Monday, May 12, 2008

"Carrying on a Message Of Mercy and Rescue: After 75 Years, Catholic Workers True to Dorothy Day" Colman McCarthy - Washington Post

The Washington Post Saturday, May 10, 2008; Page B09

Carrying on a Message Of Mercy and Rescue

After 75 Years, Catholic Workers True to Dorothy Day

By Colman McCarthy

On the back patio of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House at 503 Rock

Creek Church Rd. in the District's Petworth neighborhood, sacks of

potatoes and onions lay next to crates of tomatoes, green beans,

cabbage, lettuce and broccoli. Further down, tables brimmed with


At 10 a.m. last Wednesday, and nearly every Wednesday going back more

than two decades, the elderly and infirm, or anyone strained by the

high cost of just getting by, have come for the shared bounty.

Thousands have been fed all these years.

They receive, too, words of comfort from the five-member Catholic

Worker community. Its leader is Arthur Laffin. He had spent the

morning gleaning leftover food at a Florida Avenue wholesale produce

market and was now passing it on. If anyone has been steadfast to

Dorothy Day's brand of Christianity, it is the community on Rock Creek

Church Road.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Catholic Worker.

Resolutely, it has been a lay pacifist and social justice movement,

one as independent of the Catholic hierarchy as it is spiritually tied

to Christ's call to serve the poor and combat Caesar with the moral

force of nonviolence.

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 Worker 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


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 . . ."

Day, Brooklyn-born and raised in no religion, embraced Catholicism in

1927 when she was 30. Before that, and hustling around as a freelance

reporter in Greenwich Village, she gassed the nights away with Eugene

O'Neill, drank with John Dos Passos, went to jail for women's rights

with suffragist Alice Paul, read Peter Kropotkin, had an abortion and

bore a child in a common-law marriage that sputtered out.

There ought to be something more, she thought. To the alarm of her

Bohemian pals in the speakeasies and on the barricades, she found the

elusive something in the Catholic Church and its social teachings.

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.

She would be written about by Robert Coles, Garry Wills, Dwight

Macdonald, Michael Harrington and scores of other scribes. Commonweal

magazine called her "the most significant, interesting and influential

person in the history of American Catholicism." No writer has been

closer to Day than Robert Ellsberg. This month, Marquette University

Press is publishing "The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day,"

a 669-page volume that Ellsberg spent three years pulling together.

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.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the

Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at six

area schools.


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