Saint Joseph the Worker and Dorothy Day
Today is the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. For much of the world, May 1 is also International Workers’ Day. The socialist idea of celebrating workers and the Christian reminder of St. Joseph the Worker weave together in the life of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
The union is neatly summed up in something she wrote to Stanley Vishnewski, one of the first people to join the movement she started with Peter Maurin, “When it comes to the Catholic Church, I go to the right as far as I can go. But when it comes to labor, pacifism and civil rights then I go as far as I can to the left.”
International Workers’ Day has its roots in a labour dispute that took place in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Strikers were protesting for an eight-hour workday. Several strikers were killed. The May 1 celebration arose from the efforts of socialist movements throughout the world. In the Christian world, starting in 1955, May 1 is a celebration of St. Joseph the Worker, the patron of workers and craftsmen.
Born in 1897 in New York, Dorothy Day was a journalist, social activist and devout Catholic convert. Her early years were spent in social activism, but from a socialist perspective. In the late 1920s, Dorothy had a child and converted to Catholicism.
A few years later, in New York, she met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant with a deep intellect and a vision of social justice based on the social teachings of the Church. Together they founded the Catholic Worker movement. The movement continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf.
Maurin helped to ground Dorothy in the basics of Catholic theology, especially the teachings of the Church on the need for social action and the rights of laborers. Notable among the writings was the famous 1891 encyclical from Pope Leo XIII.
Rerum Novarum (Revolutionary change) continues to be a strong statement in its coverage of the rights of workers and the benefits of labour unions. Pope Leo writes of “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”
The Catholic Worker movement started with the appearance on May 1, 1933 of the first issue of the Catholic Worker, a newspaper that continues to sell for one cent to this day. It was aimed at those suffering the most in the depths of the Great Depression, “those who think there is no hope for the future.”
It announced to them that “the Catholic Church has a social program…there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.” Dorothy Day’s Gospel-based social activism continued until her death in 1980.
Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization is moving forward and has been accepted by the Vatican. Thus, she is called Servant of God. This is somewhat ironic. She is supposed to have said to admirers who referred to her as a living saint, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Her point was that all Christians are called to do the things she did. I have a hunch that she would love Pope Francis and his evident love for the poor. Let’s pray that her cause continues to advance.