Monthly Archives: November 2012

Saint Dorothy Day and our call to be saints

Thirty two years ago Dorothy Day died quietly in Mary House in Manhattan, one of the many Catholic Worker houses which her work inspired and which welcome the poor and challenge war-makers.

The best biography I have found is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace. I have found many of her writings moving, especially the Long Loneliness, her memoir of her life, her conversion, and the early years of the Catholic Worker.

This past month Dorothy Day has once again surfaced in the press when the US bishops endorsed her cause for canonization at their meeting.

Yet, would Dorothy Day be happy about this? She once said: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” (Another reflection on this can be found in this chapter from Jim Forest’s biography.)

Why would she say this?

First of all, she believed that we are all called to be saints. If we put people on pedestals, we may think that all this is beyond us – and that we can never aspire to be saints. But, as she would acknowledge, sanctity is not something we can do by ourselves. But, with God’s grace, we can become the holy ones God wants us to be.

Secondly, calling someone a saint can be a way of smoothing over the rough edges of that person. No saint is without imperfections, which God uses to make us holy. If we fail to recognize the limitations of saints, we may close ourselves off to our call to sanctity, with all our limitations and imperfections.

Thirdly, calling people saints can blunt their challenge to our world and to our way of life. Saints offer us a call to conversion and transformation, not just a nice story to edify us.

But to look at saints as real persons can help us recognize our call to conversion.

I remember a case where Dorothy Day did that. A few years ago I taught the “Introduction to Catholicism” class at Iowa State University.  The last book the students were to read was Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. I wanted them to see Catholicism practiced. One student later shared with me that that book led her to go to confession after many years of being away from the sacrament.

I think one of the best ways to let Dorothy Day help us to change – other than going to help out at a local Catholic Worker – would be to read Jim Forest’s All Is Grace, a biography of Dorothy Day, published in 2011 by Orbis Books. There we get a sense of the complexity of her character and a taste of her radical commitment to the poor and against war.

Day should challenge us, not only by her life with the poor but also with her radical critique of US economics and politics. But we should also let ourselves be moved by her deep piety – nurture with daily prayer and participation in the Eucharist.

We should not forget that she combined the prophetic with the contemplative.

I met her once at the Catholic Worker in New York City after one of the Friday Night Clarification of Thought sessions in the 1970s. I don’t remember what she said, since people were cleaning up. But what I most remember was her ordinariness. She came across to me as a gentle grandmother.

I also occasionally saw her when I went to Mass at Nativity Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, around the corner from Mary house. She and other Catholic Workers came and were nourished at the Table of the Lord so that they could serve and feed those in need.

And so, Dorothy Day, should challenge us, to make of our ordinary lives live of grace and holiness, to serve the poor, and to speak out forcefully against war.

That is the way that Dorothy Day can be canonized, not in Rome but in the lives of people of faith throughout the world.

A different kind of King

When Jesus stood before Pilate, he said firmly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18: 36)

This doesn’t mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with the world. The whole message of Jesus was the transformation of the world in light of that Kingdom.

It is, as the late Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., wrote in the Word Encountered,

It is a kingdom not fought for with old means of warfare. Rather, it testifies to truth. It will not kill for truth, it will die for it. If Jesus is king, he will be a suffering king. He will not demand ransom. He will be ransom. He will win, not by spilling the blood of others, but by offering up his own.

This means a life of transformation, of conversion, of continually seeking the Kingdom of God.

It means a church that does not seek its own rights, but seeks to wash the feet of all and to serve the least of the world.

I worry about a church that seeks power and privilege, that wraps itself in incense and fancy garments, that proclaims grand campaigns for its own religious liberty but that does not bow down to wash the feet of the poor.

And I worry about myself, when I want to be recognized – rather than recognizing Jesus in those I work with.

The Kingdom of God is here – and is not yet fulfilled. I see signs of it in the poor I work with here in Honduras and in the people who serve others throughout the world, in nursing homes, in soup kitchens, and in the midst of their families.

Would that the signs of the Kingdom would be clearer.

But I think that means willing to make ourselves the servants of others – as Christ did.

Learning Thanksgiving from the Poor

I think I first really understood what gratitude is when I lived for several months with the poor in 1992.

On a sabbatical from my work in campus ministry in Ames, I spent six months in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, assisting the work of the Salvadoran pastor and the five US sisters who had served there during the war.

They asked me to help in the farthest region of the parish, a four hour walk from Suchitoto. There I had the blessing to stay with Esteban and Rosa Elbia Clavel who had turned the ruins of cattle stalls into a house for their many children. So that I wouldn’t put anyone out of a bed I brought a hammock to sleep in.

The community was new, mostly of people who had fled the war and had found this land unused and abandoned. Esteban and his family had fled to Honduras during the civil war after he, a delegate of the Word, had received a series of death threats.

The house was small but the family was so open to my presence among them.

Every morning I would awake with Esteban calling on his daughters to get up and walk about 30 minutes to get water.  The food was simple – tortillas and beans, often too salty, but it was shared. (I usually brought some vegetables or fruit to share whenever I came.)

The house was adequate but during the rainy season the water seeped under the door and passed under my hammock.

In the midst of this, I woke up many a morning with three words on my lips and engraved in my heart – ¡Gracias a Dios! Thanks be to God!

Some of this, I know, was due to the love I received from the Clavel family as well as from others in the parish.

But it was in the midst of poverty that I really discovered what thanksgiving is – a sense that all is gift, that God is good even though the situation may be horrid, and that all is gift.

I did not need things, nor even an education, to be able to give thanks. All I needed was to recognize the love of God all around me, which I found most in the love of the people I lived and worked with.

Since that time I have had a deeper understanding that our spirituality must begin with gratitude, with giving thanks.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, put it well in We Drink from Our Own Wells:

In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of this gift.

All is gift.

All is grace.

¡Gracias a Dios!

Faith, justice, and the call to conversion

What is it to be a Companion of Jesus today? It is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice which it includes?

This statement of the Jesuits from the 1970s is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador where six Jesuits lay, killed by the Salvadoran government Atlatacl battalion which was financed and many of whose members were trained by the US government. (This is one of the many scandals that makes me very critical of the government of my homeland.)

The garden at the UCA where the bodies of five of the Jesuits were found, November 16, 1980

Those who were killed included several international known Jesuit priests – the philosopher-theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, the psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, and the sociologist Segundo Montes.

Two women were also killed with them – a cook for the Jesuits and here daughter.

But among them was anther less-well know Jesuit, Juan Ramón Moreno, whose analysis of impoverishment is worth pondering today – as a call to conversion.

Basically the poor are impoverished due to hoarding and exploitation by the rich; and the rich are enriched at the cost of the impoverishment and misery of the masses. To free the poor by giving them access to living conditions consonant with their dignity as human beings and children of God entails sacrificing the privileges of wealthy oppressors. Hence, when faced with the news that the Kingdom of God is coming, the rich feel challenged and called to accept God’s justice and kindness, by allowing themselves to be re-created and changed by that justice into brothers and sisters, and persons in solidarity. ‘Be converted and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Only conversion, metanoia, change of mentality – new eyes in order to see reality with love in solidarity with which God sees it – can enable the approach of the Kingdom to ring out as good news in the ears of the rich — conversion to God who comes in gratuity and kindness to remake things, the God of the Kingdom.

Would that all of us, especially the rich nations of the world, would heed this all to conversion.


The grateful Samaritan leper

Today’s lectionary reading, Luke 17: 11-19, tells of Jesus healing ten lepers. After their healing, only one returns to Jesus, a Samaritan, whom Jesus praises for his faith and his gratitude.

All too often this parable is only seen in terms of gratitude for healing. But I think there’s much more here.

When the ten lepers come to him, Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priest which was the way that Jewish lepers could be reincorporated into the community after being healed. And so, when Jesus healed them, he made it possible for them to become full, accepted members of the community.

But only one returns to give thanks – the Samaritan.

The Samaritans were outsiders, not accepted by the Jewish religious leadership because of their “heretical” views. And so this Samaritan was an outsider and would not be accepted into the Jewish community, even if he were healed.

I find it interesting that while they were lepers, nine Jewish and one Samaritan leper were able to go around together. Their identity was in their leprosy which made them outsiders.

When all were healed, the Samaritan was probably no longer accepted by the Jewish lepers – and definitely not by the Jewish religious community. He was still an outsider.

And where did he go?

He went to Jesus, since the Jewish authorities would not welcome him, but Jesus would.

The community of Jesus is one that welcomed strangers, lepers, women, tax collectors, public sinners, and Samaritans. It was a community open to all those who were willing to put their faith in Jesus and in the Good News he brought.

The returning healed Samaritan is not only an example of faith and gratitude; he is a reminder that our faith community must be as accepting of the outsider, the “other,” as Jesus was.

And who are the outsiders today?


Martin of Tours — lover of peace and the poor

Today the Church celebrates St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest persons recognized as a saint who was not a martyr.

Born to a pagan father, he became a catechumen, preparing to join the Church. But, since his father was in the military, Martin had to join the Roman army.  There are stories that he had to be dragged away to the army in chains.

Still a catechumen he distinguished himself by his care for the poor. One cold day, near Amiens he encountered a beggar. According to his biographer Sulpicius Severus, he had only his armor and his cloak, since he had given away everything else to the poor.

Martin cut his cloak in half and gave it to the poor man.

That night, in a dream, Martin saw Christ clothed in the cloak who said, “Look. Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed Me with his garment.”

At that point in his life, Martin took seriously the works of mercy in Matthew 25, something that he lived out later when he was bishop of Tours.

Soon after this event, when the army was about to engage in battle, Martin asked to be released from the military. “I am a soldier of Christ, and I cannot fight,” he told his commander. Martin offered to go into battle the next day at the front of the troops, unarmed.

There are two stories of what happened next.

In one, the opposing army sued for peace that very night.

In the other, Martin was imprisoned for his “cowardice.”

He was released, was baptized, founded the first monastery in France, and was ricked into becoming the bishop of Tours.

Martin was a saint who loved the poor and gave his all for them – as the widow gave all she had in today’s Gospel, Mark 12: 41-44. But even more, he refused to kill, believing that following Christ meant walking the way of nonviolence and love of enemies.

He would not make many people happy these days with his concern for the poor and his refusal to kill.

He also did not believe that heretics should be executed, though he was forced to give in to one case, which he regretted all his life.

Martin of Tours is a saint whom we should remember – not just with our prayers but with our lives.


Will we become a people who live the poor, seek the way of nonviolence, and refuse to kill our enemies?


That’s quite a challenge.

The Night of Broken Glass

On the evening of November 9, 1938, Nazis storm troopers went throughout Germany, wreaking havoc on the Jewish communities. Because of the broken shops windows, it became known as Kristallnacht, Crystal Night.

As Robert Ellsberg writes in All Saints:

One hundred an ninety-one synagogues were burned to the ground. Seventy-five hundred Jewish-owned shops were destroyed….twenty thousand Jewish men were arrested and places in “protective custody” with half of them shipped to the Buchenwald concentration camps. Nearly one hundred Jews were killed.

There was almost no protest in Germany or elsewhere.

What I consider significant is the silence of the Church in Germany. There were some voices that did speak out, but they were few. One reason for the relative silence some gave was the fear  that the Church would be persecuted.

Since I first read about the silence of the Church in Nazi Germany when I was in high school, I have been moved by the need to stand up for those who are persecuted and marginalized.

This moved me to support the civil rights and anti-war campaigns of the 1960s and beyond. This has moved me to speak out in the 1980s against the US support for Latin American regimes that repressed their people and to speak against war on numerous occasions. This has led me to be here in Honduras and to support the only diocese that spoke out against the 2009 coup.

We, who are the Body of Christ in the world, need to speak out boldly and clearly in the face of the sufferings of others. If we suffer, it should be the result of defending others. It’s for this reason that I am skeptical of the cries about the fragility of religious freedom in he United States.

The Church should be bold – not in its own defense, but in defense of the poor and oppressed. The real glory of the Church are those who stand up and suffer for them, as some did in Nazi Germany. Thus I am fascinated by the stories of people like Franz Jägerstätter, Father Alfred Delp, SJ, and the young members of the White Rose. And I’m anxious to read a new book, Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich.

These stories inspire me to continue to be present for the poor and oppressed.