by Patrick O’Neill

Following his speech before a joint session of Congress last Thursday, Pope Francis had plenty of people turning to their internet search engines to find the identities of two Catholics whose names the pontiff mentioned in the same sentence with Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — two of the most influential and inspiring American Catholics of the 20th century — are rarely mentioned in major speeches by Catholic leaders or from the pulpits of the world’s thousands of Catholic churches. That ended when the Pope said of Day: “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. 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 lead Internet story on Friday’s Yahoo News was headlined: “The pope’s favorite American Catholic troublemakers: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day

Day, a Catholic pacifist, who is being considered for sainthood, died Nov. 29, 1980 in New York City where she founded the first Catholic Worker House, a place of hospitality and refuge for the down and out who lived in the Bowery section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At her funeral, just around the corner from Mary House, where Day lived and died, mourners were greeted at the church door by Terence Cardinal Cooke of the Archdiocese of New York. Also there were Abbie Hoffman, I.F. Stone, Caesar Chavez, Fr. Daniel Berrigan SJ, among many others.

Until more than two decades after her death, Day was an outlier in the U.S. Church, too radical in her anti-war, pro-worker, anti-government views to be taken seriously. As the years passed, however, Day’s story, which she chronicled in her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” which included her regret over an abortion and her conversion to Catholicism, began to gain followers among Catholic educators and seminary students. Her studies of the lives of the saints fed her love of the Church.

Arrested many times for nonviolent direct action, Day attended mass daily and never strayed from Church doctrine, holding Church leaders accountable for their actions whenever they strayed from Jesus’ injunctions or Catholic Social Teaching. An accomplished journalist, Day also published, The Catholic Worker newspaper, which first appeared in 1933 for “a penny a copy,” which is still the price today. Her writings against World War II, the Vietnam War, in support of civil rights, workers rights and about the suffering of the poor, were often told in first-person accounts of Day’s meetings with those Jesus called “outcasts.” Day said, “It’s the little works we do,” but she also said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Merton, a Trappist monk and mystic, was also a Catholic convert. He died in an accident on Dec. 10, 1968. A contemporary of Day’s and better known of the two, Merton’s 1948 autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which the pope quoted in his speech, was an international best seller, and is still highly regarded. Like Day, Merton maintained a disciplined prayer life, a reverence for the sacraments; he vehemently opposed war, the nuclear arms race, segregation, and various forms of social injustice. Both shared the distinction of having to endure almost unending efforts — mostly from fellow Catholics — to stifle their “radical message” that essentially called on humanity to recognize the primacy of Love in a world that was spending more and more of its resources on war making. In their writings, Day and Merton often questioned their own motivations, expressing a depth of humility that helped their readers feel spiritually joined with them in the struggle to fulfill God’s will.

Merton’s prayer for all people is oft quoted:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.”

In so many ways Pope Francis is maintaining the status quo when its comes to Church doctrine, but his points of emphasis are unprecedented when it comes to making people think in new ways about scripture and Church teachings — an effort that links the pontiff intimately with the lives of Day and Merton.

The days of anonymity for the two “American Catholic troublemakers” are no more, and our world will be a better place because of it. A quote from Day says it all: “The only solution is love.”

Patrick O’Neill and his wife, Mary Rider, are cofounders of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional pacifist, Christian community that offers hospitality to people in crisis. O’Neill attended Dorothy Day’s wake and funeral.

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