Compared to the Church as a whole, the American branch is really young. And, other than a few distinct areas like education, hasn’t had the impact of other nations like Italy or France or Spain. Yet, as with basketball in sports, there is one movement that began in the United States and has had an influence on the thought and action of people around the globe. Five months after Peter Maurin showed up in her NYC kitchen to “indoctrinate” her on the teachings of Catholic social justice Dorothy Day published the first edition of her newspaper The Catholic Worker, and, as they say, the rest is history.
That first edition was sold on the streets of New York on May Day 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, and was intended to be a direct and Catholic competitor to The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. At that time of terrible economic distress there was for many Americans a great appeal to, if not join the Communist Party, be influenced by its teachings. Dorothy Day, a former Communist turned Catholic, wanted to let the people whose lives had been most ravaged by the Great Depression – “those who think there is no hope for the future” – know that “the Catholic Church has a social program...there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”
Little did Day and her comrade-in-arms and mentor Peter Maurin know that two decades later the idea of confronting the Communists on their home turf would become a strategy of Rome when Pope Pius XII declared that, beginning on May 1st of 1955, the Church would celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. At the height of the Red Scare in America the Church Universal was fighting the growing worldwide Communist movement head-on in the same fashion as those Catholic Workers who lived in the Bowery ministering to New York’s poor.
This battle between the Church and Communism seems but a distant memory, especially when one is frantically working to get sandwiches made for the line of people waiting for dinner at The Storefront, the Catholic Worker drop-in center on Lorain Avenue a few blocks west of Saint Ignatius. On Good Friday my wife Ann, James Luisi of Campus Ministry, our fearless leader Guy Savastano from the Science Department, and I spent two hours serving those who would have been very familiar to Dorothy, Peter, and all who have in large and small ways carried their torch for the past 86 years.
Because it was Good Friday there seemed to be a greater poignancy to our attempt to bring a brief respite to those whose daily lives must seem like a constant carrying of the cross. As the heavens opened up and brought down a deluge that kept people inside for shelter as well as a meal, I was a witness to the kind of Last Supper-esque tableau that Fritz Eichenberg was famous for in his artwork that graced not only the pages of The Catholic Worker newspaper, but the wall outside of our department office on the second floor of Loyola Hall.
Dorothy Day has been vilified by those inside and outside the Church as a radical, and there are those who are scandalized that she may eventually become a canonized saint. To the charge of “radical” she would certainly plead guilty if by radical one takes that term in its primary meaning: of or going to the root or origin. In that sense she is a radical Catholic. And it is because of her constant focus on the root of the Gospel message – the Works of Mercy – that her admirers and helpers have included people as varied as Heavyweight Champion James J. Braddock (of Cinderella Man fame) and John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, the man who first proposed her cause for canonization.
Like her Lord, and like all of the holy men and women who she emulated – people like St. Benedict and St. Thérèse of Lisieux – she was a complex and fascinating person who was driven by the Great Commandment to love God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself. And in a world of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and self-empowerment, it is not a bad thing to emulate, even if just for two hours on Good Friday, the radical love of one such as Servant of God Dorothy Day.