My Catholic seminary of the 1950’s, like many of that era, was
very like a Trappist Monastery: no radios, no television, no magazines,
hardly a newspaper.
The closest thing to a newspaper that I could find was in the Reading
Room: the tabloid-size Catholic Worker of Dorothy Day and Peter
This Gospel of the Last Sunday of the Church Year was and is, without
a doubt, THE GOSPEL of the Catholic Worker Movement. The Final Round Up,
if you will. Christ the King coming undisguised, “in all His
glory,” is the phrase to tell us that He has been here all along
I was hungry…sick…homeless…in
jail…Whatever you did or not do for these you did or neglected to do
Dorothy Day’s friend, Peter Maurin, was fond of saying:
“the poor are the ambassadors of God.” The novelist Flannery O’Connor has one of her characters say: “Christ?
Christ is that ragged figure in the back of my mind darting from tree to
tree.” He is elusive in his disguises.
Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and Catholic Worker are whom I shall
bless and blame for these thirty years in North Philadelphia where I
live as well as work. Where weekdays and weekends, morning, noon and
evening and night the poor are at the door, on the phone, on the street
wanting food, or carfare, or rent, or heat, or a job, or a free lawyer
Bless? Our Gospel suggests that it is a blessing to live so close to
all that need, that I have no choice but to face it and respond to it. I
do get out to the suburbs for a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, or just a
party, and my notice is that what is out of sight can really be out of
Blame? Blame because I do it so poorly, get impatient or angry even,
if the poor come too late or too often or are too demanding.
My dear Simone Weil whom I read more than anyone else says: The
charitable exchange, benefactor to beggar, is often so patronizing, most
often so condescending as to reinforce the roles of someone humiliating
and someone humiliated. The charitable exchange that is true charity or
love is more a miracle than walking on water.
All I can say is that with the thirty years I am still working at it.
But the “big picture,” as we say, is more than my
performance at the front door, is it not?
As long in me as the invitation of Dorothy Day and Catholic Worker is
the summons of my friendship with Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan who,
forty years ago, in the form of a letter to a young friend, wrote
something I have never forgotten:
I remember being appalled, after returning from Europe in
1954, at the situation of the Church in New York. How could a church so
well established be at the same time so unproductive, so debilitated by
all the illnesses of man’s spirit? …faced with what we saw, a few
of us did what we could. It was discouraging and slow. I can still feel
to the bone the uphill climb of those years. Many times the most we
could claim was that we were still afloat for another week. And many
times the only thing that kept us going at all was the feeling that,
hard and unavailing as our work seemed to be, there simply was no
alternative. It was a matter of consenting to fail here rather than
succeed at something easier, something that was simply not to life’s
The World Showed Me Its Heart
For Dan Berrigan, the “bigger picture” embraces government, to be sure,
especially that government here within the Beltway where all the
resources are. Thus the actions at the draft boards in the Vietnam
years, the more recent actions at nuclear weapon bases and Nevada test
The Commandments of Moses, the Beatitudes of Jesus are, according to
Saint Paul, written on the fleshy tablets of our hearts before they were
written on tablets of stone. We know what we should be. We know that
these weapons are wrong. If only the Beatitudes and the heart had been
at work in Congress rather than political caution when this disastrous
Often, as church people, we can only do what Rosa Parks did. We can
only protest, God help us.
While I was shaping these words a week or so ago, CNN was casually
on the television screen in an empty room in muting mode—until I saw
the images. The summoned voice told the story: Three million displaced
in Pakistan from the earthquake, many being brought down from the
mountains just ahead of winter. No refuge camps, no tents, just dropped
in one place from another and making their way down a road with all
their possessions on their back.
The news soon changed. It was Election Day and much ado about
election races where the issue is taxes.
Again—out of sight out of mind.
The week before, a similar scene:
Images of how inadequate the response of developed countries are to Pakistan,
and a news banner running on the bottom of the screen saying
how NASA, so encouraged by the recent success of Discovery,
wants two hundred million (or was it two billion?) to go to the moon again!
This week, Thanksgiving, of course.
A lovely feast uniquely available to all our various faiths.
I do not know whether those pilgrims were grateful for an abundant first harvest
or grateful that they had survived the harsh New England winter.
It pleases me that my Roman tradition accommodated to this feast, Protestant in origin,
with a preface to the Eucharist composed especially for the feast.
It tries to see the American adventure in the biblical tradition of ancient Israel.
It prays thus:
It happened to our fathers, (and mothers?)
who came to this land as if out of the desert
into a place of promise and hope.
In recent years I do not use this Preface.
I hesitate to think of ourselves as a people, a country special.
Oh, I know we have a special story written on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor
and I do believe we are special in our abundance.
Yet despite our rhetoric, we are not proportionally more generous than others
in sharing that abundance.
And we are not special in some role of mega-power
destined to spread “freedom and democracy” everywhere.
We are not destined to liberate Arab women, to impose our culture on others.
We are not right to dismantle the United Nations.
We are not exempt from the banning of torture by the Geneva Conventions.
Rather than a sense of ourselves as special or destined
I prefer an image from Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Laureate Poet from Chile,
a country we have greatly harmed with our Manifest Destiny adventures.
The poem is “Demasiados Nombres”—“Too Many Names” Part of it reads:
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas,
of Chiles and of Paraguays;
I have no idea what they are saying.
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it is without a name.
Dorothy Day…Peter Maurin…Daniel Berrigan…Rosa Parks…a litany of sorts in my Roman tradition, and your Anglican tradition as well.
Well, we do need all the help we can get. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says:
…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.