Pope Francis singled out four “great Americans” during his speech before Congress on Thursday. In addition to Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, the pope spotlighted two Catholics who are beloved by many but were controversial during their time.
Francis could have chosen from several notable Catholic Americans, but he mentioned two who had been in trouble with the church at different points of their lives, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of a book on Merton. Day, he said, was told not to use the word Catholic, and Merton was silenced by his superiors for writing against the Cold War.
“Like the pope, Dorothy Day was criticized for being a Communist when she was a Catholic,” said Martin, who is also an editor at large for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly. “Merton was seen as suspect and criticized for being open to dialogue with other religions. With Pope Francis raising him up, we see him for who he is, which is a holy prophet.”
Choosing three nonviolent Americans fit the pope’s call to end the arms trade, said Paul Elie, a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and author of a book on four Catholics, including Merton and Day.
“He chose four figures who represent different dimensions of the religious experience and the American experience.” Elie said. “He put forward three nonviolent figures out of the four he mentioned, three people who were category against violence. To do that in front of Congress shows that he himself is a radical.”
Here’s a bit more on both figures.
Day was a rebellious Catholic from Manhattan who, in the depths of the Great Depression, co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and the Catholic Worker newspaper, both of which continue to this day. She was a journalist and socialist whose conversion at age 30 propelled her into fierce advocacy for the poor and civil disobedience through World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
“We love our country and we love our president,” Day wrote in the Catholic Worker a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But, she added: “We have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.”
“I saw a bit of Germany on the west coast,” she wrote the following June, referring to Japanese internment camps in California. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover contemplated charging Day with sedition after her newspaper published an article headlined “Forget Pearl Harbor” in December 1942.
Church leaders were barraged by complaints about the Catholic Worker, from the activist tenor of its articles to the political nature of its very name. “We confess to being fools,” Day said in response, “and we wish we were more so.”
Her newspaper celebrated pacifism, railed against inequality and promoted the idea of a “human family” that Pope Francis would take up decades later. The movement spawned hospitality houses around the country that served as refuges for the poor and centers for intentional living and social-justice organizing.
In 1955, Day led a protest against civilian drills staged around mock Soviet nuclear attacks. During the Vietnam War, she trumpeted conscientious objection and nonviolent resistance, saying that “one way to end this insane war” was to “pack the jails with our men.”
Day died in New York of congestive heart failure in November 1980 at age 83. She was survived by a daughter, nine grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 40 Catholic Worker houses around the country. A campaign for her canonization has been ongoing ever since.
Today, there are over 200 Catholic Worker communities, including one in Northwest Washington named after Day herself. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house on Rock Creek Church Road NW was founded in 1981. The house organizes weekly anti-war vigils at the Pentagon and White House, and protested a technology expo hosted by defense contractors at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center earlier this month. “An arms bazaar,” the house’s residents called it, in the blunt and passionate spirit of their founder.
As the pope name-checked Day in his address to Congress, one of her granddaughters was fasting and participating in a vigil on First Avenue in New York outside the United Nations, where the pope will speak Friday.
By Thursday afternoon, the granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, 60, said she had yet to listen to the pope’s address to Congress, in which her grandmother was mentioned alongside Merton, Lincoln and King.
“I’m very thrilled that he has mentioned her in the company of the others,” she said by phone. “I need to understand more of Lincoln as part of that, but what incredible company with Merton and King, and so I very much appreciate his appreciation of those people and their work.”
And if her grandmother were alive to hear her name mentioned by the pope?
“She would probably be embarrassed,” Hennessy said, “but certainly gracious.”
Hennessy and other activists are holding banners with papal quotations about war and the environment, according to the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in the East Village. In April, during the U.N. conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Hennessy and others were arrested on First Avenue for blocking the entrance to the U.S. Mission to the U.N.
“She used to say ‘Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,’” said Kathy Boylan, who has lived at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Northwest D.C. since 1993. “I think that’s what happened with the pope. He said her message was one of social justice and serving the poor, but she was not just a saint of charity. She was a prophetic witness against war-making, and one of the first to condemn Hiroshima.”
Art Laffin, a resident of Washington’s Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house, listened to the pope’s address from outside the Capitol. He was wearing a T-shirt with a quotation from Day on it: “The only solution is love.”
“I’m so grateful that he held up Dorothy because she is certainly somebody who exemplifies what the Gospel means, in this culture of violence and war-making and oppression,” said Laffin, who’s lived at the Dorothy Day house in Northwest since 1995 and met Day two years before she died. “She was a woman of great faith and prayer, which sustained her all those years and decades in her commitment to nonviolence and to serving the poor, to speaking truth to power.”
A Catholic writer and Trappist monk, Merton was a hugely influential post-war figure for Catholics — and many non-Catholics.
The pope described Merton as “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” The monk’s contribution to America’s cultural reserves, the pope said, falls under our capacity to pursue dialogue.
After converting to Catholicism and entering a monastery in Kentucky, Merton became one of the most influential Catholic writers of the 20th century.
Here is how Francis introduced Merton before a joint meeting of Congress: “A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a ‘pointless slaughter,’ another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton.”
That framing seems to directly parallel how Merton chose to introduce himself to readers of the autobiography that made him famous, “The Seven Storey Mountain.”
That book begins: “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the border of Spain, I came into the world.”
The 1948 book would go on to sell more than 1 million copies. Merton wrote dozens of other books, poems and articles on a wide range of issues.
He was known in particular for his writings on interfaith dialogue, peace and nonviolence, all topics that Pope Francis has touched on during his U.S. trip.
This post has been updated.
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