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A saint for dark times

By Jim Creskey      

The troubled U.S. still has some inspiring core values along with its saints and heroes who live and die for them. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is one of them.

Dorothy Day’s youngest granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, author of Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, will be in Ottawa Nov. 6. Photograph courtesy of Scribners
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It seems like it was in a different universe, but it was only three years ago that Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress.

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” he said.

“This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Today, the U.S. president spreads fear and loathing over a group of asylum seekers, many who are fleeing the urban killing fields of Central America, as they make their way toward the U.S. through Mexico. Has America changed so much that it is impossible to imagine an invitation today to give a speech like that on Capitol Hill?

There is little doubt we are in a different, darker, mean-spirited chapter in American politics, one that is spilling across its borders into Canada and around the world. But the troubled U.S. still has some brave and inspiring core values along with its saints and heroes who live and die for them.

In his speech, Francis mentioned four Americans, who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy, Scribner, 400 pp. $23.

“These men and women,” said Francis, “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality.” They are: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

Many of the American political journalists who were covering Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress in 2015 found they had to take a quick dive into Google. Who was Dorothy Day?

Day’s life, which began on Nov. 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a complexity of beauty and sacrifice. It was a spiritual and social justice firestorm of a life that encompassed her conversion to Catholicism; her unflinching non-violent personalism; and, perhaps most difficult of all for others to follow, her dedication to voluntary poverty.

She was a radical in the true meaning of the word, one who went back to the roots to find what was good. She held fast to her values even when that meant standing virtually alone in the unpopular cause of pacifism during the Second World War.

Supporters of Day’s Catholic Worker Movement ran soup lines and built shelters for the homeless. They got arrested supporting striking workers and for protesting wars, nuclear weapons, and injustice. They opened their doors to the kinds of people nobody loved or even tolerated. They published thoughtful and well-written Catholic Worker newspapers calling for “the creation of a new society in the shell of the old.” This has been happening since 1933 and it is still happening.

Today, Worker houses and farms, more than 250 of them, continue to spring up across the United States, in Canada, and in 14 countries around the world. Their members do not have to be Catholics; there is no central authority or official membership. There are no government grants, no money (or control) from the church, and no boards of directors or charitable tax status. It is idealism in practice, often messy and sometimes flawed, lived by real people.

Keeping in mind that Day’s spirit, along with that of Lincoln, King, and Merton, remains part of the American fabric helps to keep me sane.

It is true that a troubled and dangerous president nudges the United States toward a hateful and perilous future. But it is also true that in a country where you find the most despicable hate, as in the recent synagogue terrorism in Pittsburg, Pa., you can still find the most enduring resistance against hate, which is love in practice, as Pope Francis told the U.S. Congress, love that refuses “to discard whatever proves troublesome.”


Dorothy Day’s youngest granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, will be in Ottawa Nov. 6 when she takes the stage at St. Joseph’s Church hall at 174 Wilbrod St. at 6 p.m. and the following day at St. Paul University. Her beautifully written and widely acclaimed book, Dorothy Day, The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, chronicles with profound spiritual insight a life, a family, and a movement both heroic and flawed—and more important than ever for our times.

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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