By any standard Pope Francis’s trip to the United States was a stunning accomplishment. He provoked, assuaged, invited, challenged, affirmed and subtly remonstrated. He acted as pastor, diplomat, prophet and grateful guest. He trumpeted the simple fact that he came to listen, that he was in the U.S. to dialogue, that he had come to the center of power as a “son of the continent.”
But in many ways, his most welcome, surprising and illuminating intervention was his identification of four key moral figures in American history: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The former duo are understandable. They are storied figures in the history of the nation. But two Roman Catholics listed in their number? And two Roman Catholics that were for a good part of their lives outliers?
If Francis was keen on including Catholics in his list of U.S. notables, he could have drawn from a list of ecclesiastical establishment types. For instance, Michael McGivney (priest founder of the Knights of Columbus) or Bishop Fulton Sheen of Rochester and TV fame, but he chose otherwise.
It is true that Day is now a Servant of God and her candidacy for sainthood is moving along nicely, but any keen admirer or aware reader of her life and legacy will know that this feisty Nightingale of New York’s most impoverished area was anything but sweetly pious. She was a formidable activist for the poor, a regular protester against social and economic injustice that saw her arrested and jailed, a lifelong pacifist, an anarchist (a dangerous animal in American political life), a journalist of strong opinion, a prophet uncomfortable with prestige and protocol and defiantly pro-Gospel in all she did.
It is true, of course, that her reputation for ecclesial orthodoxy is legendary, she was inclined to be unbending on matters of dogma, and she was immovable on certain moral issues that admit of greater complexity than she was wont to accord them.
But, most important of all, she was a rebel for Christ, a genuine servant of the poor, a healer of souls.
Like Day, the prolific monk-poet and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was a fierce presence in the life of mid-twentieth-century America. He was its conscience on matters of civil rights, nuclear disarmament and resistance to a technologistic hegemony. Merton’s role as a public intellectual, literary and social essayist, and model for inter-faith engagements, secured his position as one of the foremost, if not the foremost, Christian humanists in the English-speaking world.
Merton’s commitment to contemplation as the guarantor of our freedom, the channel to greater interiority, the open grace for all who seek to know the “real self” resulted in numerous books, ranging from the arcane and scholarly to the popular and easily accessible.
New Seeds of Contemplation is a recognized spiritual masterpiece; The Asian Journal is a bold summons to new awareness; Raids on the Unspeakable a brilliant canvas of daring insights; The Geography of Lograire, an epic poem of universal vision and, naturally, his colossally successful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, remains a classic of the genre.
Merton’s life was as turbulent as Day’s, marked by deep conversion, persisting issues of guilt and remorse and defined in great measure by deep human understanding and compassion.
It is of more than minor interest to note that the naming of these two spiritual giants coupled with their Protestant equivalents somewhat eclipsed the growing controversy around the canonization of the Franciscan evangelizer, Junipero Serra. In this, as in so many other instances, the United States got a direct and unabashed glimpse of Bergoglio, the master strategist and appealingly diplomatic Bishop of Rome.