When she died, Dorothy Day was revered by many as the heart and conscience of the American Catholic Church. In November 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops readily endorsed her cause. Still more recently, on Ash Wednesday 2013, on the occasion of his last public liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI cited her as “a model of conversion” to the joy of the faithful on both sides of the ocean.
Yet when Cardinal John O’Connor asked Day’s friend Patrick Jordan what Dorothy would think about being called a saint, he replied, “She would have none of it. She knew that some people during her life wanted to call her a saint. She thought it was a way of letting themselves off the hook — Dorothy could do these things because ‘she’s a saint.’ But she really took seriously the idea that we are all called to be saints. She wasn’t embarrassed about saying that. She often quoted Leon Bloy, ‘There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.’ ”
Dorothy herself wrote,
We have not begun to live as…good Christians. We do not tithe ourselves, there is no year of jubilee, we do not keep the Sabbath, we have lost the concept of hospitality….There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not in this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times — unless it is in their own writings. But instead of given that strong meat, we are too generally given the pap of hagiography. Too little has been stressed the idea that all are called.
Perhaps too Day feared her becoming a saccharine caricature of herself, her message made palatable for mass consumption. But the clarity of her life and the prophetic consistency of her challenge render that possibility unlikely.
Perhaps she feared her ideas would be dismissed, deemed impractical. But their staying power in so many individual lives and in the life of the Church defy such a glib wave of the hand. “There is always a great need of idealists who hold up the ideal rather than the practical,” she once wrote. “Little by little, it can be found that the ideal works and is practical and then people are surprised.”
In the end, few will be surprised when Dorothy Day is canonized. But becoming a saint, Jordan reminds us, would not be the important thing to her. “The important thing would be how well are we doing the work that we’re supposed to be doing. How well are we living a Gospel life?”