Dorothy Day is perhaps best known as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement,
a response to the plight of the homeless, jobless, and displaced during the Great Depression, which then spawned an international movement of voluntary poverty and solidarity still alive today.
The daughter of a journalist, Dorothy Day was exposed as a young child to many social issues in the world. She lived in Oakland during the time of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and she assisted her mother in the community response to provide shelter, first aid, and other care to its victims.
During her adolescence and early college years, she grew in awareness of the plight of immigrants and the working poor; this led her to a deep commitment to the cause of social justice in all forms. An intelligent, socially engaged woman, she worked actively with others to gain American women’s right to vote, and she was imprisoned several times in this struggle.
With deepening reflection and radical honesty, Dorothy came to understand that the kind of human community she sought required a grounding in love and a commitment to community that she found impossible to sustain without a rich relationship with God.
This instinct to love only deepened when she became a mother. Her desire to baptize her daughter and establish a spiritual home for herself within the Catholic church caused friction with her partner, Forster Batterham, and their partnership ended when she joined the church.
Dorothy struggled to find a path of meaningful self-expression, solidarity and service until she met her lifelong friend Peter Maurin, with whom she founded the Catholic Worker movement. They created a newspaper of the same name and opened houses of hospitality for the homeless. They sought by word and example to explore what Christian discipleship looks like in the face of social inequality, and gradually hundreds were drawn into the movement.
Dorothy Day’s writing as well as her lifestyle was radical, simple, direct, sincere, and deeply committed. Her example of solidarity, peacemaking and social advocacy inspired thousands.
Dorothy Day was a compelling writer and author of hundreds of newspaper articles in the Catholic Worker newspaper. She wrote many fine and underappreciated autobiographical pieces, most notably The Long Loneliness, written in 1952.
This was neither her first nor her last attempt to tell the story of her life, especially from the vantage point of her relationship with God. Repeatedly she describes the challenge to live with integrity, simplicity and solidarity with the poor and the ways that she found God along the way: From Union Square to Rome(1938), On Pilgrimage(1948) and Loaves and Fishes(1963). Another helpful way to understand Dorothy Day and her impact is to review
the collection of articles assembled by Robert Ellsberg, By Little and By Little.
The Catholic Worker Movement, which Dorothy Day started in collaboration with Peter Maurin, was a movement to practice and develop Catholic social teaching. Its main hallmarks were solidarity, peace-making, hospitality and enactment of the works of mercy,
both in daily accompaniment of those in need and in advocacy for social change.
The Catholic Worker newspaper, published monthly, served as a vehicle to inform, generate dialogue, and extend consideration of moral issues throughout society. Dorothy Day believed strongly in embodying the principles she espoused not only in how she lived but also in where she stood. She rarely missed a protest, especially as an advocate for peace, and she strongly supported the right of young people not to participate in war.
Part of Dorothy Day’s impact included the ways that she modeled the need for a consistent ethic of dignity in church and society.
Dorothy Day’s integrity and tenacity was, in many ways, the backbone of both the Catholic Worker movement and the Catholic Worker newspaper. Her clarity, authority and charism had a deep and broad reach.
A significant number of Catholics growing up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were strongly impacted by the Catholic Worker Movement, especially since it gave young people a way to put Catholic social teaching into practice in concrete ways.
They lived and ministered in Houses of Hospitalities; they labored on the movement’s farms or in summer camps; they got the newspaper out monthly and supported the movement’s mission to focus on the plight of the poor, the worker, and the migrant without ever reducing the dignity of each person or the uniqueness of each story.
Today 203 Catholic Worker communities around the world remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.
“You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you.”
“We are all called to be saints, St. Paul says, and 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 person and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint,
the holy, the divine right there…. We are all called to be saints.
Sometimes we don’t see them around us, sometimes their sanctity is
obscured by the human, but they are there nonetheless.”
“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up.
If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens.
If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others.
And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us.
It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other.
No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much."
“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility.
Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’
They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time;
we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.
But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts
that will vitalize and transform these actions,
and know that God will take them and multiply them,
as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that
the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”