Dorothy Day, Mother Frances And The Pope
“Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life -- an ideal so lofty, so high, so important, even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him.”
That wasn’t someone forgetting the name of the current pope, but rather the activist Dorothy Day writing about Pope Paul VI and his letter on human life. Day was making clear where she stood on abortion and birth control: with the Church.
I mention this because Pope Francis talked about Day in his historic address to Congress this week. And while most associate her with left-wing politics, that was not the women in full. The woman in full was one who encountered Jesus Christ regularly, seeking deeper conversion, not afraid to do the hard work of examining her conscience and serving others out of the love of God.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan did not disguise his pleasure that Pope Francis held up this holy New Yorker before the nation and the world. Hosting the pope for an evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dolan thanked him in Spanish, the Argentinian’s native tongue.
Sitting in St. Patrick’s that night, praying with Pope Francis and the thousands gathered there, I couldn’t help but think of one of the other holy women who lived in New York. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was an Italian-American missionary whose devotion to Jesus Christ brought her to build schools, hospitals and orphanages for immigrant Catholics at around the same time the cathedral on Fifth Avenue was being built.
Reading her travel diaries recently -- letters to the sisters she’d left back home -- I heard Pope Francis in her voice. During his homily, he talked about the dangers of falling into bad habits: “Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy which gradually becomes a habit, with a fatal consequence: Our hearts grow numb.” Bad habits aren’t simply things to vow to correct with New Year’s resolutions; they can be poisons to the soul. They turn us, unwittingly, into practical atheists or lukewarm Christians.
Mother Cabrini wrote: “We have become vile, cowardly and many times, for one reason or another, (we) lazily keep silence. We allow ourselves to be influenced by human respect and fail to show ourselves in public as true followers of Christ.”
She went onto say, “Virtue is mocked, and we are silent; truth is trampled upon, and nothing is said. But why the silence? Because we are vile. We need to renew our faith, to stir up in our own hearts a love of the sublime principles of our holy religion.
“Let us not be afraid of offending those who approach us, nor fear of persistently speaking the truths of faith,” she wrote. “No, if we know how to conform ourselves to the true, sweet and gentle charity of Jesus, which is also strong and energetic, no one will be offended, but will rather be won over.”
How do we do that? That’s the walk the Pope is trying to take us on.
In his United Nations speech, Pope Francis warned against ideological colonization, as he has before. It can distort our very identities, make us forget who we are. He talked about men and women and natural law at the U.N. No small thing. Yet, look at how he’s bringing people to the water of God’s laws and love: gently, as a tender father who knows what hell our hearts have been ravaged by. He knows our wounds, and will not pour salt into them, but apply a healing balm of alternatives and vision. This is the integral ecology he speaks of. This is a new, reintroduced vocabulary for us, by which we might actually communicate with one another again.
But back to Dorothy Day. Cardinal Dolan, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, encouraged the advancement of Day’s sainthood during the Pope’s visit. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said, “I don’t know if Dorothy Day is a saint, but she makes me want to be one.”
While Day is not yet a saint, Pope Francis did celebrate the life of our newest saint: Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who founded the California missions system. In doing so, Francis pointed to the universal call to holiness for Christians.
It’s one that would make for a different kind of politics, and world, if answered.