Catholic Worker hopes spotlight on Day will boost beatification efforts

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Soli Salgado

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Phones were ringing off the walls at the Catholic Worker headquarters following Pope Francis' address to the U.S. Congress, where he mentioned Dorothy Day -- the organization's co-founder -- as one of four key American figures.

"If you would've asked if I could have imagined this 20 years ago, I would've said I couldn't have imagined this a week ago," said Tom Cornell, associate editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper. "It was breathtaking. Astounding."

Cornell said he had the pleasure of working with Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day -- three of the four Americans that Francis highlighted. "I just missed Abraham Lincoln."

Day -- known for her social justice activism and radical criticisms of capitalism -- was largely an unknown name to the general American population, prior to Francis' mention. Cornell said that Francis likely heard of her through Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York, who gave the pope a copy of Jim Forest's All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.

In the media's commentary surrounding Day after the pope's address, Cornell said he noticed that few outlets, if any, mentioned her radical pacifism.

"The thing that united Dorothy, King and Merton was their common commitment to classical-Gandhi nonviolence -- an active form of resistance to tyranny based on openness and truthfulness. It doesn't aim to humiliate anyone; it doesn't aim for victory. It aims for reconciliation and the principal tool of dialogue. Francis uses the word 'dialogue' over and over again in his talks, and that is essential to all nonviolence."

Jailed seven times in her life, Day would refuse to cooperate with civil defense drills starting in 1955 and counseled conscientious objectors to military service, Cornell said. She also opposed World War II -- a controversial stance still today -- and "completely turned her back on industrial capitalism. She was more radical than any communist," he said.

Though Cornell felt that her dedication to pacifism might've fallen through the cracks in the discussion following Congress, he said Day's passion for social justice was the takeaway Francis intended.

"Dorothy took the Sermon of the Mount quite to heart. It's not, 'I was hungry, and you formed a committee.' It's not, 'I was hungry, and you wrote a check.' It was, 'I was hungry, and you fed me.' It's the direct approach. We sit people down and we feed them. We take them into our homes and make them members of our family," said Cornell, who manages a Catholic Worker farm with his wife in Marlboro, N.Y., where they take in the homeless and disabled for nothing in return.

Cornell -- who thinks Day would've been "delighted by the pope" -- said he hopes this exposure will "spur the cause for her beatification," as there is a Dorothy Day Guild set up for her canonization. Though Catholic Workers are active in the process, the organization itself is not funding the cause.

"We don't feel it is our place to do that," he said. "People send us money thinking we'll be spending it on housing the homeless and feeding the hungry, and that's what we're going to do with it."

Nor is the Catholic Worker planning on using this new national attention for its own cause, as their regularly-scheduled Saturday meeting following the speech was entirely business as usual. "We have a lot of work to do," as Cornell put it.

"Press coverage and saint-making is not in the charism of the Catholic Worker," said Joanne Kennedy, who works at the House of Hospitality for New York City's St. Joseph House. "We announce the good news, yes, but 'run with the exposure'? Nah. Her story will grow as the Holy Spirit wills. We will be doing the work as she and Peter instructed."

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

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