Carrying on a Message Of Mercy and Rescue

By Colman McCarthy
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 10, 2008

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 bread.

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 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 . . ."

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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company