Category Archives: Catholic Worker

Eileen Egan, artisan of peace

“My life has had a single strain: to see Jesus in every human being,
to realize that each one is inviolable and sacred in the eyes of God,
and then to translate that into everything I do.
This is the heart of anything I’ve done,
the heart of my peace work.”
Eileen Egan

Eileen Egan died on October 7, 2000, twenty years ago today.

Photo copyright by Bill Barrett. used with permission.

She was a peacemaker, an advocate of nonviolence, a friend of the world’s poor, a project coordinator with Catholic Relief Services for more than 40 years, and a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. She was a prolific writer – including books and pamphlets on nonviolence, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, refugees, and more.

In this photo she is with two great holy women of the twentieth century. She met Mother Teresa when she was working with Catholic Relief Services in India. She knew Dorothy Day, working for peace and the poor in New York City at the Catholic Worker.

But her commitment for peace was connected with her commitment to the refugee, the poor, the suffering. As she once wrote, noting that the works of war are in total contradition to the works of mercy:

“Instead of feeding the hungry, we destroy the fields that produce the food; instead of clothing the naked, we bomb factories that produce clothing; instead of giving drink to the thirsty, we bomb reservoirs. In war, the enemy is dehumanized and is no longer seen as a child of God. As Christians, we must penetrate the disguise and see Jesus in the enemy. Then, we would not kill and destroy.”

She seems to be the first US Catholic to use the term “The Seamless Garment of Life,” which was later made famous by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. In a 1981 publication of Pax Christi USA, she wrote:

“We view the protection of all life, from its conception to its end, as a seamless garment…. Such protection, credible in its consistency, extends to opposition to the taking of life by the state in capital punishment and to opposition to the taking of life by euthanasia and warfare.”

She took her peacemaking seriously – based in a life of prayer, fasting, and serv ice with the poor.

In particular, she took seriously the US bishops’ invitation to fast on Fridays in their 1983 pastoral The Challenge of Peace, ¶ 298:

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.

A friend who worked with the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, recalled that when she came to receive the diocese’ Pacem in Terris award, she did not eat meat on the Friday. She took fasting and prayer seriously.

I saw her a few times at peace meetings. She was as, noted by Jean Kelly, “The peace activist often cropped out.”  Her simple but effective presence was one of the ways that many women have shown us the works of mercy and the works of peace.

In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, ¶ 225, Pope Francis noted the need for peacemakers:

In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.

Eileen Egan is one of those who forged the path of peace and the works of justice. She is a great example for us as we try to live out our calling to be instruments of God’s peace in a strife-torn and unjust world where many suffer.

For more photos of Dorothy Day (some with Eileen Egan, Mother Teresa, and Cesar Chavez), see the web page of Bill Barrett.

Maurin, Berrigan, Macedonia, and me

If I have my notes correct, today is the birthday of Fr. Dan Berrigan in 1921 and of Peter Maurin in 1876, two men who are important prophetic figures in the church in the US.

Peter Maurin, a French peasant, met Dorothy Day in 1932 and together they found themselves beginning a movement that continues to call the Church to live the Gospel with the poor. Peter Maurin had a vision and Dorothy Day had the desire to connect her new faith with the needs of the poor.

Peter Maurin was noted for his pithy poems, his “Easy Essays,” which often contained messages that are far from easy:

The world would be better off
if people tried to become better.
And people would become better
if they stopped trying to become better off.
For when everyone tried to become better off
nobody I better off.
But when everyone tried to become better,
everyone is better off.

Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried to become richer.
And nobody would be poor
if everyone tried to be the poorest.
And everybody would be what he ought to be
if everyone tried to be
what he wants the other fellow to be.

Dan Berrigan is a Jesuit priest, poet, prophet, and peacemaker – a man of God who has put his body where his words led him. As he is reported to have said:

Your faith is rarely where your head is at and rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Inside what commitments are you sitting? Within what reality do you anchor yourself?”

Where is my butt?

It’s here in Honduras. In a way, it’s here because I was open to the call when I visited in 2006 and heard today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 16: 1-10. Paul wants to go a few places but the Spirit prevents him. Then he has a dream where a Macedonian tells him: “Come across to Macedonia and help us.”

So here I am, but is my butt really with the poor?

That’s the continuing question.

A saint to change the social order – and herself

“Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper…. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?… Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

 Today is the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day on November 29, 1980.

Dorothy Day may seem an anomaly to many people. Raised without religion, a radical activist, she hang out with literary and political outcasts. But her conception of a child led her to the Catholic Church, even though it meant separation from the man she loved who was the father of her child.

She embraced Catholicism, partly because she saw it as the religion of the poor masses. She was devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, an unlikely saint for someone who embraced radical change in society.

But for her change began from where she was. Yes, she struggled to change the world and politics, but it began where she was.

She situated herself among the poor – which was not easy for her. Her writings do not present an idealized poor; she knew their problems first hand – the smells, the quarrels, and more.

She loved the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the rosary – even as she struggled to feed the poor and help make real a little part of the world where love was made real.

She is the ideal saint for today – neither conservative, nor liberal.

She was a radical; she went to the roots. That meant she saw personal conversion as a first step, though not the only step, to personal and social transformation.

I met her once, at the end of a Friday night meeting at the Catholic Worker in New York City, as people were cleaning up. I don’t remember what she said, but I mostly remember her as being like a grandmother (which she was) – attentive, loving, present.

That reminds of the story of a little boy at a dinner at the Rochester, NY, Catholic Worker, who when he saw Dorothy said: “All day long they said Dorothy Day is coming and now she’s here and she’s just an old woman!”

She was who she was – not someone else. She sought to be the person who God made her to be.

Than meant being an old woman who prayed daily, who read Russian novelists, who listened to the opera, and one of whose last public actions was being arrested in support of farm workers.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Dorothy Day on joy

The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives
of all who encounter Jesus.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶1

 On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died in Mary House, a Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan. Since 1933 she had lived with the poor, served them, and been an advocate of nonviolence and voluntary poverty.

Her life was not easy. Living with the poor can be very difficult. She liked to quote Dostoevsky who wrote the “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Her journals, published in The Duty of Delight, reveal that, even though she struggled both with personal “demons” and with those who came to the Catholic Worker, she found great joy, nourished by her faith.

As she wrote on December 25, 1961:

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

The scriptures lived among the poor helped her uncover the sources of her joy and faith, as she wrote on September 24, 1968:

People need to be rediscovering the Gospel. They have to find them [the Gospels?] thru people who find their joy in them, and who accept the crosses of this life as preparation, as the inevitable in the way.

The spirituality which sustained her was incarnational. On March 26, 1972, she wrote:

We had a wayfarer who accepted our hospitality for a few years who used to kneel down and kiss the earth on that day (March 25 [the feast of the Annunciation]) each year, because Christ in putting on our human flesh which came from the earth, had made the earth holy.

God has become flesh and so holiness surrounds us.

But I find one short remark of hers, on December 19, 1976, particularly helpful to sustain joy:

Find beauty everywhere.

To find beauty everywhere, because God has lived among us, and gives us joy.

Dorothy Day thus reminds us to keep our hearts open to God, to the beauty of everyday life, to the sufferings of the poor. That’s one way to be raptured by joy.


The Duty of Delight

On November 8, 1897, Dorothy Day was born.

Her life, her conversion, and her founding with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker have moved many to devote themselves to the poor.

A few nights ago I finished the collection of her diaries, The Duty of Delight, which provide a glimpse of the complexities of this woman.

She was not a plaster saint. In fact, she regrets her impatience and reveals how difficult it was for her to live with some of the Catholic Worker guests – and staff.

She was fairly critical of some of the staff and guests, especially in sexual matters. But this came not from a puritanism but from a deep sense of the marriage act as sacramental – to the surprise of some people.

She was also remarkably open to young people, though not in an uncritical way.

But what comes through in her diaries is her delight.

“Find beauty everywhere,” she wrote on December 29, 1976.

She found it in nature: “Nothing is more beautiful than the soft sound of waves on the beach.” (December 12, 1953)

She rejoiced in music, listening to operas on the radio.

She loved to read. The works of Dostoevsky especially appealed to her.

She loved to pray – especially the Psalms, which nourished her daily life.

She loved to travel – visiting the Catholic Worker houses and speaking across the US. as well as visiting Rome, Cuba, India, and other parts of the world.

And she wrote. The Long Loneliness is a classic, in which she writes of her conversion. (She, however, was rather insistent that it was not an autobiography.) She also wrote a regular column in The Catholic Worker, until the last months of her life.

Hers was not an easy life. But she found a joy in it that opened her to God, and a relation to God that opened her to joy. As she wrote on December 25, 1961,

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

And in a long meditation on June 26, 1971, she reiterated the source of her joy:

If it were not for Scripture on one hand and Communion on the other, I could not bear my daily life, but daily it brings me joy in this sorrow which is part of our human condition, and a real, very real and vital sense of the meaning and the fruitfulness of these sufferings.

She found joy amid suffering, living among the poor. Robert Ellsberg very fittingly chose The Duty of Delight as the title of this compilation. It reflects the spirit and spirituality of Dorothy Day. In fact, she had thought of this phrase from John Ruskin for the title of a sequel to The Long Loneliness.

This duty of delight is indeed a challenge, but a challenge that brings joy. It was a challenge for her, too. Her February 24, 1961, diary entry notes:

I was thinking, how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.

May we learn to live the duty of delight, the joy of love, the holiness of sharing in the suffering of all God’s people.

A church of the poor

Regarding fraternal love (phladelphia)
you do not need anyone to write you,
since God has taught you to love (agape) one another.
1 Thessalonians 4, 9

Today is the feast of St. Aidan, the Celtic bishop of Lindisfarne, as well as the anniversary of the death of two twentieth century witnesses to God’s love ifor the poor:  Monseñor Leonidas Proaño of Riobamba, Ecuador, and John Leary of Boston.

There is a story that reveals St. Aidan as “most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.” King Oswin gave him a horse, which St. Aidan gave to the poor, with all its fancy trappings. Oswin was upset and suggested that there were less valuable horses which could be given away to the poor. But Aidan replied, “What are you saying, your majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable than this child of God?”

Monseñor Leonidas Proaño, bishop of Riobamba, Ecuador, died  twenty five years ago, on August 31, 1988.

One of the prophetic bishops of Latin America, he lived and served the church with a deep love for God and for the poor, which showed itself in a struggle for justice, in particular in solidarity with the indigenous.

He once wrote a creed, which I read in Carta a a las Iglesias  many years ago. My translation follows:

Above all, I believe in God.
I believe in God the Father.
It is he who has given me life.
He loves me infinitely.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
According to God’s plan, he became poor,
lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.

I believe in the human person that is within me
and that is being saved by the Word of God.
I believe in the human person that is within
all of my brothers and sisters
because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us.

Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope.
And for the same reason, I believe in justice.
I believe in reconciliation,
and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.

I believe in the poor and the oppressed.
I believe that they are tremendously capable,
especially in their ability to receive the salvation message,
to understand it, and to put it into practice.
It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.

I believe in the church of the poor
because Christ became poor.
He was born poor, he grew up in poverty,
he found his disciples among the poor
and he founded his Church with the poor.

A tribute to Monseños Leonidas Proaño can be found here at the blog Iglesia Descalza.

John Leary died on August 31, 1982, at the age of twenty-four, jogging to his home at the Haley House Catholic Worker from his work with the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

His short life was given to service of the poor at Haley House as well as nonviolent witness against war, nuclear weapons, the draft, and abortion. An unassuming young man, he radiated respect for others – as well as a profound commitment to the God of peace and the poor God made incarnate in Jesus.

I met him several times. I only wish I had taken to time to know him more.

These three men, from different continents, show us a bit of our vocation to be a poor Church and a Church of the poor (and not only for the poor).

The Catholic Worker at 80

On May Day, 1933, a group of Catholics gathered at the Union Square May Day rally with a mission. They had come to sell The Catholic Worker, at “a penny a copy.”

Dorothy Day had connected with Peter Maurin a few months previously and this was one of their joint ventures. Dorothy Day wanted the workers to know that the Catholic Church had not abandoned them.

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
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 that 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.

For eighty years the New York City Catholic Worker and the many Catholic Worker houses throughout the US and the world have been a thorn in the side of the powerful elites in the world.

Who knows how many have been fed at these houses?

Who knows how many hours Catholic Workers have been on picket lines, protesting war and nuclear weapons, supporting farm workers and conscientious objectors, being signs of contradiction to the world?

Dorothy Day – a radical who lived among the poor – may one day be canonized, but her radical critiques of war and capitalism as well as her deep love for Christ and the Catholic Church are a challenge for all of us.

May the example of Catholic Workers – from Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to the Des Moines Catholic Worker and the Mustard Seed Farm outside of Ames, Iowa – continue to challenge us and the church to be true followers of the Prince of Peace who appears among us as the poor and outcast.

For more on the Catholic Worker, you can check the Catholic Worker webpage here or visit your local Catholic Worker. A great introduction to Dorothy Day is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness is an inspiring read.




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.

Young prayerful peacemaker – John Leary

Thirty years ago a young man named John Leary died on the Boston Common while jogging home from work. But he was not an ordinary young man.

I met him a few times at Haley House, a Catholic Worker house, in Boston where he lived and worked among the poor. A bright young man – graduate of Harvard – he was a light in many ways to the darkness around the world in the early 1980s. He had a great spirit that you could experience meeting him.

His life was grounded in an active commitment to the poor, serving them, but he also a strong advocate for life. He co-founded and worked at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

He was a member of the Ailanthus Resistance Community and was arrested for protests against nuclear weapons at a local laboratory. He also was arrested several times protesting abortion.

He was a truly consistent advocate of life.

But there is another aspect of his life which intrigues me.

John Leary began to participate in the Melkite Catholic Church and was, I presume, influenced by Eastern Christian spirituality.

He used to run on his way to and from work at a center for Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge). Gordon Zahn, a co-founder of the center, asked John about his running, which seemed so mundane and boring. John replied that he prayer the Jesus prayer while running.  In all probability, on August  31, 1982, while running home to the Catholic Worker John died, praying the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus prayer comes from the Eastern Christian tradition, praying many times a  formula based on the prayer of the publican in the Gospels: “Have mercy on me a sinner.” The most common form is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I wrote a post on the prayer earlier this year here.

It is a prayer that nourishes me.

Today, remembering John Leary, I pray that like him my life may be a witness to the God of life who became poor for us, by living and working with the poor, rooted in God’s love. And may I die with the Jesus prayer on my lips.


Prophetic words of Peter Maurin

Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, was born on May 8, 1876, in the Languedoc region of France.

He was a great inspiration to Dorothy Day, the other co-founder, and inspired many with his Easy Essays, free verse simple explanations of his philosophy and theology. They can be found on line here.

Here is one that should challenge all of us today:

The Word Liberal
The word liberal
is used in Europe
in a different way
from the way
it is used
in America.
In Europe
a liberal is a man
who believes in liberty
without knowing
what to do with it.
Harold Laski
accuses liberals
of having used
their intelligence
without knowing
what to do with it.
are too liberal
to be radicals.
To be a radical
is to go to the roots.
don’t go to the roots;
they only
scratch the surface.
The only way
to go to the roots
is to bring religion
into education,
into politics,
into business.
To bring religion
into the profane
is the best way
to take profanity
out of the profane.
To take profanity
out of the profane
is to bring sanity
into the profane.
Because we aim
to do just that
we like to be called