On December 8, 2021, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Timothy Cardinal Dolan presided over a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York marking completion of the archdiocesan phase of the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Dorothy Day. During the course of the service he read an official statement and blessed a sample of the thirty-four boxes of documentation ready for shipment to Rome. There, if this process reaches its intended conclusion, Dorothy Day may one day be called St. Dorothy.
This prospect has aroused mixed feelings, even among those who admire her. For myself, having advocated for this cause for the past 25 years, it is hard to describe what this this occasion meant to me. Quite apart from this special Mass, I had long enjoyed a front-row seat on the evolving process, which began on November 8, 1997, the centenary of Day’s birth, when John Cardinal O’Connor, during Mass in the same cathedral, announced his intention to convene a gathering of people who had known her to discuss her possible canonization. I was part of that discussion and all that followed; eventually, I would be appointed to serve on the historical commission charged with compiling the material to fill those 34 boxes.
So much happened along the way. One of the highlights was certainly Pope Francis’ astonishing speech in 2015 before a Joint Session of Congress when he cited Day on his shortlist of four “great Americans” who offered a “new way of seeing and interpreting reality.” It was remarkable confirmation of David O’Brien’s oft-quoted line from his 1980 Commonweal obituary, wherein he called Day the most “important, interesting, and influential figure in the history of American Catholicism.”
And yet not all who agree with that statement are keen about her possible canonization. Some disapprove of the (considerable) expense involved or dispute the notion of measuring Day’s holiness by the strict canonical yardsticks of a Vatican bureaucracy.
There are those who fear that canonization will inevitably reduce her radical commitment to peace and justice in favor of some innocuous piety. (They cite statements by conservative prelates that seem to point in that direction.) Yet, I believe that Day’s writings speak for themselves. Having just edited her writings from the ’60s and ’70s, I am confident there is no way to diminish her radical critique of the capitalist system, her bold solidarity with the poor and oppressed, or her revolutionary commitment to gospel nonviolence. By the same token, there is no doubting the deep spirituality that underlays her witness and her activism. As Pope Francis observed, that witness was rooted in her reading of the gospels and her study of the lives of the saints.
But didn’t she say: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”? If that sentence is among the most famous things she supposedly said, I have no one to blame but myself; I cited it in the introduction to my 1983 edition of her selected writings. Whatever the provenance of this famous “quote,” the important question is: What did it mean?
Certainly, I never knew anyone with more devotion to saints than Day. She didn’t just venerate them—she tried to emulate them. They inspired her on her own quest for holiness, a vocation, she believed, that was shared by all Christians. What she objected to was being idealized, put safely on a pedestal, where her example posed no challenge to “ordinary” people. She knew that for most people, “saints” were perfect people; no one could be expected to follow their example. As she once said to me, “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you aren’t to be taken seriously.”
For Day, to be a saint meant taking Christ seriously. And that she certainly did: as a lay woman, as the leader of an apostolic movement, whose solidarity with the poor, resistance to a system that diminished human dignity and freedom, promotion of the gospel message of peace and concern for the earth, put her far in advance of church teachings in her time. Today, her stance is remarkably aligned with the agenda of Pope Francis.
Those who fear that canonization will diminish Day might consider the ways in which her inclusion in the canon of saints may help to enlarge the church, offering a new model of holiness for our time. As a child she had expressed her admiration for those saints who cared for the sick and poor—but, she asked, “Where were the saints to change the social order, not just to care for the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” That question set the course of her own vocation. And with Day’s canonization, future generations would not need to ask that question.
Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books. A former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, he is also the editor of five volumes of writings by Dorothy Day. @RobertEllsberg