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On the Idea of Sainthood and Dorothy Day

Text of Cardinal O’Connor’s homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral November 9, 1997. Reprinted with permission from Catholic New York, November 13, p. 13-14.

By Cardinal John O’Conner

Every bishop of a diocese has a cathedral. The Bishop of Rome is our Holy Father; his cathedral is St. John Lateran, not the magnificent Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. The Church of St. John Lateran was given by Constantine back in the year 324. It was considered to be the most magnificent church in the whole world in its day. As a matter of fact, Dante said that strangers who came to Rome marveled over the beauty of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

The basilica was attacked by vandals in the fifth century. It was almost destroyed by an earthquake and virtually destroyed by fire. It went through a series of repairs, rebuildings and extensive renovations, but it remains today what is called the Mother Church of the world in Christendom.

I would like to reflect on a “living basilica,” the woman we call Dorothy Day. As we noted, Dorothy Day was born 100 years ago yesterday. This was a truly remarkable woman. Many New Yorkers know about her. Some of you perhaps from outside New York know of her more vaguely. Some of you here from distant parts of the world possibly might not know of her at all.

The story of Dorothy Day is a thrilling story. First, I would like to look at her through today’s Scriptures. The second reading, I think could have been written by Dorothy Day herself. “Are you not aware that you are the temple of God … ?” That is what she would say to each one of us and she might add, “Are you not aware that every single person is a temple of God, sacred, made in the image and likeness of God, infinitely more important in its own way than any building. This is a sacred cathedral because of the presence of the Eucharistic Christ and because people come to worship here, people made in the image and likeness of that same Christ.” To Dorothy Day everyone was a cathedral in this sense.

“Are you not aware that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple [she would say to us who are unjust, who are vile toward others, who are corrupt who rob, steal, cheat the poor, most particularly] God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.” [1 Cor. 3:16-17]

Surely, the description of our Lord in today’s Gospel in many ways describes the life and the person of Dorothy Day on earth.

“As the Jewish Passover was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple precincts he came upon people engaged in selling oxen, sheep and doves, and others seated changing coins. He made a [kind of] whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, sheep and oxen alike, and knocked over the moneychangers’ tables, spilling their coins. He told those who were selling doves: ‘Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!'” [Jn. 2:13-16]

Dorothy Day saw the world at large turned into a huge commercial marketplace where money means more than anything else. She saw people turned into tools of commerce. She saw the family treated as a marketplace. She reminded us frequently enough that the Church herself could become simply a marketplace. She loved the Church, and she was immensely faithful to the Church. She had no time for those who attacked the Church as such, the Body of Christ. She loved the Holy Father. But she recognized that we poor, weak human beings–people like you, people like me–could turn the Church into nothing but a marketplace.

As the date of the 100th anniversary drew near I began getting letters from all over the country and different parts of the world. I would like to read portions of these. “I grew up at 115 Mott St. where Dorothy Day lived and established her soup kitchen. There was such a magic around this tall and to me beautiful lady who dressed funny

“To me Dorothy Day was the Mother Teresa of Mott Street. I thank God for the privilege of spending my childhood with Dorothy Day, truly a saint for our time.”

Dorothy Day was indeed a friend of Mother Teresa. A Maryknoll seminarian here was kind enough to send me a copy of a letter that he received from Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa had written to Dorothy Day some truly beautiful words, a wonderful description of her person and of her work.

Here is another letter:

“Even though Dorothy herself resisted being called a saint while alive, I truly believe that if any modern person can be called ‘Saint’ she can. As an atheist anti-war person I was amazed and bemused by her and her outdated religious ideas. Today I am a Catholic and praying about a potential vocation

“I know the Church moves slow–and should– but I am willing to at least start praying [for her canonization].”

There is one letter in particular from a man whose name is very possibly known to a number of you here, Dr. Robert Coles. Dr. Coles is a brilliant child psychologist. Years and years ago when he was a student he went and worked with Dorothy Day and was deeply impressed by her. Dr. Coles writes:

“Fourteen years ago my wife started getting some numbness in her left side. I took her to a prominent doctor, who, after a diagnostic workup, told us that she had a brain tumor and she had six months to live. The doctors were absolutely definite about it.

“I wrote to Dorothy I told her. And I started getting a letter or a postcard a day from her with her prayers and her messages. She didn’t contradict the doctors, but her letters were different in nature–full of encouragement and love.

“After the months turned into years, the doctors started talking about a ‘miraculous recovery.’ They said that my wife somehow had ‘made it’

“I’ve always known that the only one who didn’t tell me my wife was going to die in six months was Dorothy Day.”

I would like to let Dorothy Day speak for herself. Many have written beautiful books about her and compilations of her writings. Mr. Robert Ellsberg, former editor of The Catholic Worker, who with his family will be bringing up the gifts today, has recently published a very beautiful book. There are many others. But Dorothy Day was a prolific writer. One could cite from many of her works. That which I rarely hear referenced, however, is my favorite–her book “Therese” on St. Therese of Lisieux, the so called “Little Flower.”

I have read a great deal of St. Therese of Lisieux, one of my favorite saints. I have never seen anything that captures what I believe to be the secret of the so-called “Little Flower,” her almost unbelievable suffering, her ability, indeed her desire, to unite every bit of that suffering with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. St. Therese, as much as any saint, I think recognized that Christ did not save the world through His miracles and His teaching and His preaching but through His suffering and death on the cross when he seemed to be utterly powerless.

Dorothy Day, as the Basilica of St John Lateran, was attacked, as the basilica was attacked by vandals. She suffered in many, many ways. Some of the sufferings, she herself would say, she brought on herself. Others came from enemies. Most of her suffering came from seeing the sufferings of Christ in the poor. St. Therese recognized the enormous saving power of the suffering of Christ. This little book, therefore, is of immense importance because, as no one else that I know of, Dorothy Day lets Therese speak for herself about her suffering. Then Dorothy Day concludes the book in this fashion.

“So many books have been written about St. Therese, books of all kinds, too, so why, I ask myself again, have I written one more? There are popular lives, lives written for children, travelogue lives following her footsteps, lives for the extrovert, the introvert, the contemplative, the activist, the scholar and the theologian.

“Yet it was the’ worker,’ the common man, who first spread her fame by word of mouth. It was the masses who first proclaimed her a saint. It was the ‘people.’

“When we think of the masses, we think of waves of the sea, of forests, of fields of wheat, all moved by the spirit which blows where it listeth. When we think of the people we think of the child at school, the housewife at her dishpan, the mother working, the mother sick the man traveling, the migrant worker, the craftsman, the factory worker, the soldier, the rich, the bourgeois, the poor in tenements, the destitute man in the street. To a great extent she has made her appeal to all of these.

“What was there about her to make such an appeal? Perhaps because she was so much like the rest of us in her ordinariness. In her lifetime there are no miracles recounted, she was just good

“What did she do? She practiced the presence of God and she did all things–all the little things that make up our daily life and contact with others–for His honor and glory. She did not need much time to expound what she herself called ‘her little way,’ which she said was for all. She wrote her story, and God did the rest. God and the people. God chose for the people to clamor for her canonization.”

Let me, with perhaps a certain vanity, turn to what I wrote last week in Catholic New York because it comes from deep within me.

“She had died before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we never met.

“Dorothy Day was born on Nov. 8, 1897, and died Nov. 29, 1980. Hardly a seminarian of my era escaped her influence. Rare was the young priest untouched by her life. Whether or not we honored in our own lives her passionate commitment to the poor, or followed even distantly in her footsteps, she worried us. That was her gift to us, a gift I still cherish as I try to maneuver my own perilous way among the accoutrements and “practicalities” of life as a Cardinal Archbishop of New York.

“A half-century ago, Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, said: ‘Like Christ, the priest brings mankind a priceless good, that of worrying it. He must be the “minister of restlessness,” the dispenser of a new thirst and a hunger.’ I agree with Cardinal Suhard, but I suspect the priest must first be worried himself before he will take seriously his obligation to worry others. Before knowing of Dorothy Day I worried about poverty [in kind of an effete way]; since then, I worry about poor people. Homelessness doesn’t bother me any more, or hunger [these are abstractions that we can talk about in works on sociology, in big tomes on economics and political speeches]; homeless and hungry people worry the life out of me.

“A number of letters have come in through the years, asking me to propose the possibility of Dorothy Day’s one day being declared a saint. Early in my tenure here, in response to such letters, I wrote a column inviting comment. Interestingly, replies were both for and against. The more reading I have done myself, however, the more saintly a woman she seems to be. Indeed, one of her saintly attributes, in my judgment, is that she would be horrified by the idea of being declared a saint.

“A number of new books are appearing now, because of the centenary of her birth, but I still find her own work on St. Therese of Lisieux to reveal as much about Dorothy Day as anything else I have read. Most particularly, she seems clearly to recognize that Therese’s ‘little way’ was the way of suffering, and to understand with Therese that all suffering united with that of Christ on the cross is of inestimable value for souls.

“I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion [including perhaps someone or several in this church] would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same. But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. [This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day’s sorrow but to know always God’s loving mercy and forgiveness.]

“Not everyone who knew Dorothy at a distance is aware of her meetings with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or of the esteem in which Mother Teresa held her. A new book by Jim Forest, “Love Is the Measure,” includes a portion of a Mother Teresa letter written for Dorothy Day’s 75th birthday: ‘So much love–so much sacrifice–all for Him alone. You have been such a beautiful branch on the Vine, Jesus, and allowed His Father, the Vine-dresser, to prune you so often and so much. You have accepted all with great love…’

“Mr. Forest, once a managing editor of The Catholic Worker, which Dorothy conceived and edited [in conjunction of course with Peter Maurin], makes clear that, radical though she was, her respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving. Indeed, those of us who grew up knowing her recognized early in the game that she was a radical precisely because she was a believer, a believer and a practitioner. She, in fact, chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn’t take the Church seriously enough, and didn’t bother about getting to Mass.

“I don’t know how many priests of the Archdiocese of New York learned from Dorothy Day what they put into practice, but I think of her often when I celebrate Mass in some of the poorest parishes we have, as I do with some frequency. [As a matter of fact at 2 o’clock this afternoon I will celebrate the 100th anniversary of a parish in the South Bronx, one of the poorest of the poor where the priest just hangs on as he takes care of the poor.] I think of her as I observe our priests’ deep concern for poor people, as I vest in their rectories and see how simply, almost primitively, some of them live, as I note unswerving fidelity to Church teaching and their faithful practice of the same, never using injustices to poor people, or evils in the social system as justification for infidelity to what they represent as priests. They thrill me while they humble me.

“I speak of such priests and the religious and lay persons who work with them because they make the anniversary of this extraordinary woman, Dorothy Day, that much more meaningful. Her work continues in New York, not only by way of her personal followers, but in the charities and the works of justice of the Church itself. As one who never quite measured up to her standards, I can at least celebrate her anniversary with the comfort of knowing that many of my brothers and sisters have gone all the way and then some.”

So where do we go from here? Do we celebrate this 100th anniversary and go home and think, “Wasn’t that nice that Dorothy Day did all those things?” Since Dorothy Day lived and worked and died here in New York, I receive many letters urging me, as the Archbishop of New York, to initiate her cause for canonization. I ask myself prayerfully and carefully if I should do so. It seems to me that this would be a wise and prudent course of action.

Unfortunately, I must leave for Rome where I will participate in a Synod for all America called by our Holy Father. But when I return I will invite people like Mr. Ellsberg, Tom Cornell, who knew Dorothy Day and worked so faithfully with her for so long, and many others and some of you here to come together with me and with others, and we will pray together and we will talk together and we will ask if this should be–that I should initiate her cause. As I said, not everyone believes that her cause should be initiated.

There are those who believe that because she was a protester against some things that people confuse with Americanism itself that her cause should not be submitted. I disagree completely with that position. Some believe that her cause should not be initiated because of their contempt for Church processes. They believe that the whole concept of formal canonization is “folderol,” costing a lot of money and carried out with no holiness. I disagree with that position.

There are some who believe that Dorothy Day was indeed a living saint, that the cause of canonization need not therefore be processed. Perhaps. But why does the Church canonize saints? In part so that their person, their works, their lives will become that much better known and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps. And, of course, that the Church may say formally and officially– “This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to love every human person made in the image and likeness of God.” It is this and nothing else: Our Lord summarized it all–“You shall love the, Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, your whole strength and your neighbor as yourself.”

I wish I had known Dorothy Day personally. I feel that I know her because of her goodness. But surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbor it was Dorothy Day! Pray that we do what we should do.

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