By Hillary Mast
FORT WAYNE, IN (CNA) — Ever since entering the Church 27 years ago, theologian Lance Richey had always known about the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day in passing.
“It’s hard not to run across her name, but I honestly had not paid much attention to her,” Richey told CNA in a recent phone interview.
“I viewed her as, just kind of a social activist, and someone who probably didn’t have much to say to a theologian like myself.”
But last month, Our Sunday Visitor released his edits to the 75th anniversary edition of Day’s journal from the early years of the Catholic Worker Movement, “House of Hospitality.”
On top of that, he organized the annual Dorothy Day Conference at University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana where he serves as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
So how did he go from having a cursory knowledge of Day to editing her personal journal – that had been out of print for decades – and organizing an annual conference about her?
“Several years back, I picked up her writings and started reading them,” he said. “My opinion of her changed dramatically. I discovered her for the first time.”
From her writings, including the then nearly impossible to find, “House of Hospitality,” Richey said he discovered a “profoundly spiritual woman” whose work and prayers “flowed from a very deep conversion to Christ and a deep love for the Church.”
The new edition of her diary covers the first six years of the Catholic Worker Movement which Peter Maurin founded with Day in 1933 to serve the poor, unemployed and homeless of New York City. Today there are some 228 Catholic Worker communities in the U.S. and around the world.
Oftentimes Day’s social works and advocacy for the poor are upheld while her profound spiritual life gets downplayed or even forgotten altogether, which is the result of man-made divisions within the Church, he said.
Catholics “tend to divide ourselves into Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives, and social justice or orthodox,” said Richey, who hold doctorates in both philosophy and theology from Wisconsin’s Marquette University.
And Day “tends to be championed by people on one end of the spectrum who ignore her deep spirituality and her utter commitment and fidelity to the Church.”
This approach takes away from the whole picture of who Day really was – namely, a deeply faithful woman who “defined her life around the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
Richey said that in his studies he learned that “for Dorothy Day you can’t divide Catholicism into ‘kinds.’ There aren’t ‘kinds of Catholics.’ You’re either Catholic or you’re not, and being Catholic entails social obligations and theological obligations,” he said.
This is something he had in mind when speakers for the annual Dorothy Day Conference he organizes were selected, saying that his goal is that “everyone who attended the conference should be offended by somebody.”
“We should make sure we have something that we disagree with because usually in the moment it doesn’t change much,” he said, “but as we have to kind of process it, we come to challenge our own preconceptions and to expand our understanding of what does it really mean to be Catholic? What does it really mean to want to imitate Dorothy Day?”
This year’s conference included presenters such as Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review; Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles; and Martha Hennessy, Day’s granddaughter.
It’s important now to see the whole picture of who this woman really was, especially in preparation for the upcoming Year of Mercy, of which Richey says Day would be the perfect patron.
“I do think that it’s a very providential time for Dorothy Day’s message. Pope Francis is calling the Universal Church to what Dorothy Day called the American church to be,” he said. “I mean, everything about her was, ‘how are we called to be merciful to others?’ and ‘how every day of my life can I carry out these works of mercy?’”
Now that she has been recognized a “Servant of God” – meaning that the Vatican sees no objection in her cause for canonization progressing – he thinks that the chances of her becoming “Venerable” are “very good.”
While the miracles needed to prove to the Church that she can be called a saint are “in God’s hands”, Richey said he personally thinks that Day “led a heroically holy life of orthodox belief and sustained a consistent living out of the Gospel in very difficult conditions.”