The Common Good
July-August 2000

Don't Call Me a Saint!

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2000

Can we canonize Dorothy Day and serve the poor too?

While I am certain that Dorothy Day would want whatever money it takes to canonize her directed toward the poor, I can't wait for the holy cards. The psychedelic-colored, 3D kind with the eyes that follow you across the room. Or the humidity-sensitive Catholic Worker house that turns from blue to pink as the weather changes. Believe me, sainthood can kick up some serious kitsch.

In March the Vatican declared Day a "Servant of God" and gave a green light to the process by which Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, may be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. New York City's late Cardinal John O'Connor, who officially initiated Day's canonization process, took fire from traditional and progressive Catholics alike. Traditionalists argue that a woman who had an abortion, had a daughter with her common-law husband, and consorted with communists makes a poor model for a righteous Christian life. Progressives worry that sainthood will trivialize Day and distance her from the everyday world in which she lived so fully.

Claretian Publications' Tom McGrath, who first proposed Day's canonization in 1983, recently told the New Orleans Time-Picayune, "I can understand the fear that a lot of Catholic Workers have, that she'll be tamed and prettied up...but she could do a lot of good for sainthood by driving home the idea that a lot of these people have a certain wildness in them."

There are, however, a few details to work out. Miracles, for instance. In the "How to Become a Saint" handbook there are several steps. First a diocesan tribunal gathers evidence of the person's "virtuousness" and passes that information to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. If the congregation deems the person to be of "heroic virtue," then the process moves to the College of Cardinals or the pope, and the individual has the title "venerable." To move from "venerable" to "blessed," one miracle must be attributed to the person (if she's not a martyr). To move from "blessed" to "saint," a second miracle must be proved. Currently, Day is "venerable."

Proving miracles is expensive. In 1975 Elizabeth Ann Seton's canonization cost about $250,000, according to Kenneth Woodward's book Making Saints. The Vatican actually runs training courses for "saint postulators" and provides an itemized price list for canonization. All costs are carried by the petitioners; in Day's case that would be the archdiocese of New York City. Most petitioners offset canonization costs by setting up membership associations with annual fees, donations, and peddling the aforementioned prayer cards, key chains, medals, pins, and mugs.

Day is famous for her quote, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily." She didn't want recycling food from dumpsters, sleeping on a stinky prison cell floor, and getting to mass every afternoon to be dismissed as being only for special people. She had no time for halos without hard work. She practiced the Pauline understanding that all people of God are called to be saints - not just those with a Vatican imprimatur.

Canonization costs would be a problem for Dorothy Day, as it was for others before her. The canonization of Father Jean Martin Moye, a founder of five religious orders beatified in 1954, was stopped by his petitioners because they felt the cost was not in accord with their mission to educate poor children.

Can we canonize Day and serve the poor too? She was a revolutionary whose legacy could turn modern day saint-making on its head. One suggestion is a sainthood "matching funds" campaign. For every dollar raised to cover canonization costs, the archdiocese would donate two dollars (preferably more) to the Catholic Worker. So what if it takes longer?

And about those pesky miracles...isn't it time we moved away from the individual cures and visions? What if Day's "official miracles" were manifested through feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Or if through Day's saintly intervention the IMF forgave debt during the Jubilee year or the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty or we ended the cycles of abortion in America.

Dorothy Day was not a virgin, martyr, or nun. She was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. I would like to live long enough to be in Rome the day she's formally added to the roll call of saints.

Rose Marie Berger is associate editor of Sojourners.

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