Arts and Culture

Still Impressed by The Catholic Worker

by Father Robert Lauder

Last February I gave a lecture at The Catholic Worker in Manhattan. The lecture took place at 55 East 3rd St., which is Mary House, one of the two residences of The Worker has in New York City.

I invited myself and offered to give a talk entitled “Personalism: a Philosophy of Love, Human and Divine.”  There were several reasons why I wanted to make this presentation at The Worker.

One of the main reasons was to provide an opportunity for several of my Catholic friends to become acquainted with The Catholic  Worker movement and to witness firsthand love in action, the love that has been motivating and inspiring people involved with The Catholic Worker for more than 80  years.

I was especially interested that two nieces be present, one who is attending St. John’s University and another who recently graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas College in California.  The curriculum at St. Thomas is based on great Catholic books.  Both nieces have read abut Christian love, love of God and love of neighbor.  The Catholic Worker, I believed, would provide a wonderful example of that love directed toward the poor.

I also hoped that others who might attend the lecture would be a nephew and niece in high school and members of a discussion group that I moderate.  I have long believed that every Catholic should have some experience, however limited, of The Catholic Worker, which I think has played a very important role in the history of the Catholic Church in this country.

I chose the topic because I believe that the philosophy of  personalism has some marvelous things to say about the mystery of freedom and the mystery of love. That Dorothy Day, the co-founder of The Worker, was deeply influenced by the writings of the personalist philosopher, Emanuel Mounier, also contributed to why I chose to lecture on personalism.

At St. John’s University, I created a course on personalism and I teach it every spring.  The students seem to get a great deal from the readings and discussions and so I hoped those who might attend the lecture would find insights from personalist philosophy both interesting and even inspiring.

Whenever I visit one of The Worker residences, beautiful but challenging memories of Dorothy enter my mind.

The first time I met her was during the summer of 1955.  I had just finished my first year in the major seminary and our philosophy professor, Father Jim Coffey, had encouraged some of us who were interested in learning more about what lay people were doing in Catholic Action groups, to use the summer months to meet lay people who were involved in Catholic Action. One of the first suggestions he made was that we should visit The Catholic Worker. I remember that first visit very well.

On the Friday evening that my friends and I decided to visit The Worker, there was a guest lecturer, a priest from France who worked with orphans. While I don’t remember a great deal of what he said about his work, I do remember a man who asked a question after the lecture and I remember Dorothy Day’s reaction.

The man asking the question made no sense at all in his remarks. I suspect that he had an emotional problem. He spoke at some length.  It was obvious that he was not making any sense.  I looked over at Dorothy while he was speaking. She was listening with the attention a person might give to St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.

That image of Dorothy Day listening with complete attention toward and deep respect for the questioner made a deep impression on me.  In fact, it has become like a sign to me of just what The Catholic Worker represents. For Dorothy and for those who have followed her at The Catholic Worker there have been no unimportant people. Every person is precious and each one should be treated like Christ.

When I was ordained a priest, a friend gave me a picture from the newspaper that The Worker puts out every month and has been putting out at the price of one penny a copy for more than 70 years.  I have had the picture on my wall for 50 years.  The picture is of a breadline, apparently on a cold winter night. In line are a number of hungry men, all dressed in shabby clothes. Standing with them in the middle of the line dressed in a worn overcoat with a shawl around his head is Jesus.  That picture sums up for me the meaning and mission of The Catholic Worker.

Every time I visit The Catholic Worker I am inspired and challenged. The visit in February was no exception.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

One thought on “Still Impressed by The Catholic Worker

  1. I wish I could have been there to hear your lecture. Unfortunately, I am in the midst of cancer. I am not able to do a live performance of the one-person play, “Fool for Christ: The Story of Dorothy Day” but I am still selling my DVD of the performance done at Manhattan College. Please visit my website.