In some ways the church is uncomfortable with those who show the best of it, and many saints felt the displeasure of their superiors. Therefore, many were surprised when Pope Francis, who has a reputation for surprises, came to America and had some words for those seen as the least of society as well as those in the halls of power. Pope Francis returns to that radical message of care and compassion, abjuring the butts that have become cozy in the pews, and even by visiting a prison not as a moral figure but “as a brother.”
In his address to the US Congress, one that defied political lines, he invoked the names of American icons of justice such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, but also the lesser known figures of a Cistercian monk and a Benedictine oblate from the early part of the century. Dorothy Day and Francis Merton are the names he mentioned; they are as uncomfortable to the writers of history books as they are to bishops and cardinals.
Dorothy Day was ordered by New York’s Monsignor Gaffney to remove “Catholic” from her publication, The Catholic Worker, and refused. She was a devout convert to Catholicism who had lived a life that included an abortion and a child born out of wedlock, but also the founding of the Catholic Worker movement and possibly one of the original social justice warriors. She is also called Servant of God, and is being considered for canonization.
Mentions of Thomas Merton were removed from a list of exemplary Catholics intended for a young adults’ catechism based on the limp excuse that young Catholics wouldn’t know who he was. Merton opposed racism and war, tirelessly advocating for peace between peoples and religions, and denounced the influence of money. This might be expected as he was a monk under a vow, but he actually broke from chastity while having a short lived affair, and dabbled in eastern mysticism.
The Holy Father could have chosen any number of exemplary person and saints from secular and religious worlds, but he chose two who had not by any means lived lives that many would see as saintly. If the mention of them provokes curiosity, it is by intent. Though many would insist that the lives of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton are unfit for hagiography, Pope Francis focuses on their callings: ministry to the poor and their advocacy for peace, understanding, and justice for all people instead of on their lives before their conversion to Catholicism.
Perhaps these two unlikely saints personify the values that Pope Francis has sought to bring to the forefront of the church. The idea that the church can redeem, uplift, and inspire those who are the most likely to be shunned is one that began with Christ in the first place. For all Catholics who have felt caught in the crossfire of the culture wars, the Holy Father picked two stars by which everyone can steer.