Meet Pope Francis’s Lesser-Known American Heroes
Pope Francis called for Americans to seek inspiration in the works of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Here's who they were.
In Pope Francis’s address to the United States Congress Thursday, the Catholic leader highlighted the works of two of America’s most well-known and much loved figures: Abraham Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery, and Martin Luther King, the pastor who led the civil rights movement before his assassination in 1968.
But in an unexpected twist, his speech also asked American lawmakers to search for inspiration in the works of two lesser-known and far less celebrated Americans: Dorothy Day, the socialist founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Thomas Merton, a hermit, poet, and Catholic monk who protested the Vietnam War.
Francis said he chose those four activists and writers because they each advocated for a dream that he hopes can inspire Americans to make a renewed commitment to social action today.
“Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God,” the pope said Thursday.
His suggestion that Americans tap their “cultural reserves” by searching for insight in the works of Day and Merton — both anti-war and anti-capitalist — likely didn’t sit well with Republicans already irked by Francis’s reputation as a relatively progressive pontiff. Francis has earned the reputation, in part, because of his acknowledgement that mankind contributes to climate change and his vows to reform the church’s conservative policies on divorce.
By placing them on par with King and Lincoln, Francis is sure to focus new attention on both Day and Merton.
Born in 1897, Day was raised Episcopalian but converted to Catholicism in 1927. She was an early suffragist who went on a hunger strike in prison after she was arrested for protesting in favor of women’s right to vote in front of the White House. Day was drawn to Catholicism because she saw it as what she described as “the church of the poor,” and she converted almost a decade after being pressured to have an abortion by her lover, writer Lionel Moise, a decision she later said she regretted her entire life.
After co-founding the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, Day used her career to better the lives of the poor and recruit others to live in what she called “voluntary poverty.”
For the many American eyebrows raised at the pope’s reference to her name in Thursday’s address, American Catholics were probably far less surprised. In 1972, America magazine, a weekly Catholic publication, honored Day’s 75th birthday by dedicating an entire issue to her work. The magazine’s editors wrote at the time that if they had to choose “a single individual to symbolize the best in the aspiration and action of the American Catholic community during the last forty years, that one person would certainly be Dorothy Day.”
In 2000, the Vatican announced it would look into the possibility of canonizing her, and in 2001, when America magazine revisited her work, the weekly publication said that long after her death she remained “the radical conscience of American Catholicism.”
At a 2012 conference of U.S. bishops, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan called her “a saint for our time,” and all of the American bishops present voted unanimously to canonize her. She is currently under consideration for sainthood, and, as the pope said on Thursday, “her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Merton, by contrast, is far more obscure inside and outside of Catholic circles.
Born to an American mother in France in 1915, Merton studied at Columbia University and was working as a writer in New York City when he felt called to the priesthood. In 1941, he took life vows as a Trappist monk and moved to Kentucky, where he spent 27 years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery that has been in continuous operation for more than 150 years.
Merton wrote more than 60 books, along with hundreds of articles and poems, on faith, politics, and even nuclear arms proliferation. But he is best known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. The book told the story of Merton’s withdrawal from the New York literary scene into a life of solitude and contemplation and gained enormous popularity in the United States, where many were disenchanted with politics and reeling from the effects of World War II. Merton’s publishers did not expect the book to become a bestseller and initially printed just more than 10,000 copies. It has since sold millions.
Father Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest, writer, and peace advocate, described Merton as the “conscience of the peace movement of the 1960s.” In 1972, the American Civil Liberties Union founded the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice to honor his legacy by organizing nonviolent movements against nuclear proliferation, racial discrimination, and war.
On a trip to Asia in 1968, Merton, who was long intrigued by Buddhism, met with the Dalai Lama, who later said the two shared a “spiritual bond” and that meeting Merton “introduced [him] to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.'” Merton died on that trip after being accidentally electrocuted in Thailand. The day of his death would have been the 27-year anniversary of his entrance into monkhood.
Francis used Merton’s role as “a promoter of peace between peoples and religions” Thursday to urge lawmakers away from war.
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Photo credit: Pool/Getty Images News