M A \ Y years ago, in New York, I visited a fierce little Catholic lady. To tell the truth, I thought her a hit dotty — for she would not talk the practical politics that preoccupy Washington correspondents. She wanted to talk about love and living your whole life for an ideal. She was Dorothy Day and she died recently at the age of 83.
She was a ferocious radical who practiced what she preached and she never quite stopped preaching — except to laugh.
I ler father was a journalist and an Episcopalian, (i.e. the American equivalent of an Anglican). She was well read, became a Socialist at college and joined the sort of radical paper where all the reporters are really writing books or plays. She had a common law husband, but the relationship did not last and then she became a Catholic in 1930. And the leader in the United States of the Catholic Worker Movement.
More than that she helped found a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which still sells at the 1933 price of one penny. It has a circulation of 70,000. It is a thin paper, written and decorated at the top of someone's voice.
She was actively disliked by many American Catholics because she was such a nuisance. She was an utter pacifist and a Christian anarchist. She paid no taxes and she would not vote. She was gaoled for the first time in 1918 for picketing the White House for the suffragettes.
She went so often to gaol for her frequent acts of protest that one New York gaol had what they called the Dorothy Day Suite, And yet she was practical. She set up 40 Houses of Hospitality all over the country. A few years ago a Trappist Monastery gave her $100,000. They were perturbed that they were making too much money with their home baked bread and so cast some of it in her direction.
She bought a five-storey building in a skim and used it to house vagrant women. She lived there in a small hare bedroom and died there.
She had a deep inward joy in being a Catholic. Although she had no patience with the rows between progressive priests and conservative bishops, she could range like a termagent against the sort of prelates that blessed
bomber, and she fought to get the American bishops to condemn all nuclear weaponry.
When she died her grandchildren carried her body to the dirt-poor Church of the Nativity where the walls are cement blocks. unpainted, and bits of the asbestos ceiling are missing, and they use a wine glass as a chalice.
The Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Terence Cooke, met the coffin and blessed it. But before he left it to a radical young Dominican to say the Requiem, a sort of Dorothy Day happening happened.
The cardinal in his scarlet was accosted by a well known peace worker. This was a man called John Shiel.
He went up to the cardinal when he had done praying.
"Hello, John," said the cardinal who had faced him at public meetings. "Hello there, cardinal," said John Shiel. "When are you going to come out against nuclear weapons?" The cardinal did not reply and went away and the Requiem began for one of the most honest and useful of American women, even if she did not wield any political clout.
I HAVE recently been under a great pressure to write about Don Orione, an Italian. In fact a couple of strong minded friends suggested it to me. So I read a book.
Don Louis Orione was one of those Italian saints which Italy seems to produce as richly and as frequently as new governments. They revere their saints. especially when they are alive and available. But despite the crowding multiplicity of their acknowledged holy men and women, they do not on the whole give quite the impression of being a holy people. Uninhibited — yes, holy — no.
The Italians occupy the two or three tolerable areas•of Europe. They tend to he polite and charming and their food is very slightly better than ours. As anyone who visits Italy can see, they copied half their architecture from us. St Peter's is only a grossly enlarged and statuarily overcrowded version of St. Paul's. And they really could speak English if they tried.
But they kidnap and they kill officials for ideals that have never been defined. They snatch handbags from girls from the backs of mopeds. They do not go to church much and only a very few become priests.
How different from our own dear country!
Don Orione felt he had a vocation at the age of nine. This seems faintly shocking to us nowadays — like child brides. We have been dismantling all the apparatus of junior seminaries and your average ordinand tends to have seen the world. What, I ask myself, does your average parish priest feel when he gets a stockbroker or a brilliant journalist or a scholar as a curate? But the old way produced rafts of marvellous and faithful priests, including Pope John and Don Orions.
He was taken by the Franciscans and then went to the Salesians. He left them too. "One of the reasons I did not become a Salesian was my seeing a priest who was too smartly dressed. His habit positively shone and he had a cigar in his mouth too." In Britain we prefer our priests clean. Don Orione also had a thing against umbrellas which he seemed to regard as an unpriestly luxury.
In fact he chose to go to a somewhat rough diocesan seminary in his diocese of Tortona. There even before he was ordained and so poor that they let him live in the cathedral loft, he started schools for the poor.
Now this was a time of rampant anti-clericalism in Italy and to heave a half brick at a priest was the work of a minor patriot. Italy had been united by force and the Papal States, thank goodness, were annexed. The Quirenale which was the Pope's palace had been taken over by the new King. (The Queen stayed in the Imperial Suite only the other day.) And the Pope — Pius IX — declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican. He utterly forbade Italian Catholics to take any part in politics.
Don Orione was passionately devoted to the Pope. He was a slight man, with an amusing and amused monkey face, immense charm and a ceaseless energy and a great eloquence.
In this hostile atmosphere he went about founding things. Schools for the poor, religious houses where blind or deaf priests and nuns could he accepted, convents of perpetual adoration, agricultural schools and he went about preaching, preferably to the poor in remote villages so much that he was called Don GadAbout. He went to the US and Argentina.
In 1908 there was an appalling earthquake in Sicily which devastated the noble city of Messina. There was an inadequate archbishop and Pope Pius XI sent him there as VicarGeneral. He worked wonders for three years and the Sicilians who are suspicious of all interference resnted him. The archbishop did not even say "thank you" when he left.
His finances were peculiar. He left them largely to Our Lady and the lire always seemed to turn up.He took it for granted that he had a personal relationship with her and. in effect, he lived the life of a supernatural gambler. The natural and the super-natural were mingled in his life in a most peculiar and endearing way. He was the founder of The Sons of Divine Providence. In this country they have nine houses. In the Odom manner they provide homes for the elderly. train "exceptional" children as well as handicapped and retarded teenagers. I got that bit from an advertisement in the Catholic Herald so you have no excuse if you want to enquire.
This enchanting and amazing little man was beatified in October. They want him canonised. Personally I think it would be better to help his work which seems solely a God directed drive to help those in • need of help.