The Common Good
January 2005

'Saint' Dorothy

by Jim Forest | January 2005

Book Review: Dorothy Day: Portaits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis Books: 2003).

To be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church requires not only a reputation for exceptional sanctity in the saint’s lifetime but miracles after death that can be attributed to the saint’s intercession. In the case of Dorothy Day, I can think of at least one miracle of sorts: that the bishop who took the lead in proposing the addition of Dorothy’s name to the calendar of saints was a man who had devoted much of his life to the military. Before being appointed to head the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal O’Connor had been chief of Navy chaplains, retiring as a rear admiral. Yet here he was, a man who had worn a military uniform for 27 years, proposing that an oft-jailed woman who had opposed war and inspired many to become conscientious objectors should be seen as model of Christian life.

"But why does the church canonize saints?" O’Connor asked from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. "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....’"

It’s now seven years since the canonization process was launched. Dorothy has since been recognized by the Vatican as "Servant of God Dorothy Day." We may live to see the day when she will be remembered as St. Dorothy of New York - or perhaps St. Dorothy of the Open Door. After all, her name will be forever linked with hospitality. Since she started the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality in 1933, hundreds of others have been founded.

THE CALENDAR of saints is the church’s memory. Each day of the year several saints are remembered, most belonging to the distant past, some from recent times. For the curious, each day of the year offers an opportunity to learn something about at least one saint. They provide a way of looking at history that centers not on war, catastrophe, or rulers but on God’s activity in human lives, shaping history in ways that most historians overlook.

Yet there is a problem with being regarded as a saint. While canonization guarantees that a person’s life and achievements will become better known, there is the danger of the saint being seen as belonging to a slightly different species than the rest of us. Dorothy’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, raises the issue in her foreword to Rosalie Riegle’s book Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her, pointing out that sainthood "can be as lethal as complete rejection. Can’t quite bring ourselves to dismiss her teachings? Then, place them beyond the pale of us average folk."

Thank you, Rosalie! As long as your book survives, there is little danger that the memory of Dorothy Day will be pruned of all that made her fully human. Here she is complete with thorns. She had a bawdy sense of humor. She was shy. She missed books that others in community never returned. She could lose her temper as thoroughly as anyone else. When she went to confession, as she did every Saturday night, it wasn’t to remind God how faultless she was.

Riegle interviewed hundreds of people who knew Dorothy, and she has a rare gift to put on paper the wonderful stories they told her in such a way that the voices vibrate with life. This is a refreshing book about one of the most interesting and original people to inhabit the 20th century.

Jim Forest, author of Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day (among many other works), directs the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Alkmaar, Netherlands.

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