Revered for her heroic virtue, radical hospitality and contributions to the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day is the epitome of Christian love. But is she a saint? In her own words, she could do without the title. Dorothy was known to say bluntly, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily."
Last November, Dr. John Cavadini, McGrath-Cavadini Director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, met with the Church Life Today podcast to talk more about Dorothy and what it means to be a saint. It’s common to look at the saints and see them as people from a different era, a different world—and not as real human beings. Wishing to change the narrative, Dr. Cavadini explains why Dorothy's famous saying on sainthood hints at an important point and why the Church needs saints today.
In truth, Dorothy didn’t take issue with the saints themselves, whom she loved deeply. The issue, rather, is bad hagiography, writings that overly glamorize the image of the saints, making them hidden, tiny, less real. We have a tendency to idealize and therefore minimize the saints because they challenge us and that scares us. How do we prevent this tendency, so that we can reveal and appreciate the authentic lives of the saints? Cavadini’s answer is to combine study with devotion. Both are crucial. Devotion without study is too sentimental; study without devotion is somewhat meaningless.
Cavadini also encourages fostering a kind of friendship with the saints. He says it’s a two-way street, claiming from personal experience that the saints “find” him all the time. For many young Catholics, the sacrament of Confirmation (and the concomitant opportunity to choose a confirmation name) is a great time to begin forming friendships with particular saints.
Dr. Cavadini's insight on this point would have been helpful to me in my own Confirmation experience. In sixth grade as I prepared for Confirmation, I was concerned with choosing the saint with the prettiest name: Elizabeth Ann Seton. I had no idea that Elizabeth established the first community for religious women in the U.S. or that she essentially introduced Catholic education to our country. I had no idea that my future attendance at a Catholic high school and college would be connected to Elizabeth’s life hundreds of years ago. She is an extraordinary example of bravery and womanhood. Reflecting on Cavadini’s advice, I think Elizabeth would make an excellent friend. I wish I had known that in sixth grade!
Dr. Cavadini says we need the saints just as we need Dorothy Day because what seems like a waste of time (working without pay, setting up houses of hospitality) actually reminds us what it means to be authentically Christian. The saints bear witness “to charity, to humaneness and to the conviction that Christianity makes us more truly human.”
Listen to Dr. John Cavadini’s full discussion on Dorothy Day here on Church Life Today, a podcast produced by the McGrath Institute for Church Life.
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