In 1950, an Irish Jesuit priest named Father Edmond Kent was visiting Manhattan for the day. He was hoping to meet Dorothy Day, because he had read about her remarkable conversion from Marxism to Christianity, and was equally impressed by her Catholic Worker Movement and its spirited monthly newspaper. Thanks to a fortuitous series of events, he was able to see her. Upon entering the Catholic Worker’s office, Kent was struck by the selflessness of everyone present: by their daily acts of charity for the poor and dispossessed; their dedication to their paper; and their high ideals for a better society. By the time Father met Dorothy, there were only 30 minutes to spare before he had to leave—but that was all he needed to recognize her special gifts, as a woman of extraordinary faith and fortitude who was leading a unique movement.
In a subsequent tribute, Kent wrote:
She still believes in revolution, but not in the bloody revolution which the Marxian dialectic teaches is the duty of workers to prepare for and to foster. She believes in a Christian revolution without the use of force, based on the example and teachings of Jesus Christ; a revolution which recognizes the existence of a Personal God who exerts a fatherly providence over men; a revolution which recognizes the rights of free men; a revolution nourished by the love of God and of men and destined to achieve a greater measure of social justice than Marx or his latter-day followers have ever dreamt of.1
Seventy years later, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier released his own tribute, Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story, highlighting similar themes. It is a polished documentary that testifies to Day’s enduring legacy and to her growing stature.
A Bestselling DVD
The documentary began running last March on PBS, but even before hitting the airwaves it became a bestselling DVD.2 Given Day’s unforgettable witness, it’s not hard to understand why. The film opens with a fast-moving montage of Day’s multidimensional life, culminating in her conversion to Catholicism, with everyone from actor Martin Sheen to Cardinal Timothy Dolan weighing in on its impact. This colorful introduction ends, appropriately enough, on a humble note, with archival black and white footage of Day challenging Christians to live out the principles they profess: “I think if you take the Lord’s words, you’ll find they are pretty vigorous. The Sermon on the Mount may be read with great enjoyment, but when it comes to practicing it, it really is an examination of conscience just to see how far we go.” The simplicity and power of her words not only bring everything back to the Gospel—where Day would want it—but anchor the documentary, as it explores her intellectual and spiritual journey.
Since Doblmeier’s documentary is only an hour long, it couldn’t possibly cover every aspect of Day’s life and legacy—including her advancing Cause for Sainthood, and the inspiring stories of Catholic Workers who continue to live out her ideals today. But for a general introduction to one of the twentieth century’s most important women, Revolution of the Heart is an admirable achievement.3
The first major segment begins in 2015 during Pope Francis’s visit to America, when he spoke before the United States Congress. In that address, Francis hailed the achievement of four “great Americans”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton—and Dorothy Day.
The celebration of Day, in that setting, by a reigning pontiff, came as a complete surprise—not least to her admirers. But it allowed them, in this documentary, to explain why Francis made such an inspired choice. By elevating Dorothy before the entire nation, says Robert Ellsberg, editor of her diaries and letters, Francis “found a way of relating her not just to the religious culture of America, but to our civil history—our principles of freedom and equality and support for immigrants and the poor.”
The Pope’s speech affirmed that “a nation can be considered great” when it defends liberty as Lincoln did; when it promotes racial equality, as King did; when it favors dialogue over conflict, as Merton did; and “when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work.”4 But great Americans don’t only inspire, they challenge and teach—as Day did, in abundance.
As early as 1934, Dorothy and her Catholic Workers demonstrated at the German consulate to protest the anti-Semitic laws Hitler’s regime had passed. Not long afterwards, Dorothy urged America to offer asylum for persecuted Jews, who were desperately trying to escape the Third Reich; tragically, her appeals went unheeded, and many of those Jews perished in the Holocaust.
In 1940, as America prepared for war after being attacked at Pearl Harbor, Dorothy testified before Congress, not only against military conscription, but in favor of conscientious objectors—at a time when such support was almost unheard of. Yet today, the rights of conscience have been embraced by Americans across the political divide, and Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes vindicated Dorothy when it called upon governments to “make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, they agree to serve the human community in some other way.”5
During the 1950s, when the government was demanding that Americans take part in civil defense drills to prepare for nuclear attack, Dorothy and her Catholic Workers protested vigorously and refused to participate. By doing so, says Father Mark Massa, the Catholic Workers not only awakened “anesthetized” consciences, but cured many Americans of the illusion that a nuclear war was survivable simply by taking cover under a picnic blanket or school desk. The protests Dorothy led helped end these Orwellian drills within a few years.
Likewise, Day was an early and vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, warning that it would lead to catastrophe. Because she was a pacifist who had also opposed Americans entering earlier wars—including World War II—she was dismissed as a dreamer and troublemaker. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI even put her on their watchlist. But today, even many defenders of the Just War tradition agree with Day that the Vietnam War was a colossal error, causing a large and needless loss of human life.6
Dorothy was hardly a subversive, however. The only “danger” she posed was to the complacency of American Christians, whom she knew could do far better in addressing war, poverty, racism, and inequality. All her protests had the aim of healing America’s divisions, not inflaming them. She loved the United States as much as her critics, but they never understood or appreciated her bold ideas for social reform and spiritual renewal.
And what were those ideas? Central to Dorothy was her Christian personalism—holding that each one of us has a personal responsibility to help our fellow human beings, and cannot simply pass that obligation off to the government.
As a Catholic, her personalism was enriched by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy7; and drew inspiration from the saints: among them St. Basil the Great, who founded the first Christian hospital, and especially St. Benedict, the venerable fifth-century monk who fostered the idea of hospitality to the stranger in a real and practical way. Treating the other as Christ, and being ready to take in whoever needs our help, regardless of their circumstances—that was the Benedictine ideal which motivated Dorothy. It became the foundation for the Catholic Worker’s legendary “Houses of Hospitality,” which arose almost spontaneously after Dorothy wrote about hospitality in the Worker newspaper. “My grandmother always said that she never meant to start Houses of Hospitality,” says her granddaughter, Kate, somewhat surprisingly. Indeed, Day “never meant to open soup lines . . . but what happens when you start writing about these things is that people start showing up at your door.”
When many did just that, Dorothy believed it was a sign from Heaven and a call to action.
After she established the first House of Hospitality in New York, the Houses soon multiplied, as new branches of the Catholic Worker began sprouting up nationwide. What made these Houses stand out, in comparison to secular welfare agencies, is that they went beyond providing food, clothing, and shelter: They made the destitute feel wanted and loved—often for the first time in their lives. Many who came to stay at the Houses of Hospitality did so because they had been ostracized as society’s “losers,” “riff raff,” and “bums”—even by their own relatives and “friends.” But Dorothy ennobled her guests. As Father Kent wrote:
Dorothy Day lays great stress on the dignity of the human person, fashioned in the likeness of God and redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. And it is this vision of Christ, which her faith enables her to see in the most unpromising of her fellow men, that sustains her in her heroic work for the outcasts and misfits in the slums of American cities. To serve them is her privilege.8
When someone once asked Dorothy if she didn’t think at least some of society’s underclass were responsible for their own condition—and therefore “got what they deserved”—she responded with unusual force and passion: “God help us if we all got what we deserved!”
It was Dorothy’s way of cutting the mighty down to size, reminding them that wealth and privilege won’t make it any easier for believers to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, considering Christ’s warnings about what money often does to people’s souls, they might well be at a disadvantage. The cure for such hubris, in Dorothy’s view, was for well-to-do Christians to humble themselves, embrace the Beatitudes and lessons of Matthew 25, and graciously become their brother’s keeper.
Love and solidarity were always at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement, and among the leading reasons for its success. As Dorothy herself remarked: “Many come to us in their hungers, which bread alone or even the best meal does not satisfy. What they come to us for is human warmth.”
Never one for half measures, however, Dorothy didn’t end her Christian personalism there. She insisted that her Catholic Workers not only support the poor, but live with them; and asked that they not only empathize with those without money, but accept voluntary poverty themselves. This mutual spiritual dynamic was one of Dorothy’s greatest achievements, producing graces all around. “The profound theological truth she saw,” says Father Massa, “is that we should do something for the other because that changes us. It doesn’t just change the other person—we are changed.”
Dorothy’s other great insight was the universal call to holiness—long before Vatican II recovered that concept as a mainstay of Catholic teaching. It was the idea that everyday Catholics, and not just religious, were called to sanctity. She saw that the modern Church had devolved into two classes of Christians—the professional “holy people,” who were the priests and the religious orders, and then the Catholic laity, who were supposedly in some kind of lower, compromised state. But she knew, instinctively and also intellectually, from her reading of the Gospels and the lives of the saints (many of whom were laypeople), that this was never the tradition of the Church. So she called upon her followers and lay Catholics everywhere not just to follow the Ten Commandments as a bare minimum of being a Christian, but to adopt the counsels of perfection—poverty, chastity, and obedience, at least insofar as they could. The words of Christ to the wealthy young man asking what more he could do to be a better Christian energized her: “If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in Heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
This, she was convinced, was the true source of Christian discipleship.
Faith Heals a Tumultuous Life
Having established her witness in the public square, Revolution of the Heart then circles back to Dorothy’s early years, recounting the circuitous and unexpected path that led her to become a Catholic.
At this point, Doblmeier wisely reduces the interpretative commentary, and lets Dorothy speak for herself, mainly through The Long Loneliness, her classic memoir. Selections from it are read by the acclaimed actress Susan Sarandon, whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Dorothy’s.
From her elementary and college years, to her time as a journalist and radical activist, through her exuberant nights in New York’s literary circles, and her troubled relationships with men, there remained three constants in Dorothy’s tumultuous life: her love of literature, her acute sensitivity to suffering, and her secret attraction to the divine. Her favorite Russian novelists, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whom she embraced long before her conversion, rooted their classic novels in Christian revelation; and Dorothy’s concern for human suffering, noticeable even when she was a child (after surviving an earthquake, then witnessing the slums of Chicago) reflected her burgeoning Christian compassion. Notwithstanding her secular upbringing and surroundings, Day appeared to be on a steady, if gradual, path toward Christianity. Three events helped pave the way. The first was her experience of the Mass as a non-Catholic observer. Speaking about her restless years, Robert Ellsberg describes how the young, partygoing Day, having danced and drunk the night away, would slip into an early morning Manhattan Mass to experience a different world. There, Dorothy encountered working-class people who were leading difficult lives, but who had access to something much greater than themselves—“a foundation and moral center that gave them [a] deeper transcendent meaning to their existence,” as Ellsberg explains. Dorothy longed for that kind of peace and security, beyond the world’s superficial pleasures and enticements.
That longing was increased one night when her friend Eugene O’Neil, who would go on to become America’s greatest playwright, recited Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” to her. It is a late Victorian poem about running away from God (“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days . . .”) only to be won over by His relentless pursuit. It conveys the idea that God never gives up on any of us, even when we reject His boundless love. This became crucial to Dorothy’s understanding of how God operates on human lives, often mysteriously and imperceptibly.9
Continuing to attend Mass more frequently, still as a non-Catholic, Dorothy came to see that the Massgoers who so intrigued her, far from deceiving themselves, had been given the gifts of faith and truth, and with them, the solution to the world’s pain, including her own. She was also deeply moved by the Catholic liturgy: “I loved the psalms and learned many of them by heart, and the anthems filled me with joy. I have never heard anything so beautiful as the Benedicte and the Te Deum.” Dorothy was now on the precipice of conversion.
But many conversions do not come easily, and Dorothy’s was especially hard earned. Her path toward Catholicism was interrupted, and nearly destroyed, by a torrid love affair that ended in an abortion Dorothy forever grieved; a fleeting and loveless marriage that ended in divorce; and a tender relationship with a biologist named Forster Batterham that seemed promising until his atheism and refusal to marry led to its eventual failure. Dorothy’s relationship with Forster, however, did produce her only child, Tamar, whose birth became the third and decisive event that finally convinced Dorothy to commit her life to God.
A New Purpose and Mission
After Tamar’s birth, Dorothy was exuberant, leading to one of her earliest and most profound pro-life declarations:
Even the most hardened, the most irreverent, is awed by the stupendous fact of creation. No matter how cynically or casually the world may treat the birth of a child, it remains spiritually and physically a tremendous event. God pity the woman who does not feel the fear, the awe, and the joy of bringing a child into the world.…
My joy was so great that I sat up in bed in the hospital and wrote an article for the New Masses about my child, wanting to share my joy with the world. I was glad to write it for a workers’ magazine because it is a joy all women know no matter what their grief. 10
Soon after, Dorothy, who by then was reading spiritual classics like Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and praying the rosary daily, had Tamar baptized into the Catholic faith, and was subsequently received into the Church herself. Her explanation for doing so, captured in a clip in the documentary, is revealing: “I first became a Catholic because I felt that the Catholic Church was the Church of the poor, and I still think it’s the Church of the poor. And I think it’s the Church of all the immigrant populations that came over or were brought over.”
Up until then, Dorothy had hesitated to join the Catholic Church, because she perceived it as always taking the side of the rich. But a broader, deeper vision of Catholic history persuaded her that, despite the sins of its members, the Church was not so much an enclave of elites as a home to the saints and a mansion for “the huddled masses.” As James Joyce put it, “‘Catholic’ means ‘Here comes everybody.’”
Now a committed Catholic and single mother, Dorothy poured her energies into socially conscious journalism, but this time for Catholic publications, not socialist ones. Though she had repudiated Marxism and its bitter fruits, she never abandoned her sharp and incisive critiques of unregulated capitalism, which revealed themselves to be prophetic when the stock market crashed in 1929. With millions out of work, hungry, and nearing despair, the Communists moved in to take advantage, holding marches and rallies throughout the nation. Dorothy feared the Church was caught off guard by the Depression, and that the Communists, who were at least out on the streets raising their voices, would pull Catholics away from the Church. Feeling helpless, and with so many souls at stake, Dorothy prayed for guidance and discernment as to what more she could do.
Within days, her prayers were answered: She was introduced to the French Catholic philosopher and street-corner prophet Peter Maurin, whose ideas about social and personal reform, drawn from the Gospel and Church teaching, were even more ambitious than Dorothy’s. He educated her about the rich heritage of papal social teaching that Dorothy was largely unaware of, but enthusiastically embraced and incorporated into her outlook.
The documentary does a wonderful job of capturing the brilliance and gentle eccentricities of Maurin, while making it clear that he needed Dorothy as much as she needed him. Had Peter never met Day, his ideas—about evangelizing urban communities; establishing farming communes to teach city dwellers about agrarianism; and creating roundtable discussions among Catholic Workers to clarify thought and initiate action—might have remained locked in his head forever.11 But with Dorothy’s practical know-how and journalistic experience, they were able to combine their talents to form the Catholic Worker newspaper, bringing the movement’s message to a much larger audience—just when the Church and American society needed it most.
The first issue appeared on May 1, 1933, which was no coincidence, since “May Day” was the day Communists celebrated workers (and implicitly Communism) worldwide. The Catholic Worker, no less devoted to the working class but standing for entirely different principles, crashed their party, so to speak, by distributing their inaugural issue on the same day. In doing so they made it clear that the Church did have a program for social justice, and one which existed long before Communism. At only a penny a copy, the paper was affordable to anyone, and was eagerly read by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The first issue had a run of just twenty-five hundred copies, but within several years its circulation exceeded an astounding 100,000 readers. Dorothy and Peter had awakened a sleeping giant: a community of Americans who were tired and disillusioned with the broken ideologies of Left and Right, and looking for something more human, decent, effective, and transcendent. They found all that and more in The Catholic Worker. Over the next several decades, Peter and Dorothy were hard at work winning back far more Communists for God than J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy ever could. Conquering evil not with hate and scorched-earth tactics, but with love and solidarity, was the Catholic Worker’s modus operandi for wandering souls, and its appeal proved irresistible.
By the time Peter died in 1949, the Catholic Worker had established its identity and mission, largely because of his efforts. It became justly famous for upholding Catholic teaching in every area of human life—citing chapter and verse from the Magisterium whenever someone accused them of being unfaithful. Dorothy’s robust orthodoxy, which had been fortified by Peter, would serve her well in the remaining thirty years of her life, when a moral and cultural revolution dominated the 1960s, followed by the individualistic “Me Decade” in the 1970s. Through it all, Dorothy maintained her timeless Christian convictions. She rebuked the Left for trying to undermine the moral teachings of the Church, flouting chastity in their personal lives, and launching a deadly attack on the unborn; and rebuked the Right for its continued glorification of War and its neglect of civil rights and the just economic demands of laborers like Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers.12
These acts were never done in a spirit of anger, however, only as a loving form of “fraternal correction” intended to help those who had strayed from Christ and His teachings. And Dorothy was more critical of herself than of anyone she took issue with, constantly stressing the importance of personal Confession (as she does at the beginning of The Long Loneliness) and frequently reminding herself never to engage in ad hominem attacks. “There is no room for contempt of others in the Christian life,” she wrote. “To criticize the social order is one thing, people another.”13 This is in perfect harmony with what Pope Francis recently proclaimed: “The Christian battle is against evil, not people.”14 The most important subject this documentary examines, however, is the motivation for Dorothy’s heroic witness. There are many writers and academics who write about Dorothy Day in sincerity and good will, but who come up short of truly finding her because of their own secular blinders. Revolution of the Heart thankfully avoids this trap, as it zeroes in on the two indispensable elements of Dorothy’s life: prayer and Holy Communion. One of the documentary’s most insightful contributors, Professor Cornel West, reflects:
I think anybody who embarks on a prophetic witness, and comes to terms with the overwhelming darkness and grimness of the world, the overwhelming hurt and suffering in the world, needs some source of spiritual sustenance, and she was able to find it in daily meditation, and the Eucharist.
We cannot downplay the degree to which, for her, when she is partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, she is tied to the memory of the blood of those made in the image of God, especially the weak and the vulnerable, so there is a political dimension to this profoundly liturgical act.
This is as eloquent and powerful a summary of Dorothy’s sacramental vision as can be imagined, and serves as a suitable bookend to something Father Massa says earlier in the film: “Both American middle class people and Catholics recognized something extraordinary was going on, but they weren’t quite sure what to make of it.”
With Dorothy headed for official recognition as a saint by the Church, and her goals as relevant as ever, now, at last, many people do know what to make of it: Put her ideas into action, and pray for the renewal of the world.
1. See, “Dorothy Day: An Interview,” by Father Edmond Kent, SJ, in Studies; An Irish Quarterly Review, June, 1950, pp. 176-186 at 185.
2. See, “Even Before PBS Airing, Dorothy Day Film Tops Amazon Documentary Chart,” by Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service, January 29, 2020. The DVD is available for $19.95 from Amazon.com, and for the same price from Doblmeier’s film company (journeyfilms.com), by calling 1-800-486-1070.
3. An earlier documentary, Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint, directed by the actress-filmmaker Claudia Larson, appeared in 2007 and is an excellent companion piece to Doblmeier’s “Revolution of the Heart,” especially since Larson’s documentary has rare interviews with Dorothy and her daughter, Tamar, not in Doblmeier’s film. Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint is still listed on DVD at Amazon.com but is currently unavailable. If it becomes available again, it is more than worth watching. For an interview with Larson on her documentary, see “Dorothy Day Turned Me into a Film Director,” The Catholic Herald (Britain), October 31, 2014.
5. From Vatican II’s Declaration, Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Section 79.
6. Revolution of the Heart does not mention—as it could and should have—that after the Vietnam War, Dorothy did not simply move on to other issues. She retained her deep concern for the Vietnamese people, and when reports emerged that the new Communist regime was committing serious human rights violations, she supported the appeals of antiwar activists (as Robert Ellsberg has confirmed for me) for an immediate end to these grave abuses. Earlier, Dorothy had similarly protested human rights abuses in Castro’s Cuba, after her earlier hopes that his government would become a humane democracy collapsed. During a 1971 visit to the Soviet Union, she also bravely defended Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, after he was persecuted by the Soviet regime’s Communists. For the appeals antiwar activists made on behalf of human rights in post-War Vietnam, see, “Antiwar Activists Appeal to Hanoi,” by Bernard Gwertzman, December 21, 1976, The New York Times, p. 4; and “Antiwar Activists Cite Hanoi Rebuff,” by Kathleen Teltsch, December 30, 1976, The New York Times, p. 3. For Dorothy’s growing concerns about the imprisonments, torture, and executions in Castro’s Cuba—which led her to send Castro a telegram for which she received no reply, according to Tom Cornell, one of Dorothy’s closest Catholic Worker colleagues—see her remarks in The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press, 2008), especially, pages 328, 335 and 639; for her defense of Solzhenitsyn while traveling in the Soviet Union, as well as her praise of his work and famous Address at Harvard, see pp. 465, 580, 608, and 626 from these same diaries.
7. Describing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2447, reads: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”
8. “Dorothy Day: An Interview,” op. cit., p. 186.
9. O’Neil is usually described as a lapsed, unbelieving Catholic, but Dorothy always believed he retained some part of his Catholic faith, and never gave up hope of his full return to it, either in this life or at the hour of death. She prayed for his soul, with that very intention in mind, after his passing: See, “‘Told in Context’: Dorothy Day’s Previously Unpublished Reminiscence of Eugene O’Neill,” by Robert Dowling, The Eugene O’Neil Review, Vol. 38, No. 1-2 (2017), pp. 1-12.
10. From her first memoir, From Union Square to Rome (1938), republished by Orbis Books, 2006, pp. 131-132. For Dorothy’s other pro-life declarations, including her condemnation of Roe v. Wade, see my previous article, “Searching for Dorothy Day,” The Human Life Review, Summer, 2020, pp. 37-46, at pp. 43-44.
11. For an excellent biography of Maurin, see Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century, by Marc Ellis (Paulist Press, 1981); and for his thought and teachings, see, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins by Mark and Louise Zwick (Paulist Press, 2005).
12. For an important and scholarly work demonstrating that Dorothy Day was a full-dimensional, orthodox Catholic, who accepted all of the Church’s teaching—not just selective ones, as “cafeteria Catholics” do— see, Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought by Terrence C. Wright (Ignatius Press, 2018).
13. Cited in Dorothy Day: Love in Action by Patrick Jordan (Liturgical Press, 2015) p. 25.
14. See, “The Christian Battle is Against Evil, Not People, Pope Says,” by Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, October 9, 2019.
William Doino Jr., a contributor to Inside the Vatican and First Things, among many other publications, writes often about religion, history, and politics. He has published an 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pope Pius XII, which appears in the anthology The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books), available in hardcover, paperback, and in Kindle format.