Catholic Worker

Houses of Hospitality

"It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” These words, which close Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, open Dan Mc­Kanan’s new book on the Catholic Worker movement today. Founded in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and McKanan’s new book describes how today’s Catholic Workers live out the “works of mercy”—including houses of hospitality for the poor, instruction on the social teachings of Christianity, and rural farming communes.

McKanan presents nuanced and vivid de­­­­­s­crip­­tions of some of the 200 Catholic Worker houses today, with particular emphasis on the increasing role of families. As befits a theological scholar, McKanan’s thought­ful research in­cludes interviews with individual workers and material from the Cath­olic Worker ar­chives at Marquette University, which complements existing literature on the movement. He points out that the movement was never monolithic, even when the founders were alive, and that frequent communication—especially in the form of newsletters and national gatherings—provide cohesion and coherence among the communities.

McKanan doesn’t neglect ongoing controversies, especially in the book’s longest section, “Rules, Families, and the Church,” where he asks: How “Catholic” is the Catholic Worker? How do families fit in? How do individual communities respond to the “Spiritual Works of Mercy,” which include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing sinners? It is under these “works” that so many Catholic Wor­ker houses take the lead in the nonviolent resistance to war that has always characterized the movement as much as its commitment to feeding and housing the poor.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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The Catholic Worker Movement after 75 Years

Christine Haider, 25, is preparing for her confirmation to the Roman Catholic Church. When asked about her confirmation name, she smiles broadly and says, "Dorothy." Seventy-five years since the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin continue to call a new generation of the faithful to a radical gospel of nonviolent resistance to evil and hospitality to [...]

The Underpinnings of Faith

When I lived in Des Moines, Iowa, I attended Friday evening Mass at the Bishop Dingman House of the Des Moines Catholic Worker. Many of my students at nearby Simpson College also showed up for worship, as well as to help serve meals, clean the house, and join in war protests during the week. There were usually 20 or so present at Mass, including the poor and not-so-poor, African Americans and Latinos, children and grandparents, college students, and high-school dropouts. For a while there was even a black cat that sat purring in front of the coffee table-turned altar.

One night an inebriated man came in from the street, sat down, and loudly and nonsensically interrupted everything as we tried to make our way through the order of worship. Because Mass tended to be informal and open to anyone’s contribution and participation, we tried to keep things going. But when it got to the point where the service could no longer continue, Father Frank Cordaro paused and gently escorted the man to the kitchen, where he was given a seat and a warm meal. The rest of us were stunned. When Father Frank returned he said to us, “Don’t you hate it when Jesus does that?” Of course, in asking this he was echoing Dorothy Day, who was deeply influenced by St. Benedict, who reminded his monks that “everyone was to be received as Christ.”

Day and the Catholic Worker movement she co-founded in 1933 with Peter Maurin in New York City are certainly not foreign to many readers. Perhaps less familiar are the intellectual ideas and spiritual practices that ground and sustain the Catholic Worker. Acquainting us “with the richness of thought, contemplation, and action that has inspired and characterized the Catholic Worker movement” is the aim of The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, authored by Mark and Louise Zwick, who are the founders of the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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The One Constant Is Change

Sojourners Community

It was both a blessing and an opportunity to meet Dorothy Day. Sojourners was just in its beginnings, and the founder of the Catholic Worker was nearing the end of her life. We spent some time together on a few occasions, once to interview her for the magazine (December 1976). Dorothy, characteristically, had tough and probing questions for me, but was also very affirming and encouraging of what we were trying to do. Perhaps she felt some connection to a group of young Christians who were trying to start both a magazine and a community among the poor, just as she had done. I even remember the fond description of Sojourners by her co-workers in New York as "a Protestant Catholic Worker"!

In one of those conversations with Dorothy, I enthusiastically described our vision of Christian community. She listened pensively, but her eyes betrayed a certain skepticism. "I thought we were creating a community too," she sort of sighed, "but the Catholic Worker turned out to be more of a school." Over the years many people came to the Catholic Worker, but most of them eventually left to go on to other things. While the list of those who passed through the Catholic Worker is quite impressive, few stayed and I sensed that Dorothy missed many of them.

Well, it’s been more than two decades since that conversation with Dorothy and, now, I would have to say the same thing about Sojourners. Literally hundreds and hundreds of community members, interns, and worshipers have come and gone, most to lives and work very consistent with Sojourners’ vision. Like Dorothy, I once hoped and even expected that most people would stay; but it wasn’t to be. Now we are like a dispersed community, a Diaspora, scattered across the country and around the world.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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Which Future Will We Choose?

In Oklahoma City, 168 people died because they were in the way of somebody's anger at the government. In Chicago, more than 500 people died from the intense heat because nobody paid enough attention to them. These two recent events are each signs of the times, to use the biblical language-and ominous ones at that.

Last spring, the home-grown terrorism that destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and injured and killed hundreds of people sent shivers throughout the country. Have we become so divided and angry that executing our neighbors (and their children) becomes a political act? Will our ideological passions, economic dislocations, racial polarization, culture wars, apocalyptic fears, and political scapegoating be too much for the fragile American social fabric?

New tribalisms are replacing notions of the common good. Who we are against has become the rallying cry of politics, instead of what we are for. Demagoguery threatens the spirit of democracy as the dialogues of old town meetings are replaced by the new "ditto-heads" of talk radio. When hate talk is the language of politics, violence always results.

THE DEATHS in Chicago this summer are another indication of our fraying social fabric. Most of the heat victims were elderly and poor; many lacked the family and community support systems that ensure elderly relatives and neighbors are checked on during such a stressful time.

Public support systems also failed. Insufficient numbers of medical and rescue workers resulted in inadequate responses to emergencies or busy firefighters trying to cope with health problems they were ill-equipped to handle.

Perhaps most distressing were the people who were afraid to go outside or even open their windows for fear of crime. Trapped and isolated, they died from the heat as prisoners in their own homes-both a horrible way to die and a frightening commentary on our relationship to each other.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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