By Michael Rossmann
With a recently published collection of her letters edited by Robert Ellsberg, there has been an outpouring of articles about Dorothy Day lately.
Day, who with Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement, has been named a Servant of God and may one day be canonized a saint, though she is “already a saint,” as some inspired by her work with the poor and her promotion of nonviolence are fond of saying.
I have noticed many in my generation, especially those committed to social justice, are inspired by the example of Day, even young adults who feel somewhat distant from the Catholic Church or those who are not even Catholic. A recent video of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s homily on the anniversary of Day’s birth further highlighted for me Day’s ability to connect with those who may feel somewhat distant from the Church.
While mine is not the first generation to be concerned with authenticity — I immediately think of Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye,” for example – businesses are recognizing that appealing to millennials’ desire for “authenticity” is extremely effective for selling products. The concept of authenticity is rather nebulous, though I see how my peers are greatly attracted to people who live in a way that corresponds to what they profess — those who do not simply talk about doing great things, but who, for example, practice an untiring commitment to service of others. Likewise, there seems to be a strong reaction against any sort of hypocrisy.
This is likely related to the tremendous growth in those who would identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The phrase is now so ubiquitous that people even use the acronym SBNR. Many young people are attracted to “spirituality,” but see institutional religion as arcane, prejudicial or simply unnecessary. According to a 2009 survey by LifeWay Christian Resources, 72 percent of millennials, defined as those between the ages of 18-29, reported that they were “more spiritual than religious.”
Still, I have met many students who would likely not identify as religious who have visited Catholic Worker houses or have read “The Long Loneliness,” Day’s most famous book. While hopefully Day’s “authenticity” would never be used to sell products, many millennials find her example of social commitment, simplicity and community deeply inspiring and can connect with this 20th-century “saint.” Her holiness was not lived in a monastery, but through sharing life with the marginalized and raising her daughter. While many of our saints were celibates, her letters reveal her deep experience of both spiritual and physical love.
Archbishop Dolan highlighted six insights into Day’s life in his homily, the last of which was how she was “a woman of the Church.” Day was a convert to Catholicism and simply loved being Catholic. Those who knew her personally attest to her deep commitment to prayer and to the Eucharist. At the same time, she was well aware of the flaws of that same Church. Hers was not a commitment that was blind to the warts, but rather a persevering dedication to a Church “always in need of reform,” according to Archbishop Dolan.
In this same homily in which he discussed Dorothy Day, Archbishop Dolan argued that perhaps the greatest pastoral challenge facing us today is responding to “those who want Christ without his Church.” Statistics reflecting the beliefs and practices of young Catholics are sobering. And, they are not just “statistics,” but friends, sons and grandchildren we know and love who may not see a need for the Church.
Knowing how best to respond and share the beauty and profound relevance of the Catholic Church to young people today is a tremendous challenge, especially when many may feel that being “spiritual” is sufficient. Sharing the life of Dorothy Day, particularly in how one cannot really understand her without recognizing her love of Catholicism, is a possible way to connect with young people not immediately open to the institutional Church. Her entire life illustrates “authenticity” and “spirituality,” but also a deep religious commitment and love for the Catholic Church.