Fr. John Hugo – Dorothy Day, Apostle of the Industrial Age (December 12, 1980)

[Originally published in The Pittsburgh Catholic]

I knew Dorothy Day since about 1940, when she came to Pittsburgh to make a retreat that I was conducting. The retreat had been planned for a group of young Catholic actionists. This was soon after Dorothy had become a Catholic and was looking for a deepening of her Christian faith.

She came at the suggestion of Sister Peter Claver, a Trinitarian, who was working among the poor in the New York area. Sister Peter was the first devout and knowledgeable Catholic that Dorothy had become acquainted with. She told Dorothy about the retreats we were giving, and gave her some notes. Dorothy read these promptly and came right back asking: “This is what I want: where do I find these men?” After the retreat she said, “I have at last found what I have been looking for in the Church!” 

Subsequently, Dorothy came to the retreats many times, taking copious notes, which would often turn up later in her “On Pilgrimage” column in The Catholic Worker, and leading a constant stream of Catholic Workers to the retreat in Pittsburgh. She also invited me to conduct retreats at the Catholic Worker farms in Easton, Newburg, and Tivoli. 

She called the retreat “the bread of the strong,” said that it was “like hearing the Gospel for the first time” and a “foretaste of heaven.” Sister Peter Claver once wrote, “The retreat is what made the wheels go round in the Worker movement. It is what made Dorothy holy.”

The last retreat that she attended was in August 1976, at Mount Nazareth Center, Pittsburgh, through the hospitality of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. In The Catholic Worker for March-April, 1978, she wrote: “I must not forget to mention the influence of Fr. John J. Hugo in my life. He gave retreats in the early days of the Worker that so aroused the ire of other priests that his books, his ‘doctrine,’ were put ‘on the shelf,’ as it were, for many years. He was young and preached so thrillingly severe a doctrine of ‘putting off the world and ‘putting on’ Christ, and upheld the pacifist cause so ardently, that for years he was shifted from parish to parish in his diocese. A truly consistent person, he kept his calm over the years, and is now giving scriptural retreats again.”

For almost forty years, therefore, I was in communication with Dorothy in her deepest self, that is to say, in her spirituality, which has made all her other gifts SO fruitful. What I wish to do now, as we mourn her passing from us. is to review her life briefly, considering the manner in which she has helped so many, both within and outside the Church: for her influence has been worldwide.

In Dorothy Day’s life and thinking I see three convergent tendencies, all rooted in an unusual depth of Christian love. The first and perhaps the best known of these is her compassion for the poor, the suffering, the downtrodden, the anawim, “the little ones,” so beloved by Yahweh in the Old Testament and by His Son in the New.

Concern for the poorest has been dramatically shown in the Houses of Hospitality which, with Peter Maurin, her partner in this work, she established in the depressed areas of many of our large cities. These houses have also inspired other groups who, in response to this challenge, are also devoting themselves to helping especially the urban poor. 

These poor are the offscourings of our industrial society, the flotsam and jetsam of the injustices arising from the overcentralization and maldistribution of our economic system. Dorothy’s work of charity, therefore, besides bringing immediate aid to those in need, has served also to draw attention to the flaws of our system.

No doubt, as Dorothy well knew herself, the houses of hospitality are an inadequate remedy for the widespread evil. Yet there needs to be someone at hand to care directly and immediately for the manifold emergencies occurring every day, and especially to help those considered unacceptable even by social agencies — alcoholics, tramps, prostitutes, the emotionally and mentally deranged — all the unwanted of our society. 

For Dorothy the phrase “deserving poor” was meaningless and near blasphemous. All who are in need deserve our love, and indeed our Father in heaven, of whose generosity she liked to speak, loves us all, although we are all “unworthy servants” (Lk 17:10).

If Dorothy’s policy — or lack of any policy, as it seemed to some — appeared irresponsible, she knew that she was in the good company of Him who was criticized for his interest in the lame and the halt, as well as for seeking the company of “publicans and sinners.” In The Catholic Worker, which had a readership of more than 90,000, Dorothy was continually drawing attention to the plight of such people and to all the problems and injustices that shatter the lives of so many in our society.

Yet despite her wish to direct attention to the social problem, and help to solve it, her love of the poor was not merely abstract and humanitarian; she was not merely a philanthropist. Her love was direct and personal.

This may be illustrated by a story told of her as she was guided by civic minded citizens through San Francisco to see the Golden Gate bridge. She met civic pride over this great engineering feat with the question, “Isn’t this where the sixteen workers fell into the bay and were killed?” Dorothy valued people over things, a characteristic not common in our society.

In this connection she frequently quoted a remark made in the retreat, “The love you give to the one you love least is the measure of the love you will receive from God.” This is of course but a paraphrase of the Lord’s own, “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). Dorothy was concerned that no one be excluded from love.

Another characteristic of Dorothy Day is what is commonly called her pacifism: which, however, seems too pale a word to describe her utter abhorrence of war. When she spoke of war, her eyes would narrow, her jaws set, her whole body became taut. Her loathing for this manifestation of human power was complete.

To some she would appear irrational and fanatical, so conditioned have we become in this “enlightened” age to seeing our young, armed with every destructive weapon that science and technology can devise, marching bravely forth to destroy one another. To such a height have reason and civilization brought us!

For Dorothy Day, I believe, the rejection of war was indeed beyond reason, especially beyond the shadowed reason by which nations and leaders choose to govern our lives.

For Dorothy the rejection of war was a matter of religion, an act of faith. “The just one lives by faith” (Rom 1:17). Indeed, it was her supreme act of faith in the goodness of God, who is love, and who makes love, entire love with the whole heart, at once the fundamental law of life for His rational creatures and the fulfillment of their deepest desires. This love, centered in God and reflecting His glory, embraces all His creatures; and if it starts with loving one’s neighbor as oneself, it culminates in “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). 

If in this matter Dorothy Day seems too far ahead of the human race, and the Christian community as well, both the race and the community need to catch up. We have reached a time in history when the very survival of the human race depends on acceptance of the fundamental law of God, the law of love.

Although many Catholics incline toward pacifism, few will go the whole way to absolute pacifism. The doctrine of “the just war,” approved by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, is an obstacle difficult to surmount. Hence Catholic opposition to war, except for the statements of a few popes, becomes conditional and blurred.

Dorothy was an absolute pacifist. She believed that violence cannot accomplish true peace. She gave her assent in sheer faith to the words of Jesus, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). 

Dorothy Day’s pacifism was not merely sentimental, nor merely doctrinaire. It issued from a love expressing itself in universal compassion. Her hatred of war was of a piece with her efforts to reduce the misery of the little people in our great urban ghettos

Like her Master she had compassion on the multitudes. She saw that in every age, and especially in our “advanced age” of technological warfare, it is the poor, those already oppressed, who suffer first and most, both as soldiers and civilians. They suffer in the destroyed cities. They are the ones in the long lines of refugees, carrying their few possessions on their backs. They are the first to be conscripted into our armies.

Modern war with its mass killings is the ultimate, encompassing immorality, the source of all other immoralities. We deplore urban violence, even television violence, while training generations of our young in how to kill their fellows. We worry about the spread of sexual immorality; yet how can those who are formed without respect for life show respect for the source of life?

True, in a capitalist society we profess a belief at least in the “sacredness” of property. But this is no adequate basis for morality and, in practice, is like trying to save a wooden house in a general conflagration. Without respect for human life — which in practice means compassion for all our fellow humans —there is no human good or value on which we can anchor human morality. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36). 

Dorothy’s pacifism will be a continuing reminder of how all Christians should feel about the horrifying actuality of war. It will be, I think, her greatest contribution to the Church, the body of Christ, which she loved.

And here we come to the third purpose which marks the life of Dorothy Day and joins with her anti-war effort and crusade against social injustice: It is not enough to give alms. Those in need must be provided with a secure livelihood as the basis for a life of human dignity.

The Catholic Worker movement has by some been thought of as a band of starry-eyed do-gooders without any real program. In fact, with Dorothy Day leading, they offered an alternative to the dominant socio-economic trends of the day. 

The program adopted by Dorothy, intended to remove the causes of injustice and to neutralize the forces leading to war, is, if modest in appearance, breathtaking in its ambition. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the success of this effort of the Catholic Worker has not been notable. The difficulties in the way of its success are immense. 

Two economic systems, capitalism and socialism, strive for dominance in the world, and people generally tend to see the solution of our socioeconomic woes in one or the other of these two systems. In the West we oppose socialism and communism, which we see as a threat to our way of life. To be sure, we also recognize certain flaws in capitalist society. These we seek to cure by an endless series of band-aid solutions. Few in the West, even among those invoking Christian social principles, have attempted a really drastic criticism of capitalism or even admit that such a criticism is needed.

In becoming a Catholic Dorothy Day moved away from the socialist solution, but she never fully adopted the capitalist system. She remained between them recognizing a third possibility: a society in which the economic system is decentralized, allowing for smaller units of agriculture and business, and encouraging the independent initiative of individuals. By decentralizing the economy, ordinary people can escape an almost serf-like (with many comforts of course) dependence on their masters, whether socialist or capitalist, and become responsible for their own destinies.

Dorothy Day was not an ideologist, she recognized her ideals in practice by promoting a tendency toward small farms and small businesses to enhance the dignity and independence of the little people. Here is the reason for the communal farms established by the Catholic Worker. These in turn would prepare individuals to live on family farms. And of course decentralism would encourage small businesses as well as small manufacturers. It is a tendency but not an ideology.

Dorothy kept up a constant struggle against all the injustices and abuses of the capitalist society in which she lived. She would help the little people in legitimate enterprise. We should not forget that the whole purpose of Catholic social action is to provide everyone with the means essential to a dignified human life. This was also very much Dorothy’s goal.

In the evening of life we shall be judged on love.” This saying of St. John of the Cross is not merely a pious platitude. It is quintessential theology and comes to us from Jesus Himself in the preview He gives of judgment (Ml 25:3 1-40): 

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him. then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and the sheep He will place at His right hand, but the goats at His left. Then the King will say to those at His right hand, “Come, O blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me. . . . Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” 

In the evening of life we shall be judged on love.” It was to this love for the least brethren that Dorothy devoted her life. In this love were rooted all three of the tendencies, or branches, described above, that filled her life.

We do not presume to canonize Dorothy, but surely we may declare the basis of our great hopes for her. She herself provided us with a way of doing this. Just three weeks before her death, Sister Peter Claver had a joyful, if very short, visit with her. Sitting together in Dorothy’s little room at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker house in New York City, they talked, as long-time friends do, of the past and experiences shared.

Dorothy held on her lap a book of the retreat conferences that I had sent to her. Holding them she turned and fondled some flowers in a little vase, and said, “I am still sowing.” When I heard this I rejoiced because I realized that she was still reaching into the retreat for “the bread of the strong” as she approached the Day of the Lord, the day of harvesting. 

She was recalling the central and climactic idea of the retreat, taken from the Lord Himself as He approached His own death — and resurrection: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Jesus is Himself the first and perfect Grain of Wheat: in His dying we all may have eternal life. Yet we, too, are grains of wheat; and all the good things that the Lord has given us are grains of wheat. And we are called, sooner or later, to “sow” them, that is to relinquish them to the Lord to gain an eternal harvest.

As Dorothy looked back over her life, so generously given to that “harsh and dreadful love,” a life she herself candidly described as a “long loneliness,” now diminished and completed with an irreversible disease, she was able to see it all, in faith, as a sowing. And sowing is done with the hope of reaping a harvest. As the Psalmist put it, “Those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy!”

Dorothy was buried in a homespun dress and laid in a plain wooden casket provided by the Trappists. Around her neck was a wooden chain holding an icon. On the casket was one flower, saying Resurrection. He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him (Ps 126:6).