Tuesday, May 13, 2008

75 Years, Still "On Pilgrimage"

Over the weekend, this month's 75th anniversary of the founding of Catholic Worker was commemorated in the Washington Post...
Five homeless families live at the 13-room Worker house that opened in 1981. Thursday afternoons, the community distributes food at McPherson and Lafayette squares. On Monday mornings, it stages an antiwar vigil at the Pentagon, with another one at noon Fridays at the White House.

Like Day, Washington's Catholic Workers are pacifists. Like her, they live in voluntary poverty and are loyal sacramental Catholics. And when the United States goes to war, they are often jailed on nonviolent protest, civil disobedience charges.

It was on May 1, 1933, when Dorothy Day, then 36, went to a Communist Party rally in New York's Union Square. She worked the Depression-era crowd, handing out her eight-page newspaper, the Catholic Worker. Included with articles about poverty, unemployment and injustice was Day's editorial laying out the paper's mission: " . . . For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight -- this little paper is addressed. It is printed to call their attention to the fact the Catholic Church has a social program, to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare."

Upon Day's death in 1980 at age 83 on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where she had lived a half-century with the Bowery's lost and lonely, speculation arose that the communal movement would soon vanish without its founder's energy. The opposite has happened. The Rock Creek Church Road house and the other 184 Catholic Wor ker houses of hospitality are carrying on the works of mercy and rescue in all parts of the United States. They accept no federal money and seek no tax exemption.

Three years after the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper, circulation rose from 2,500 copies to more than 150,000. Still eight pages published monthly, now with a circulation of 25,000, it is the country's only paper that can rightly claim that it has held to one editorial line, one typographical layout and one price: a penny a copy.

In her column, "On Pilgrimage," Day ranged from reportage on the doings at the Worker's soup and bread lines to criticism of the church hierarchy. In the 1960s, when a Catholic cardinal went to the White House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon and when another cardinal was in Vietnam blessing U.S. warplanes, Day unloaded: "What a confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings, including little babies, children, the sick, the aged . . ."...

During the next 50 years, she would attend daily Mass, pray the monastic hours, feed and house uncounted thousands of jobless and homeless, write eight books, be hounded by the FBI, bond with labor unions, be imprisoned on civil disobedience charges (so often that a New York jail had a "Dorothy Day suite"), get the paper out, be uncompromising in her commitment to nonviolence and be invited by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to spend time in Hyannisport to take a break from all the frenzy....

After Day died Nov. 29, 1980, no Catholic bishop attended her Requiem Mass. Years later, when she was not around to rebuke churchmen for their just-war theories, it was safe to call on the Vatican to create Saint Dorothy. One promoter for sainthood was Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, in front of whose St. Patrick's Cathedral Day and fellow Catholic Workers had often protested the Vietnam War that the cardinal, as the U.S. church's military vicar, backed.

If Day ever is canonized, it might be as the patron saint of holy irony.
[Correcting an error in the Post piece, the late Cardinal Terence Cooke -- himself a Servant of God whose cause for canonization is likewise open -- was present at Day's funeral to greet and bless the body on its reception at Manhattan's Visitation church.]

...while CNS paid its tribute as the movement's 1 May anniversary approached:
Seventy-fifth anniversary or not, lunch still must be served at the New York Catholic Worker's Maryhouse. Hungry people will be waiting, as they are every day.

Jane Sammon knows the routine: hospitality, meals, conversation, responding in whatever way possible to people in need. She's been at Maryhouse for nearly 36 years, arriving in the summer of 1972 from Cleveland to live a life of voluntary poverty and personal sacrifice with a deep commitment to the works of mercy. It's a way of life many admire but few venture to try.

Maryhouse is a place where the world is made better for people "little by little," as Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day often would say, recalling the example of St. Therese, the Little Flower of Jesus. It's a place where people are readily welcomed and their human dignity is uplifted. Day wanted a place where Christ would feel at home.

"It's an amazing thing that really has very little to do with us," said Sammon, 60. "It's the grace of God that keeps us going."...

Today, Catholic Worker houses are as diverse as the people running them. Each house is autonomous with no formal rules except to carry out the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, burying the dead.

The depth of prayer and spirituality varies as well. Some community members walk in lock step with the Catholic Church while, as Forest said, "others would cross the street to not be blessed by the pope." The vast majority are somewhere in the middle.

Hospitality takes many forms, from storefront drop-in centers to comfortable places for people to lay their heads at night. Some communities welcome people with AIDS or HIV. Others accept single mothers and their children or homeless men, many facing addictions or mental illness.

In Stillwater, Minn., Solanus Casey House welcomes homeless mothers and their children in two restored 19th-century houses. "It's an utterly ordinary thing we do," house founder Tom Loome told the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington April 18. "It is called Christianity. It is not original what we do. At least we hope it's not original."
As previously noted, the once-sealed diaries of Dorothy Day -- whose cause for canonization continues apace -- were recently published.