Dorothy Day and the Pope

The Halls of Congress well could have shuddered when Pope Francis stood before a joint session of Congress and listed Dorothy Day as one of four great people who represent the best of America. Dorothy Day is considered by many Catholics and others to be an American Mother Teresa. Yet when I met her in 1974, she was virtually banned by the Roman Catholic Church and the priests around her celebrated mass at risk of excommunication.

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had a classified file that described her as a communist dupe and “a very erratic and irresponsible person.” Not from what I could see.

Pope Francis’s mention of Dorothy Day offers insight about who he is and what the Catholic Church is and whence it has come.

I was a very young reporter at the Hudson Register Star in upstate New York in the late fall of 1974 when a dispute arose in Tivoli, a bucolic Hudson River village of about 1,000 people, adjacent to Bard College.

Local burghers were concerned about the streams of hapless men who came to the village in search of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Workers retreat house established in a dilapidated old mansion there. The village council was looking at plumbing, electrical and health violations in the 19th Century building and its outlying shacks.dorothy-day

I remember driving up the rutted driveway to the old mansion one day that fall and that one or two men wearing thread-bare clothes were shuffling up the hill on the side of the road as I got there.

The building, it was true, was in bad repair, but something else was going on. I recall being brought in to meet Dorothy Day, who was just about to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday. She was seated in a broken down easy chair, slightly reclined and wore simple clothing, a shawl or a sweater. Sharp, thin features, a bright, warm gaze under glasses that needed repair;  she spoke easily and calmly about what she was doing.

She said she split her time between a Catholic Workers’ site in Brooklyn and this place in Tivoli. The problem was that every time they opened a soup kitchen or a retreat it was immediately filled and overcrowded. The need was great.

She told me that people were always afraid of having poor folks in their midst, and that was probably the trouble the organization was feeling from the village fathers of Tivoli. But helping these poor men was her vocation — some of them winos, homeless, mentally ill, or just too poor and alone to have any place to go. The goal was to offer these men safety, mercy and forgiveness. No drinking, no carousing, a place of meditation.

She invited me to stay for a Mass, the only Mass I have ever attended. It was celebrated by a priest who wore a work shirt and jeans, broke bread and gave communion — probably not with real wine — and then joined in with a communal lunch. I remember beans and rice and garden vegetables grown on the property.

The rest of the memory is fogged by time, except that I did write a feature about Dorothy Day, impressed as I was by these Catholic Workers who saw that their simple mission in life was to serve the poorest of the poor, and to live among them as they did.

After publication, I received a phone call from a local nun who asked — virtually demanded — that I meet her and a friend for a cup of coffee in nearby Rhinebeck. I didn’t know what to expect.

The two nuns showed up nervously, hoping no one was watching. For the next hour, they grilled me for every detail of my visit with Dorothy Day, tearfully confessing that their mother superior had banned all contact with Dorothy and the Catholic Workers, even though they lived less than ten minutes away. Was she healthy? Was she eating well? What did she say exactly? They wanted to hold the hand that had held the hand of Dorothy Day. They wanted every detail. They were devoted to Dorothy Day, who was the embodiment of why they had entered their vocations.

As I moved on from upstate New York, I reported from Brazil and Argentina and Central America, where I met other renegade Catholic Church workers who took, as Liberation Theology put it, “the option for the poor.” Now, for the first time in a long time, the renegades — who saw their humble purpose as central to the meaning of their faith — are seated at the center of their church with a bishop, now pope, who agrees and breaks bread with them.


Popes for All Seasons [editing note]

The refugees, tens of thousands, teeming across Europe, sought nothing more than a safe haven and an end to violence, life for their children.

As soon as the pope recognized the scope of the looming refugee crisis, he appealed emotionally to European and American leaders. He called on Catholic dioceses to take responsibility and welcome a strong quota of people to save them.

Some leaders listened, others did not. The president of the United States agreed to admit some thousands of refugees — he faced opposition from ultra-conservatives in Congress if he tried to do more.

The year was 1938, seventy-seven years ago. Substitute the names and we go back to the future.

Pope Pius XI, a relative progressive, stood out from the conservatives around him  decried attacks on the Jews.

Today, Pope Francis calls on every Roman Catholic parish, on all people of conscience, to aid Middle Eastern refugees:

“Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees — fleeing death by war and famine, and journeying towards the hope of life — the Gospel calls, asking of us to be close to the smallest and forsaken. To give them a concrete hope,” he said. “And not just to tell them: ‘Have courage, be patient!’ ”

President Roosevelt was hamstrung by people in Congress and their constituencies: American xenophobia warned that there likely would be terrorist agents among prospective asylum-seekers.

On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, I was reminded about the parallels of history. I wrote about Pope Pius XI and his last minute attempts to challenge Hitler, Mussolini and anti-Semitism in The Pope’s Last Crusade.

A new generation of refugees faces slurs and racist attacks–and only occasionally a welcome sign. Jews then were fleeing Hitler and Germany. Among the ironies of history, Syrians, Iraqis and other Middle Eastern refugees now find Germany among the most welcoming and hospitable countries.

How does a papal message or a pope’s moral stance convert into real change?

Notes on Pope Francis’s visit.

Among the many opinion pieces on Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, George Will’s take on the pontiff is notable for its shrill, ultimately absurd complaints.

He writes in The Washington Post that the pope

“…stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”

Will’s frothing rejection of the pope is an argument based on a ridiculous false premise, that Francis represents a rejection of modernity and all advancements in agriculture and capital development in the last century. Nonsense. Will sets up a straw man and then tries to beat it down as much as he would try to recreate President Obama as a socialist.

Gerald Posner, also writing in the Washington Post, does make an important point, when he renews his call for Francis to open the Vatican files on World War II:

“If Francis does not act to open the Vatican’s Holocaust-era files, they could stay sealed for a very long time. It took more than 400 years for the church to release some of its Inquisition files. And it was not until 2007 — after more than 700 years — that the Vatican cleared the Knights Templar of a heresy charge and opened the trial records.”

Pope Pius XI is little recalled for his bold stance against Hitler and anti-Semitism. But his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was elected in 1939 as his successor, Pope Pius XII. Pius XII was as different from Pius XI as Francis is from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

How much support did Pius XII give to the Nazis and at what profit? Posner asks.

Francis, progressive though he may be, has been equivocal on previous pledges to open the files.

“Those sealed records may help settle debate about whether the wartime pope, Pius XII, could have done more to prevent the Holocaust. They could also resolve questions about the extent to which the Vatican did business with the Third Reich, particularly whether it invested in German and Italian insurance companies that earned outsize profits by escheating the life insurance policies of Jews sent to the death camps.”

Pius XI then and Francis now spoke out for morality and change. Pius XI was praised by Jewish leaders in the United States at the time, even though his advocacy came late in his papacy. Pius XII muted his predecessor’s attempts to attack anti-Semitism.

Francis has hinted at major changes at the Vatican. But as George Santayana always reminds us: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”