"Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."
That's what Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper and social justice movement, famously said about herself before her death at age 83 in 1980. Yet a big step was recently taken toward that end when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed her cause after Cardinal Dolan of New York called her "a saint for our time." Dolan said Day deserved the honor for having outgrown her wild youth to devote herself to serving the poor for 50 years.
The issue of her sainthood is controversial among both her supporters and detractors.
Some Catholic Workers worry that sainthood would dilute her message and overly emphasize how she reformed her life after having an abortion. After all, that's the part of Day's story that the cardinal, and many of his fellow bishops, prefers to emphasize. Catholic conservatives also endorse Day's embrace of traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics and an all-male priesthood.
Liberal Catholics prefer stories about how, during New York City's first nuclear air raid drill in 1957, Day and other pacifists gathered in Union Square Park to protest what they felt was an absurdity: hiding in a basement to survive an atom bomb. Not for the first time, she was arrested.
The pope has already named Day a ''Servant of God.'' If the Vatican can certify to its satisfaction that she lived an exemplary life of faith and was the cause of two miracles, she would then be beatified. That process can take decades.
Until then, the arguments will continue about the meaning of her "don't call me a saint" quote. Some take her sentiment literally. Others say her point was to emphasize that anyone, not just a saint, could do what she did. She contended that it falls to all of us to delve into what she called the mystery of poverty. "By sharing in it, by making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love," she said.
By some estimates, there are over 10,000 Catholic saints. America has twelve saints; remarkably, seven of them are New Yorkers.
Jim O'Grady is a WNYC reporter and the author of Dorothy Day: With Love for the Poor, a biography.