These are difficult days for those of us who have invested our hopes and labors in the unfolding of the kind of church we thought was mandated by the Second Vatican Council. More than 40 years since the close of the council whose keynote was "full, conscious and active participation by all the baptized," we are witnessing an institutional retreat into clericalism and theological absolutism. For many progressive Catholics, the options seem dismal: wait out this last hurrah or drift away from this sadly dysfunctional church to find life elsewhere.
Yet we are not the only generation to face institutional intransigence or failed leadership. One of the lessons of the past is that those who wait to be told what, when and how to live, quickly themselves become part of the lethargy and discouragement they are trying to get passed.
So we are invoking Dorothy Day as model and mentor to us because she trusted in the power of her baptism, the promise of the Spirit to give her the charism she needed to accomplish the works of justice and mercy she saw all around her waiting to be taken up. As cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, she once said she never needed a bishop to tell her how to live her Christian faith. Her point was not that we should ignore the hierarchy, but that we don't need to wait for an authority figure to tell us to pray, find community, consider the Gospel command to love and serve others in our own circumstances.
What authorizes us is Baptism. Be open, welcome the stranger, share what you have, be grateful. This is Day's message to all of us; this basic self-authorizing approach that led her into the more mature works of protest and service that characterize the Catholic Worker Movement, rising up out of the hardest years of the Great Depression and within a monarchical church that often ignored or resisted her controversial stands on pacifism, social change and lay empowerment.
Day was both deeply spiritual and realistic. She drew inspiration from the Eucharist and from Catholic social teachings. She drew also from the works of the great Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose words inspired the title of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness: "We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes in community."
Day found her a description of the human journey we all make if we take seriously our own baptismal promise. God calls us out of isolation into relationship and into community for the sake of service. This journey makes us church in the simplest sense; and this becomes the place from which we move the world.