On this day in 1897, Dorothy Day was born. And although she famously insisted, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” the church recently opened her cause for canonization, giving Day the title Servant of God.
Many of us know her story: she was a journalist and an activist; a pacifist, a radical, a devoted mother, and Commonweal contributor. Perhaps most importantly, she was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which included (and still includes) both a daily newspaper and houses of hospitality. Commonweal editor George Shuster first connected Day and Peter Maurin, as Day writes in her autobiography The Long Loneliness:
The man introduced himself briefly: “I am Peter Maurin.” He pronounced it Maw-rin, with an accent on the first syllable, deliberately anglicizing the word. “George Shuster, editor of The Commonweal, told me to look you up. Also, a red-headed Irish Communist in Union Square told me to see you. He says we think alike.”
(We’re not sure who the red-headed Irish Communist was, but it seems likely he was another Commonweal reader.)
Pope Francis mentioned Day in his short list of saintly American models while addressing Congress during his trip to the United States last year, remarking on her “passion for justice.” This passion for justice was formed early on, after witnessing the resolve and service of her California neighbors following a damaging earthquake. She became a committed advocate for the poor and oppressed, reporting on “bread riots,” strikes, and labor issues. She participated in hunger strikes with suffragists to protest the injustice of denying women the vote, and then for the subpar jail conditions when they were arrested for these protests. She and Maurin regularly referred to their work as an effort to form a society in which it was “easier to be good.”
I never met her, but Day feels as dear to me as a sister. Maybe it’s the many texts I’ve read, both by and about her; maybe it’s the distinctly American flavor of her Catholicism or our shared love of Dostoyevsky. Maybe it’s the Commonweal connection—the ideas and people encountered in the magazine. Or maybe it’s that, unlike so many other female saints in the Catholic Church, Day was neither a virgin nor a martyr, making her life one that I—a married woman in a modern pluralistic society—can actually emulate.
Whatever the root of my affection, I woke up feeling hopeful about casting my vote this morning. In a campaign season that has revealed some of society’s more craven inclinations, in which misogyny and fear-mongering and racism and xenophobia have played outsized roles, I’m grateful for the coincidence of today’s date. Day was a model for a kind of civic engagement that simultaneously rejected a lazy eschatological sense of “future” justice and resisted conflating active participation in society too closely with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Today of all days, it’s good to be reminded of a woman who managed to be both steeped in politics and stubbornly hopeful about humanity: a seeming miracle for our times—perhaps her first on the road to sainthood.