“He, after all, is Christ.”
CT April 24th 2020
The headline for these few words this week comes from the American Christian Socialist, Dorothy Day. It was her description of one of the homeless New Yorkers that she once gave shelter to in the Catholic Worker house on Charles Street, NYC. Others wanted the man to be ejected. But at her insistence he remained there until his death. He had nowhere else to go.
When Pope Francis addressed Congress during his visit to the US in September of 2015, he singled out four Americans by name. Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War President, Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights activist, Thomas Merton, the writer and monk, and Dorothy Day who devoted her life to the poor and outcasts of the City.
She was an exceptional woman whose life was, in a variety of ways, truly remarkable. Hers was a voice that spoke for the voiceless, a voice that confronted issues of injustice and spoke for the dignity of the individual. She was to be found on picket lines offering solidarity to unionized workers. As a pacifist, she protested the arms race and the resort to war to settle disputes between nations. She was arrested many times for her unshakable principles, a view of society infused with her Catholic faith.
She asked questions that, at the time, society was unwilling to contemplate, questions of injustice that fell on deaf ears.
Many of those questions remain unanswered in our present days, now brought into sharp focus by the world-wide COVID crisis that is indifferent to race, colour or wealth, a crisis that ignores passport controls.
As it sweeps across our planet, it has pointed out, in a harsh and acerbic manner, those whom we should value, those whose service we depend on. They range from our medics in the health service to the shelf-stackers in supermarkets, from delivery drivers to teachers, from the police and fire-service to our postal delivery workers. Such men and women help our society function. They lubricate the wheels. If nothing else, their worth has been widely recognized.
The question that now faces us concerns the future, what comes after this tsunami of infection has swept through nations and finally abates?
It may seem a premature issue to face when we are far from a clear conclusion to the present crisis. But I would suggest that now is the time to begin addressing what will follow. It is worth remembering that in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, the Butler Education Act was passed, an Act that significantly changed the educational opportunity in the post-war years in England and Wales.
This experience of contagion might change our perception of the Third World when we come to appreciate that we all share the same planet. We might realize that we can alleviate our climate damage if the causes of pollution are controlled. We might realize that there are better uses for our financial resources than stockpiling weapons of war intended for destruction of the human race. We might, but will we in fact do so?
In a recent Tablet interview, Pope Francis emphasized the dilemma with these words: “I am worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons. This is a time to be converted from this kind of functional hypocrisy. It’s a time for integrity. Either we are coherent with our beliefs or we lose everything.”
We have in the See of Peter one with a fearless voice who calls to question many accepted values that others avoid challenging. We should be grateful for it.
The events of these days at the start of 2020 will be etched in our memory. The huge numbers who have been infected, the thousands who have lost their lives, the countless individual stories of painful family circumstance that have caused tears and grief.
The rebuilding of our society will be a long and difficult process as we slowly emerge from this enforced lock-down, whenever that might be, for alongside the physical cost there has been the experience of emotional trauma that won’t be healed overnight.
In a recent article in the ‘New Yorker’ it is recorded that ‘by the time she died, in 1980, Day had become one of the most prominent thinkers of the left and doers of the right’. Her active life in the suburbs of a great city was devoted to the daily care of those lives rejected and downtrodden by others, much as they often are today. In the weeks and months to come we need to remake a society that has the principles of justice at its core. We should remember those who helped us when we were most in need and repay each small kindness with the immensity of an open heart.