A TIME FOR SAINTS: REFLECTIONS ON DOROTHY DAY, AN APOSTLE TO AMERICA

By Archbishop Gomez
Fort Wayne, Indiana
May 14, 2015


(Archbishop Gomez delivered this keynote address to a conference on “Dorothy Day and the Church: Past, Present and Future” held at the University of St. Francis, in Fort Wayne, Ind., May 13–15, 2015.)

It’s a joy to be with you all. I was honored to be invited to give this address — and I’m happy to see so many of you here tonight who want to talk about the Servant of God Dorothy Day.

Let me begin with a short disclaimer:

I don’t know if Dorothy Day is a saint. That’s for the Church to decide. But what I do know, is that she makes me want to be a saint.

And I know a lot of people feel the same way — including some of you, probably.

There’s just something about Dorothy Day. When we read her writings, when we reflect on her life — something stirs in our hearts. She makes us want to be better, she makes us want to be holy. When she tells us that we are all called to be saints — we believe we can do it and we want to!

We all know the story of her pilgrimage. The “long loneliness” that led her “from Union Square to Rome.” From the sins of her “flaming youth” to the tender mercies of God and what she called “the downward path which leads to salvation.”1

The journey of her life is one of the great conversion stories of modern times. Her life story reads like the life of a saint. And it reads that way, because that’s how she “wrote” it.

Dorothy was one of the most gifted writers in Church history. And she wrote her life story — not only for herself, but also for us.

In one of her diaries, we find this line: “Reason for writing: to bring news to others of an inner world.”2

That’s what she was doing, day in and day out, year after year, for decades. In diaries and letters, in newspaper articles, books and speeches. She was writing the interior history of our times, the spiritual diary of the 20th century.

Now before I go any further, I should clarify something. I’m not a scholar of Dorothy Day.

I know many of you in the room tonight are. The program for this conference is impressive, and I have to say — it’s a little intimidating, too.

I come to Dorothy Day’s life from a different angle. I come to her from the perspective of a pastor, a priest — one who is entrusted with the care of souls. What fascinates me is the movement of her soul, the ways we see God’s hand at work in her life.

Over the years, people have paid a lot of attention to Dorothy Day’s radical witness in the Church, her prophetic critique of capitalism and war, and her vision of creating a new social order within the “shell of the old.”

These are all important points to consider. But for me, what really marks Dorothy Day’s life is that she walked with the saints.

The great saints in Church history — like St. Francis, Thérèse of Lisieux, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna and many others — these were her constant companions; her friends, teachers and intercessors.

She once said she spent her days in conversation with Jesus and the saints of the Church.

“There are days,” she said, “when I’ve not talked much to anyone who is alive, but I’ve talked plenty to people who once were alive and now have departed for the sight of God.”3

For Dorothy Day, the saints were the real agents of human history, men and women who truly changed the times they lived in.

She often said we should study history through the lives of the saints. “The beauty of holiness shines out through the saints and illumines history,” she believed.4

So that’s what I want to try to do this evening. I want to try to offer some pastoral reflections on our times and our country — this moment in the life of the Church in America — as we see it through the eyes of Dorothy Day.

As I said, I don’t know whether she is a saint or not. Only the Church can decide, only God can tell us.

But it’s clear to me that Dorothy wanted to “think” like a saint and live like a saint.

And I believe that what she has left us — the legacy of her writings and her life — is a saint’s vision of our times and our society.

So let’s talk about her vision this evening. I have a simple outline for my talk. First I want to start by looking at her conversion story and then after I want to consider her vision for how we should disciples in our society. And after that, I hope we can have some time for conversation.

Dorothy Day’s Conversion and the Story of the 20th century

Dorothy Day’s conversion story is the story of her soul. But it’s also the story of her generation and the story of the 20th century.

Her life spanned the century. She was born almost at the century’s dawn, in 1897. And she died at the century’s first twilight, in 1980.

And it’s amazing to reflect on those years before her conversion — all the people she met and worked with, all the various “causes” she was involved in.

Writing for the nation’s largest communist newspaper. Doing propaganda work for communist revolutionaries in Latin America. Getting arrested in a women’s suffrage protest at the White House and being sentenced to solitary confinement. These are just a few of her experiences, as you know.

The oldest surviving letter that we have from Dorothy is from 1923. It’s a letter she wrote to Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood. In the letter, Dorothy is trying to get a job with Sanger as a public relations director!5

Dorothy describes herself in these years as a seeker, a young woman looking for answers. She said all her life she was always asking why. Why are we here? Where are going? What does it all mean?6

Of course, she knew that these are the great questions of religion and life, the questions we are all born asking ourselves: What am I doing in this world? What happens when I die? How should I live? What path should I follow to find happiness? How can I be certain?

I believe Dorothy wrote her account of these early years so that we could see — that her whole life was made to pass through the movements and currents that shaped the culture and society of 20th-century America.

She wrote so we could see how she lost her way. And she knew she was not alone. Many others lost their way in her generation.

“Free love,” birth control and abortion for the poor, seeking the world revolution of the proletariat. Dorothy and many others thought they had found the “answers” they were looking for in the “progressive” vision of a society liberated from Christian morality and the capitalist economy.

And of course, we know that following this path caused her great pain, including the tragedy of her abortion in 1919, a decade before her conversion to Catholicism.7

In fact, if Dorothy Day is canonized, she will be the only woman in the Communion of Saints to have ever written about having an abortion.

But it’s important for us to remember — Dorothy Day’s experience of the horror of abortion was not what brought her to conversion.

It was not the experience of violence and death, but rather the experience of love and goodness that brought her to God.

As she described it, the beauty of the created world convinced her that there must be a Creator. The joy of human love helped her to realize the beauty of divine love.

Ultimately, it was the experience of giving birth to her daughter that made her understand the transcendent dignity and destiny of the human person. In the glory of childbirth, she came to see that God made every one us in his own image and likeness — to share in his divine nature; to be his friends and partners in the creation of life and the redemption of the world.

This is one of my favorite quotations from Dorothy, it’s about the birth of her beloved daughter, Tamar:

“I was supremely happy. If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt more the exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. To think that this thing of beauty … had come from my flesh, was my own child. Such a great feeling of happiness and joy filled me that I was hungry for Someone to thank, to love, even to worship for so great a good that had been bestowed upon me!8

Dorothy Day was a convert to Love!

She came to see that her life — and all our lives — are a search for love, a search for a love that is Supreme, for God.

Through her long, lonely journey, she came to understand that we are all born with hearts that are restless for love, restless for God. She came to understand that God made us to love and to be loved. That we are made to give ourselves to something, to somebody. And of course, she came to know that this “Somebody” we are all looking for — is God.

Dorothy Day wrote her conversion story to teach us a spiritual lesson about our century. It was a hard lesson that she learned through her own suffering.

But through her own example, she wanted to show us the temptations of our secular age — and consequences of trying to live without God, trying to live apart from God’s design for human life and creation.

How Can We Live in a Society without God?

Now, I believe Dorothy’s insights are significant and relevant to our times here in the Church. Because the movements and ideologies that she passed through in the 20th century were the seeds for the culture and society we find ourselves living in today.

I think we all recognize that the America we live in today has grown radically “de-Christianized” and secularized. More and more, our society functions as if God does not exist and as if religious faith and morality are irrelevant to the concerns of our life together.

And I think we understand that the direction of our secular society means that we are going to see more and more hostility toward Christian institutions and the expression of Christian beliefs in the years to come.

Already we see pressures on believers to accept ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to Christian faith and moral teaching. Already we see our government trying to dictate how the Church operates in serving the poor, the immigrant and the refugee.

So the question we all face is basic and stark: How do we continue to live as Christians in a society that no longer has any room for Christ or for God?

This is the challenge I face every day as a Church leader. And it’s a challenge that each one of you faces in your own lives. This question goes to the heart of how you live, how you work, how you raise your families.

What’s at stake for all of us is the future of the Church’s mission. Jesus called the Church to evangelize the world, to spread the good news of God’s mercy and love to the ends of the earth. How are we going to carry out that mission in our time and in our society? What does our mission even mean, in a world without God?

That’s why I believe the witness and writings of Dorothy Day are so important. Dorothy Day gives us a powerful vision for how to live in our secular society. And she believed the only answer was to raise up a new generation of saints.

She wrote these words in the 1950s: “The greatest danger of our age is secularism [and] it would seem that it is a time when we must beg God to raise up for our time men in whom saint and hero meet to solve the problems of the day. And not by war!"9

Even 60 years ago, Dorothy Day could see where American society was heading. She would not be surprised at what we face today. And she would tell us now — as she did then — that only saints can save us.

Her vision reminds me a lot of Pope Francis. Like the Pope, she calls us to be missionary disciples. She used different language. She spoke of “saint-revolutionists,” men and women who practiced what she called “heroic charity.”

But just like Pope Francis, for her, everything was rooted in the encounter with Jesus Christ.

We need to remember — Dorothy Day was not converted by an idea. It was not the teachings of the Church that convinced her to leave the past behind and change her life. She was changed by Love, changed by the over-powering awareness of the reality of God’s love and mercy.

One of my favorite stories that she told is about traveling far from home. She woke in the middle to the night, ready to weep for the sense that her efforts were futile. And then she had a revelation. She wrote:

“And suddenly the thought came to me of my importance as a daughter of God, daughter of a King, and I felt a sureness of God’s love. ... God so loved me that he gave his only begotten son. ‘If a mother will forget her children, never will I forget thee.’ Such tenderness.”10

This is another quote that I love from her. She said:

“I believe in a personal God. I believe in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. And intimate, oh how most closely intimate we may desire to be, I believe we must render most reverent homage to him who created us and stilled the sea and told the winds to be calm, and multiplied the loaves and fishes. He is transcendent and he is immanent. He is closer than the air we breathe and just as vital to us.”11

What a beautiful statement of faith! In order for us to live in this society, we need to strive for this same deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

And we have to bring others to this relationship, too. We have a duty to be missionaries — to bring everyone we meet to this encounter with the living God.

Dorothy said we are here to bear witness to Jesus and to follow his lead.12 For her, that meant following Jesus into the “peripheries” — to use another favorite word of Pope Francis.

She sought Christ’s face among those living in the margins and dark corners of society — in the poor and discarded, the lonely and forgotten.

Now, for us — I don’t think that we are all called to such a radical witness, to literally live among the poor.

Dorothy Day didn’t think so, either. But she did teach that all of us are called to take personal responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable.

Again we see the connections with Pope Francis. Our faith in Christ means we must see Christ and serve Christ in others.

We need to feel the passion that Dorothy Day had for the Incarnation! We need to ponder the humanity of Christ — how he shared in our hungers, our loneliness, our joys and struggles.

Dorothy Day helps us to see that Jesus made the works of mercy the way for every Christian. She told us over and over what Jesus said — that in the evening of our lives, our love for God will be judged by the mercy we have shown to others — especially those who are the most vulnerable, those who cannot defend themselves.

Dorothy Day took those words to heart, and so should we.

A Time for Saints

There is so much more that I wanted to say! But let’s stop here.

As we have seen, Dorothy believed that this is a time for saints. That means a time for you and me.

She once wrote: “There is room for greater saints now than ever before. Never has the world been so organized — press, radio, education, recreation, to turn minds away from Christ. … We are all called to be saints. God expects something from each one of us that no one else can do. If we don’t, it will not be done.”13

Dorothy Day would remind us that each of us has a role to play in the mission of the Church — in the redemption of the world. So let’s keep following Jesus and walking in the footsteps of the saints, let’s keep growing in love. And let’s keep trying to draw others to God, to be missionary disciples. Let’s keep striving to be saints.

I said at the start that I don’t know if Dorothy Day is a saint. But she has left us a beautiful legacy, It’s a legacy that we need to keep studying, reflecting on and praying about. But she has shown us the way — the way to follow God in a world that has forgotten him.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to our conversation.

1. House of Hospitality (Sheed & Ward, 1939), Conclusion.

2. Robert Ellsberg, ed., The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Image, 2011), 232, 567.

3. Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Da Capo, 1989), 143.

4. Duty of Delight,  414, 486; Robert Ellsberg, ed., All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day (Image, 2012), 382.

5. All the Way to Heaven, 23.

6. A Radical Deovotion, 23, 62-63.

7. Dorothy Day, The Eleventh Virgin (Cottager Press, 2011), 303-317.

8. Dorothy Day, Therese (Templegate, 1979), v-vi.

9. Catholic Worker (January 1953).

10. On Pilgrimage, 197.

11. Catholic Worker (March 1966).

12. A Radical Devotion, 97.

13. William D. Miller, ed. All Is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Doubleday, 1987), 102.

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