When Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress during his 2015 visit to the U.S., he singled out “four great Americans” as examples of individuals embodying the country’s highest ideals: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and “the Servant of God Dorothy Day.”
“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints,” the pope said.
Day’s ardent supporters and disciples of her Catholic Worker Movement, which includes a loose network of houses of hospitality for the poor, could not agree more. Many Americans, however, were introduced to her for the first time that day.
And now, with a new film, “Revolutions of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” which is currently among the top 20 documentary DVDs on Amazon.com and scheduled to air on PBS stations in March, even more people will know her story.
“She’s really one of the most important Catholic figures of the 20th century,” said filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, who was in Nashville for a Feb. 12 screening and discussion of the film at Lipscomb University.
Her “authenticity of faith” was unmatched, said Doblmeier, a Catholic, and founder of Journey Films, which produces films focused on faith, religion and spirituality. “You may not agree with everything she did, but we have to admire that nothing was compromised in the way she lived.”
Dorothy Day’s early life, with included an abortion, a suicide attempt, and a close affiliation with the Communist Party, are troubling to some. Her lifelong unwavering pacifism and questioning of unjust social structures are also challenging, said Doblmeier.
After the birth of her only child, daughter Tamar, Day began to feel a strong pull toward the Catholic Church, and had Tamar baptized even before she herself had formally become Catholic.
Drawn to the beauty of the psalms, the rhythm of the liturgy, the stories of the saints, and the Church’s outreach to the poor and immigrants, Day felt she had found a spiritual home.
“She never looked back,” after joining the Church, said Doblmeier, explaining that she was a regular Mass-goer and never dabbled in other faith traditions.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t agitate some members of the Church hierarchy or sit quietly by as bishops lived more than comfortably while men in tattered clothes lined up around the block for a hot meal.
Day, along with her friend and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, French agronomist Peter Maurin, launched The Catholic Worker newspaper in New York in 1933, which reported and editorialized on workers’ rights, radical pacifism, and the plight of the poor, among other topics.
It was after the paper was first published that the poor came knocking on Day’s door, asking for help with the basic necessities of food and shelter. Day didn’t really set out to open the houses of hospitality, it just happened, her granddaughter explains in the film.
People learned they could get a hot meal and a warm welcome, without any judgment, at the Catholic Worker house, and the movement began to grow.
As Day, Maurin, and their followers dished out soup and bread to the hungry on their doorstep, they continued to call into question the social and economic structures that kept so many people so poor. “She was working both sides of the equation in a really interesting way,” Doblmeier said.
The classic quote by Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist,” could easily be applied to Dorothy Day, and is one reason why her sainthood cause is so fascinating to Doblmeier.
“Dorothy Day is a little more dangerous” than the saints who are known for their selfless good works and lives of holiness. “There’s still some pushback to who she is.”
But everything she did, from offering direct service to the poor to her deeply unpopular questioning of U.S. involvement in World War II, “she did it because she felt God was calling her to do it, so that’s what she was going to do,” said Doblmeier.
Even though one of Day’s most famous quotes is “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” Doblmeier said that “deep down, I think she’d be honored to be among the saints.”
When asked about examples of modern-day Dorothy Days, Doblmeier points to Sister Norma Pimental, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who works with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.
“We need her voice today,” Doblmeier said. “There couldn’t be a better champion for the poor than Dorothy Day.”
More information is available at www.journeyfilms.com.