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Home : News : Nation and World
12/23/2012 8:07:00 AM
Movement on sainthood cause for Dorothy Day met with mix of emotions
Catholic News Service/Bob Fitch
Dorothy Day is pictured at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, New York, in 1970.
Catholic News Service/Bob Fitch
Dorothy Day is pictured at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, New York, in 1970.
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — Patrick Jordan gazed down at the gravestone of a dear friend who died 32 years ago, a woman the Catholic Church may one day canonize.

He squatted in front of the grave, made the sign of the cross and then offered a prayer for Dorothy Day, an American peace activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Jordan's visit to Day's gravesite in the Cemetery of the Resurrection in Staten Island, N.Y., came Nov. 28, the day before the anniversary of her death in 1980 at the age of 83.

As he looked down at the simple marker, Jordan noticed the plastic flowers that had been placed by his friend's final resting place. "Dorothy didn't like fake flowers, but she would have appreciated the thought," he said.

What would she have thought about the U.S. bishops' endorsement of her sainthood cause by voice vote during their fall general assembly in Baltimore?

Jordan, a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper Day helped launch in1933, was not sure how she would have reacted to such overwhelming support from the bishops.

Though Jordan has no doubt that Day is a saint -- and he's not surprised the votes needed to move the cause forward were garnered -- he and others associated with the Catholic Worker Movement did not expect the bishops to give it their full support.

"I had an inkling that this was going to happen, so it wasn't terribly surprising, but it is really quite astounding in itself that bishops who are divided on so many issues, in a church that is so polarized, can find something in Dorothy Day," said Deacon Tom Cornell, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and a decades-long associate of Day.

Though Day always showed respect for the Catholic Church's hierarchy, her opinions and actions did not always gain warm feelings from American bishops during her lifetime, particularly during World War II when she maintained a staunch pacifist position.

Day also had an abortion when she was a young woman. It was a decision she later regretted and explored in her novel, "The Eleventh Virgin."

People often refer to a quote from Day herself, in which she proclaimed, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

Though that quote is repeated often when this provocative Catholic figure's potential canonization is discussed, Day herself never dismissed the saints, said friend Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, editor of Day's published diaries and letters, and a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker.

"Dorothy took saints extremely seriously," Ellsberg told Catholic News Service during a recent interview in his Ossining, N.Y., office. "Her whole life was spent in dialogue with the saints. That is to say, mediating figures who showed in their own time they embodied the challenge of faithfulness."

Because Day's ministry was based in New York City, the bishop promoting her cause is Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan. The cause was first undertaken by one of Cardinal Dolan's predecessors in New York, Cardinal John O'Connor.

As the Vatican requires, Cardinal Dolan as the diocesan bishop promoting a cause consulted the bishops in his region on the advisability of pursuing it. He then chose to seek a consultation with the full body of U.S. bishops, which resulted in the voice vote.

Day certainly suspected that a canonization cause on her behalf could be launched after her death. Though she scoffed at the notion during her lifetime, people who knew her intimately say she had conflicting thoughts on the process that goes into the church naming someone a saint.

"Our lives are full of contradiction," said Martha Hennessy, one of Day's nine grandchildren, in an interview with CNS at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker residence in the East Village section of New York. It's also the house where Day worked and died.

"You know, she stated, 'don't call me a saint, I don't want to be dismissed that easily,'" Hennessy, 57, said, "and she also said we're all called to be saints. But, I also see the hand of God pushing her in a direction that she didn't necessarily choose or understand at the time.

"I mean, there are other things she would rather have done," Hennessy said. "But, in the end it was very clear that her life took the direction that it took, because she responded to hearing the voice of God."

Those who knew Day believe she already is a saint, even if the Catholic Church never officially recognizes her as one.

They also believe the church can learn much from her life.

"What I'm hoping for is that one of her more provocative pieces gets excerpted and gets put into the office of readings," Cornell said, "so that every bishop, priest and deacon would read it, maybe once a year."

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