The famous Catholic Worker activist Dorothy Day once remarked, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
That hasn’t stopped the Archdiocese of New York, however, from moving forward with a “canonical inquiry,” the next step required to become eligible for beatification and then canonization, when a figure officially becomes a saint.
America magazine reports that Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened the canonical inquiry on April 19, which will review her writings — published and unpublished — as well as interview people who interacted with Day while she was still alive. Currently, Day is recognized as a “Servant of God,” but after the inquiry, she could be named “Venerable,” the step just before beatification.
But will Day’s aversion to being called a saint hold up her cause? In 2012, James Martin of America asked this very question of Robert Ellsberg, who both knew her personally and formerly served as editor of the Catholic Worker, the flagship newspaper of the movement Day founded with Peter Maurin.
Saying that Day’s “own relationship with saints was anything but cynical,” Ellsberg relates that she “devoted many years of her life writing a life of St. Therese of Lisieux.”
He added, “I have no doubt she would have delighted in the news that St. Therese was named a Doctor of the Church. It is unthinkable that she would have responded by saying, 'That means basically that Therese is not to be taken seriously!'”
Even more importantly, as Rose Marie Berger wrote in Sojourners:
“[Dorothy Day] didn’t want recycling food from dumpsters, sleeping on a stinky prison cell floor, and getting to [M]ass every afternoon to be dismissed as being only for special people. She had no time for halos without hard work. She practiced the Pauline understanding that all people of God are called to be saints – not just those with a Vatican imprimatur.”
Day understood the “universal call to holiness” before Vatican II did.
“As she [Day] noted, ‘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 man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there.’ In other words, Dorothy Day regarded sanctity as the ordinary vocation of every Christian—not just the goal of a chosen few.”
Nevertheless, Ellsberg said, “there is now plenty of praise for Dorothy Day that would have provoked her famous scowl,” a scowl that comes through almost audibly as you read through this 1976 interview Day did with Sojourners. When Jim Wallis asked her about her “relationship with Catholic congressmen who want to work through the system,” she had a very curt response:
“I don’t know any congressmen.”
Dorothy Day was not interested in the trappings of power and prestige that the kingdoms (and democracies) of this world have to offer. She devoted her life to a very different, upside-down kingdom, which is why spending time and money on honoring Day seems a little strange.
But those figures who inspire us to choose Jesus of Nazareth’s upside-down kingdom, who remind us that the poor are blessed, who call us to imitate Christ, we call saints. And for many, that describes Dorothy Day precisely.