Re-reading some sections of Dr. Patrick McNamara’s wonderful book “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & Works!” (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), I have been reminded of personal encounters I had with some of the New Yorkers about whom McNamara writes.
I briefly met Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker; Catherine De Hueck Doherty, founder of Friendship House; and the writer and publisher Frank Sheed. Though the meetings were brief and many years ago, I recall them vividly. Each had an impact on my life. In different ways, Day, Doherty and Sheed were inspiring and challenging models to me. They represent, for me, important figures who lived their Catholic faith in ways that can challenge all of us.
I met Dorothy Day on my first visit to the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality based in Manhattan. When I first spotted her, I thought she looked strong and saintly. She fit my image of someone who had given her life to help the poor.
During the last 50 years I have visited the Catholic Worker House regularly. On most occasions I was giving one of their Friday evening lectures. Each time I scheduled myself to give a lecture, I had mixed motives: There was something that I wanted to say that I hoped might help those who attended the lectures, but also I wanted to be reminded that the Church must always be interested in the poor. Every time I go to the Worker House I feel spiritually challenged by those who spend their lives doing the corporal works of mercy.
In my years as a priest I have been involved with many discussion groups. One reason for that is the ending of Dorothy Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” in which she states that the movement developed and expanded when people were sitting around a table discussing what they could do to help others. I am reminded of Jesus saying that wherever two or three are gath- ered together in His name, He will be in the midst of them. If we judge a movement by its fruits, there is enormous evidence that Christ has been at the center of the Catholic Worker movement.
Toward the end of his essay on Day, McNamara writes:
“In 1972 Notre Dame awarded her its prestigious Laetare Medal for ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.’ Toward the end of her life, she said, ‘When you start asking, ‘Lord, what have you me do?’ you always find yourself doing a lot more than you thought you were going to do.’”
After her death in 1980, his- torian David O’Brien claimed that she was the most interesting and influential person in the his- tory of American Catholicism.
I met Catherine De Hueck Doherty at a liturgical convention in Canada in the 1950s. She gave a talk to a small group of priests and seminarians. What a speaker!
Her talk made a profound impression on us. She moved us both emotionally and intellectually. I have never forgotten her zeal and enthusiasm for spreading Christ’s message.
For me, Frank Sheed represented the intellectual apostolate in the Church for years. In 1926, along with his wife, Maisie Ward, he founded Sheed and Ward, a publishing house devoted to Catholic works. Sheed and Ward published the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, the novels of Evelyn Waugh, history by Christopher Dawson and Karl Adam’s theology.
Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton were boyhood heroes to Sheed. Not only did he get to meet them because of the publishing house, but he also got to publish them.
When I was a young priest, Sheed’s book, “Theology and Sanity,” made a great impact on me and I think also on about 20 college students with whom I formed a discussion group. Seeing that the college students were influenced by Sheed’s writing encouraged me.
Though I only met Sheed once, I do recall seeing him on television discussing Graham Greene’s writing. Sheed said that Greene wrote as though the headline on the morning paper was “Son of God died for me.” That’s one of the most insightful comments I ever heard about his writing.
Reading McNamara’s book has been a treat and I hope it’s widely read because reading about great New Yorkers can provide inspiration and encouragement.