, supporting her feels almost like a betrayal.
Anticipating the bishops’ vote, I put that question a few days ago to Robert Ellsberg, the publisher of Orbis Books, and the editor of The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s journals, and All the Way to Heaven, her collected letters. As a young man on leave from Harvard University, Ellsberg had worked with Dorothy, and served for a time as editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper. So I asked him a few questions: What was the source of that famous quote? What did he suppose she meant? What would he imagine Dorothy’s feelings to be about her canonization, hard as that might be to surmise? And, finally, how did he feel about the possibility of St. Dorothy Day? His answer is below.
This afternoon, through the miracle of live-streaming, I was able to listen to in on the discussion by the US Catholic bishops about the canonization of Dorothy Day. Cardinal Dolan, who has vigorously supported the cause initiated by his predecessor Cardinal John O’Connor, was seeking an expression of approval—not for the cause of Day’s canonization but the “opportuneness” for pursuing the cause. Several bishops, including Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal George spoke in favor of the resolution, and at the end it received a unanimous voice vote of approval.
No one, I was glad to see, referred to Day’s oft-quoted line, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” This line comes up all too frequently in discussions of Day’s canonization, with the usual implication being: Can’t you let the poor woman rest in peace?
I bear a burden of responsibility for publicizing that line, which I quoted in the introduction to an anthology of her writings almost thirty years ago. Where did it come from? I can’t honestly say. I do remember one time sitting at the kitchen table with her at St. Joseph’s house, looking at an issue of Time magazine in which she was included in a list of “living saints.” “When they call you a saint,” she said, “it means basically that you are not to be taken seriously.”
Whatever the provenance of her famous “quote”—the important question is: What did she mean?
Dorothy’s own relationship with saints was anything but cynical. Both her daily speech and her writings were filled with references to St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Teresa of Avila. She treasured their stories. For Dorothy these were not idealized super-humans, but her constant companions and daily guides in the imitation of Christ. She relished the human details of their struggles to be faithful, realizing full well that in their own time they were often regarded as eccentrics or dangerous troublemakers.
But she didn’t just study their life and writings. She also firmly believed in their role as heavenly patrons. Whenever funds or provisions ran low she would “petition” St. Joseph. She would pray to St. Therese for patience and understanding. She would pray to St. Francis to increase her spirit of poverty. For many years, the Catholic Worker was largely illustrated by woodcuts by Ade Bethune depicting the saints in everyday dress, performing the works of mercy. She devoted many years of her life writing a life of St. Therese of Lisieux. I have no doubt she would have delighted in the news that St. Therese was named a Doctor of the Church. It is unthinkable that she would have responded by saying, “That means basically that Therese is not to be taken seriously!”
Furthermore, long before Vatican II took up the theme of the universal call to holiness, Dorothy Day taught that “we are all called to be saints.” As she noted, “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.” In other words, Dorothy Day regarded sanctity as the ordinary vocation of every Christian—not just the goal of a chosen few.
What Dorothy certainly opposed—and what saint wouldn’t?—was being put on a pedestal, fitted to some pre-fab conception of holiness that would strip her of her humanity and, at the same time, dismiss the radical challenge of the gospel. “Dorothy Day could do such things (live in poverty, feed the hungry, go to jail for the cause of peace). She’s a saint.” For those who said this sort of thing, the implication was that such actions—which would be out of reach for ordinary folk—must have come easily for her. She had no patience for that kind of cop-out.
She also knew that if you live long enough, eventually you come to be regarded as a “venerable survivor.” She certainly lived long enough to experience some of this. I once heard her say, “Too much praise makes you feel that you must be doing something terribly wrong.”
Doubtless there is now plenty of praise for Dorothy Day that would have provoked her famous scowl. She might have been surprised—and disappointed—that not a single bishop stood up to say Nay. Were there not at least a few to stand up and admit they have no use for her pacifism, her refusal to pay taxes, her general disdain for the free-market capitalist system?
Cardinal Dolan, like Cardinal O’Connor before him, has addressed the question of whether her youthful bohemian lifestyle, including an abortion, render her ineligible for canonization. As he has noted, her early life, with all her acknowledged mistakes and sins, were part of the journey that led her to Christ. And in the conversion that ensued, she pursued her relationship with Christ with heroic faithfulness. As is the case with all saints, it is her very humanity that makes her such a compelling model.
I was honored to be part of the initial conversations with Cardinal O’Connor, along with others who knew her, regarding Dorothy’s possible canonization. It is clear that whatever Dorothy might think about this is not ultimately important. The process of naming saints is not some kind of posthumously bestowed honor. It is more of a gift that the church bestows on itself. There is always the danger in celebrating such a gift that the church will simply congratulate itself on including such a heroic figure, name a church after her, and be done with her.
But I trust that this is a gift that will continue to trouble our consciences, that will not let us rest while war, hunger, poverty, and injustice are so pervasive in our world. Dorothy believed we needed a new kind of saint. As she remarked as a child, “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” I believe the possible canonization of Dorothy Day is an answer to that question. There are those who might try to fit her into a conventional mold. But I don’t think she will allow herself to be dismissed that easily.