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Vatican to Weigh Sainthood For Reformer Dorothy Day

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000; Page A03

The Vatican yesterday agreed to consider whether to grant sainthood to Dorothy Day, heroine of the Catholic left, journalist, anarchist and pacifist, ignoring objections from church traditionalists and possibly Day's own wishes.

The move marks only the first step on a long road to sainthood, which among other things requires that Day's supporters prove she is responsible for two miracles. The Vatican opens dozens of cases each year, and only a handful of candidates are eventually canonized.

In America, perhaps no one's cause was more anticipated than that of Day, who died in 1980 at the age of 84. Pope John Paul II has said he wants to speed up the musty canonization process to create new saints for the modern age.

Few would shake up traditions more than Day. She converted to Catholicism after a youth of reckless adventure; by age 30, she'd had an abortion, a daughter out of wedlock and a divorce. Most of her friends were socialist intellectuals on the Lower East Side of New York, and were none too fond of the church.

After converting, she dedicated her life to New York's poor and immigrants, building hospitality homes that operated much like homeless shelters. Her endeavor grew into the national Catholic Worker movement, a social justice crusade conducted in revolutionary tones new to the church.

Her nonconforming nature was acknowledged yesterday by Cardinal John O'Connor, who at times has been reluctant to promote her cause.

"It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint," he wrote. "Not a 'gingerbread' saint or a 'holy card' saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the church."

Many traditionalists think Day's radical past makes her an unsuitable role model. But many of her activist friends resist it for the opposite reason. To them, canonization will whitewash her life and turn it into a tidy inspirational story.

"I want to let you know how sick your canonization moves are," her granddaughter Maggie Hennessy wrote to the Catholic magazine that first proposed it in 1987. "You have completely missed her beliefs and what she lived for if you are trying to stick her on a pedestal."

Yesterday, a fellow activist, Daniel Berrigan, seemed resigned. "I guess it's a fait accompli," he said. "The dead don't ever own the dead."

Day herself resisted the honor. Nervous about having her life examined, she burned all copies of her novel "Eleventh Hour," a fictionalized account of her early life, including her abortion and sexual adventures.

When asked about sainthood directly, she famously quipped: "Don't trivialize me by trying to make me a saint."

Those who pushed her cause yesterday defended the decision.

"I'd rather risk having her tamed than forgotten," said Tom McGrath, publisher of U.S. Catholic, the social justice monthly that first proposed the idea. "She belongs to the ages. She's a saint for our times, someone who can help us make sense of the challenges of the time."

Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897 to Protestant parents relatively indifferent to religion. In her teenage years, the family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where a friend introduced Day to Catholicism and to the plight of the poor.

"The destitute were always looked upon as the shiftless, the worthless, those without talent of any kind," she wrote in her 1952 autobiography, "The Long Loneliness." "Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"

At the University of Illinois, she was famous for always reading. Most worldly possessions were easy to give up, she once said, but books were her only weakness. She read Jack London and Upton Sinclair, but mostly she loved the Russians, especially Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Before finishing college she moved back to New York, where she discovered the tavern life of the Bowery. She passed many nights drinking with writers Eugene O'Neill and John Dos Passos. In those days, Berrigan wrote, she was "tumultuous, crazy in youth, sexually rampant. A spectacular sinner."

At 21 she became pregnant and had an abortion. Later she married another man but soon divorced. At age 30 she was pregnant again, and kept the child. In the years after the birth of her daughter, Tamar Therese, Day slowly became more devout.

With the inspiration of French intellectual Peter Maurin, Day founded a magazine called the Catholic Worker in 1933. Their creed could be described equally well as traditional Christian or radical: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. The paper cost a penny, as it still does today.

Day lived the rest of her life in one of the Catholic Worker's hospitality homes or communal farms around the country. At each the poor were her guests, welcome to eat, bathe, pull up a cot. When the situation required, she agitated on their behalf, and a few times wound up in jail.

Three years after her death, the Claretian missionaries in Chicago took up her cause. They collected volumes of her writing and letters and testimonies from others about her good works. Eventually, they convinced Cardinal O'Connor to lobby the Vatican on her behalf.

Now that the Vatican has opened the case, her supporters must submit convincing evidence. Already, they have one potential miracle: Sociologist Robert Coles, a Day admirer, said his wife prayed to Day and experienced a healing, said McGrath.

If Day's journey to sainthood moves swiftly, she could become the third native-born American saint in the church's history.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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