Later in February, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Saint Scholastica will be hosting an actress, who will perform a one-woman play entitled “Haunted by God: The Life of Dorothy Day.”
While many people have never heard of her, Day played an important role in 20th century efforts for peace and justice. When Pope Francis spoke to the U.S. Congress in 2015, he named four people he considered great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement,” he said. “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints. How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world!”
Perhaps some of the legislators, and those who heard the talk, actually looked her up and learned something about her. She didn’t start out as a Catholic but led the life of a non-conformist social activist in the early decades of the 1900s. After meeting fellow radical activist Peter Maurin in 1932, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
This was a time of great social revolution, with special concern for the troubles of the impoverished working class, in the wake of the Depression and political turmoil throughout the world. She, like so many others of this time, had been attracted to the politics of socialism and the rise of Communism as a political alternative to the clash of the classes.
What she came to realize was that the message of Jesus was very much about the struggles of the poor and the demand for justice. It blended the best of the socialist desire to stand with the poor and a faith element which brought an even greater concern for the dignity of each person, especially the downtrodden and oppressed.
She and her colleagues began to counter the growing Communist protests and publications with ones that were centered firmly in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholic Worker houses and events began to spring up around the country and they are still a strong and visible witness today even as Communism without the God element has struggled and collapsed in so many places.
Because of her radical views on some socialist leaders and policies, such as her early support for Castro, and her pacifist stance on the various wars fought in her lifetime, she fell in and out of favor with the institutional church. After her death in 1980, a movement was begun to have her officially declared a saint, perhaps something with which she herself would not have been at all comfortable.
The reason I titled this column “Dorothy Day in Atchison” is that the real Dorothy Day actually came to Atchison to give a talk at Mount St. Scholastica a half century before this current play about her life. If she is canonized, she would be the third saint to visit the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, who hosted both St. Francis Cabrini and St. Teresa of Calcutta during their lifetimes.
The sisters have always welcomed the hard messages of saints who loved the poor. While recognizing the strides that have been made, Pope Francis urged Congress and all of us forward:
“I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. … The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”
May we all, as Dorothy Day described it, be “haunted by God.”