Kindred Spirits: St. Josemaría Escrivá and Dorothy Day

The last thing coffee drinkers need is another mug, but I’ve stumbled across one I just have to have in my collection. It says this: “I’m more Dorothy Day than Opus Dei.”

You have to admit it’s clever – and who doesn’t enjoy a good pun with his morning jolt? Plus, there’s the bonus of subtle irony, for the mug’s joke depends on an assumption that’s really a bunch of hooey. Since everybody presupposes Dorothy Day and Opus Dei to have very little in common, it’s comical to juxtapose the two, right? Sure, and it’s funny enough…for a mug. But, seriously, all mugs aside, there’s plenty of common ground between Day and Opus Dei – really. In fact, it’s common ground that ought to be aggressively mined in this era of New Evangelization.

I’ll grant you, at first glance there appears to be a huge ideological chasm between the two – Servant of God Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she engendered on one hand; Opus Dei and its founder, St.Josemaría Escrivá (whose feast we celebrate today), on the other. Both fervent Catholics, Fr. Escrivá and Dorothy were also contemporaries, as were the beginnings of their respective apostolates, but other than that it might seem like they were worlds apart.

First, Day, the Bohemian radical. She was a gifted journalist, a socialist sympathizer, and an unwed mother. Her Catholic conversion in 1927 was associated with her determination to have her daughter baptized, but after being received, Dorothy became an ardent disciple anxious to put her energy and talents at the service of the Church. After meeting Peter Maurin, she was motivated to translate the Popes’ social encyclicals into concrete plans of action, and the Catholic Worker – both the newspaper and the movement – was born. Starting in New York City in 1933, the Worker’s approach of literally implementing the Church’s social teaching and emulating the radical charity of the saints rapidly spread to every corner of the nation and beyond.

Escrivá, on the other hand, came of age in a very traditional Catholic family in conservative pre-war Spain. He was ordained in 1925 at the age of 23, and a few years later he received an inspiration to found a new movement devoted to lay formation and apostolate – Opus Dei, the Work of God. Opus Dei would be rooted in the idea that all Catholics were called to holy living, not just priests and religious. Despite misunderstandings and suspicion, and amid religious persecution and international conflicts, Escrivá and his followers doggedly spread their message of sanctification for all, and Opus Dei spread around the world.

The disparate origins of the movements started by Escrivá and Day are superficially reflected in how they are embodied on the local level. Here in the U.S., Opus Dei tends to appeal to professionals and students on the way up the social ladder. Catholic Worker communities tend to appeal to folks at the other end of the mobility scale: Those who struggle just to make ends meet, and students (and others) who are actively seeking a downward social trajectory.

Yet, as I said, these differences are merely superficial, for at their core, Opus Dei and the Catholic Worker movement are committed to the same threefold mission.

First, and perhaps most obviously, both groups are essentially lay-oriented. Catholic Worker houses have never been officially associated with dioceses or religious orders, and so they are almost always lay initiatives. And while it’s true that Opus Dei, as a personal prelature, has its own priests, they are ordained specifically “under title of service to the prelature” (Can. 295 §1) – and the prelature’s very identity is the promotion of sanctity among the laity.

Related to their lay character is the second part of both groups’ common mission as articulated by their founders: A fundamental commitment to the idea that everyone is not only called to be a saint, but that “everyone can become a saint” (Opus Dei). This is not a novel idea of course – in fact, it’s a central tenet of Pope Francis’ teaching. “Being saints is not a privilege of the few,” he said last year on All Saints’ Day, “but everyone’s vocation.”

This “Universal Call to Holiness” was also central teaching of the Second Vatican Council:

All Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will (Lumen Gentium §41).

It’s noteworthy, however, that Escrivá and Day were pushing this idea long before the Council Fathers met in Rome, and their heirs continue to promulgate the idea through their ordinary lives today.

Which brings us to the third characteristic Opus Dei and the Catholic Worker have in common: That the manner in which ordinary folks become saints is through the ordinary responsibilities and commitments of everyday life. “All are called to be saints, not to do the extraordinary,” wrote Dorothy Day. “If sanctity depended on doing the extraordinary, there would be few saints.” Saint Josemaría said the same thing:

Each day be conscious of your duty to be a saint. A saint! And that doesn’t mean doing strange things. It means a daily struggle in the interior life and in heroically fulfilling your duty right through to the end.

In other words, we don’t have to do anything spectacular to become saints. Rather, if we simply attend to the responsibilities of our state in life – our families and our jobs, our religious duties and charitable works, even our hobbies and leisure – with an eye to dedicating all of it to God, then he will do the rest.

What about those religious duties and charitable works? It might seem like Catholic Worker communities engage in radical apostolates – soup kitchens and homeless shelters and nonviolent civil disobedience; it might seem like Opus Dei members are super spiritual – daily Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, evenings of recollection and Adoration. But, really, those are simply ordinary Catholics taking up Jesus’ call to engage in the Works of Mercy (CCC 2447) – seven spiritual works that impinge on the wellbeing of souls, and seven corporal works that directly affect physical wellbeing.

And while it might seem like St. Josemaría’s heirs are particularly associated with the spiritual works, while the followers of Dorothy Day are associated with the corporal works, both founders emphasized all the Works of Mercy – and you can find evidence of that in their communities even down to today. Regardless of how they’re divvied up between the two movements, it’s eminently clear why the Works of Mercy are so well suited to their lay-oriented apostolates. You don’t need special training or formation or even piety to feed the hungry or pray for the dead. You just have to do it – to see the value of it, to know that it’s what Christ calls us to do, to recognize that it’s the kind of thing people who become saints do, and then do it. That’s all there is to it!

A couple years ago, St. Aloysius Church, a historically Jesuit parish in Washington, D.C., was on the verge of being shuttered. St. Al’s, as it was known, had always been a pillar of the urban neighborhood in which it was situated, and its McKenna Center continues to serve as an important hub of activism and outreach on behalf of the poor – with a decidedly Catholic Worker flavor. Commenting on the possible closing of the parish, one commenter made this recommendation:

[I]t may bring a lot of juice to St. Al’s to have, say, Opus Dei take over. It would also be hilarious to watch in terms of human drama. Josemaría Escrivá and Dorothy Day side by side. Amen!

Hilarious? Perhaps – like my mug. But contradictory? Out of the question? Not at all.

image: Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons

Richard Becker

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Rick Becker is a Catholic convert, husband, and father of seven. He and his wife, Nancy, serve as Co-Directors of Religious Education at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, Indiana. Rick also teaches nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

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  • noelfitz

    This is another article that underlines why I think CE is so excellent. It makes one
    think. I would have thought only a mug would have considered Dorothy Day and St.Josemaría Escrivá to be similar. But here we see both were alike – committed Catholics.
    Our pastor, when he was newly ordained, went to New York and worked with Dorothy Day, this made a huge impression on him, which inspires him continually.

    So one again, thanks CE.

  • Rick Becker

    Bill, thanks for your response. You’re correct, of course, that Escrivá and Day would’ve probably differed with regards to pacifism, but that’s an area in Church teaching that allows for legitimate disagreement. And I’m no historian, but my impression is that Escrivá wasn’t exactly a Franco supporter, even though he did escape to a Franco-controlled region when things got too hot in republican-controlled Madrid.

    But that’s all besides the point, which is this: The vision of Escrivá and the vision of Dorothy Day are essentially the same, and are in concert with the teachings of Vatican II and recent Popes — to wit, everyone is called to be a saint, and society will be transformed through the ordinary efforts of saints-in-the-making. Whether the saint and the servant of God agree on matters that are open to debate is worth exploring, but doesn’t seem to detract from that central idea.

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