Dorothy Day’s conversion story shows the importance of “restlessness” in seeking God, struggling for justice, and loving the poor, Pope Francis writes in the preface to a new Italian-language translation of her work.
The American Catholic, who is being considered for canonization and has been named a “servant of God” by Rome, was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Catholic Worker newspaper.
“Reading these pages of Dorothy Day and following her religious journey becomes an adventure that is good for the heart and can teach us so much to keep awakened in us a truthful image of God,” the pope said.
His preface is included in a new Italian translation of Day’s 1938 autobiographical book “From Union Square to Rome.” The book was written in the form of a letter to her brother John. In it, Day explains her conversion to Catholicism from an atheistic, anarchistic form of Marxism. She engages with communist criticisms of Christianity and reflects on contemporary problems in American life.
The Italian translation of the book is titled “I found God through his poor.” It is subtitled “From atheism to faith: my inner journey.” The book is available through the Vatican publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Pope Francis said that Day’s life shows the Church “grows by attraction, not proselytism.”
“The way Dorothy Day recounts her coming to the Christian faith attests to the fact that it is not human efforts or stratagems that bring people closer to God, but rather the grace that flows from charity, the beauty that flows from witness, the love that becomes concrete acts,” he said.
Day moved in socialist and bohemian circles in 1920s New York. After her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, she continued to advocate for social action for the poor. A radical critic of capitalism and a fervent anti-war activist, she drew on Catholic social teaching in her efforts on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
She co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which helped start soup kitchens and provided food and shelter to impoverished Americans during the Great Depression. To this day there are scores of Catholic Worker communities around the world that continue Day’s emphasis on the importance of hospitality.
Day was the author of many essays in the Catholic Worker newspaper as well as a lengthier autobiography called “The Long Loneliness.”
Pope Francis, writing in the foreword to “I found God through His poor,” praised Day’s lifelong commitment to social justice and the rights of the people, “especially the poor, exploited workers, and those marginalized by society.”
Day’s work as a journalist and activist was a way through which God “touched her heart,” the pope said. She is a reminder that the “struggle for justice” is one way that, “even unknowingly, each person can realize God’s dream of a reconciled humanity in which the fragrance of love overpowers the nauseating smell of selfishness.”
Pope Francis emphasized three themes from Day’s book: restlessness, the Church, and service.
“Dorothy is a restless woman,” the Pontiff said. When she began her path to professing Christianity she was under 30 years old. Day had been raised in a nominal Episcopalian family and was devout as a youth but later abandoned any religious practice as a “morbid” thing.
During her spiritual search, the pope commented, she came to see faith and God not as a “stopgap” but as “what it really should be, that is, the fullness of life and the goal of one’s pursuit of happiness.”
Day herself wrote: “But always the glimpses of God came most when I was alone. Objectors cannot say that it was fear of loneliness and solitude and pain that made me turn to him. It was in those few years when I was alone and most happy that I found him. I found him at last through joy and thanksgiving, not through sorrow.”
According to Pope Francis, Day teaches us that “God is not a mere instrument of consolation or alienation for man in the bitterness of his own days. Rather, he fills our desire for joy and fulfillment in abundance.”
“The Lord longs for restless hearts, not bourgeois souls who are content with existing,” the Pope wrote.
Pope Francis emphasized that God does not take anything away from humanity: “Jesus did not come to proclaim that God’s goodness constitutes a substitute for being human. Instead, he gave us the fire of divine love that brings to fulfillment all that is beautiful, true, and just that dwells in the heart of every person.”
Dorothy Day speaks of the Catholic Church with “beautiful words,” though she was not blind to the Church’s faults, the pope explained. He noted her background in social engagement and trade union activism. To her, the pontiff said, the Church “often seemed to be siding with the rich and the owners of property” and was often insensitive to the demands of “true justice and social equality” found in many places in the Old Testament.
Day looked at the Church with “an honest and enlightened attitude” that knew how to discern “the mystery beyond the many and repeated failings of its members.”
He cited Day’s words in “From atheism to faith”: “Nothing but a divine institution could have survived the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the sins of many of those who professed her faith, who were supposed to minister to her poor.”
The Pope described Day as “a great witness of faith, charity, and hope” who was “not afraid to describe ‘the errors of the clergy’” even at a time when the Church was “the object of criticism, aversion, and abandonment.” Rather, she “accepts that the Church has to do directly with God, because it is his, not ours. He wanted it, not us. It is his instrument, not something we can use.”
“This is the vocation and identity of the Church: a divine, not human, reality that leads us to God and by which God can reach us,” the Pope said.
Day’s life also has a lesson for interacting with non-Christians, the Pope commented. Believers and nonbelievers are “allies in promoting the dignity of every person when they love and serve the most abandoned of human beings.”
Again, he cited Day: “Human love at its best is selfless, luminous, illuminating our days. It gives us a glimpse of God’s love for man. Love is the best thing we are given to know in this life.”
In 2015, Pope Francis praised Day as a “great American” in his remarks to the U.S. Congress during the papal visit to the United States.