Pope Benedict points to Dorothy Day as example of conversion

Pope Benedict XVI made prominent reference to Dorothy Day in yesterday’s Wednesday audience address. He did it in the context of talking about conversion — on the occasion, of course, of the start of Lent.

In one fine passage, the Pope noted:

The tests which modern society subjects Christians to, in fact, are many, and affect the personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, practice mercy in everyday life, leave space for prayer and inner silence. It is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many take for granted, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one’s faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed several times throughout one’s life.

He then mentioned three twentieth century figures who experienced strong conversion experiences which left an indelible mark on their spirituality and their lives: the Russian Orthodox scientist-turned-monk Pavel Florensky, the Dutch Jewish woman Etty Hillesum, and finally Dorothy Day. About Dorothy, the Pope said:

The ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time to choose the search for truth and open herself up to the discovery of faith is evidenced by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!” The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer… ” God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.

It’s wonderful to see. My only hesitation is that one could get the impression, from the Pope’s telling of Dorothy’s story, that conversion led her to see that methods such as protesting, going to jail, and politics were misguided, part of “the Marxist proposal,” which she then renounced in favor of a more pious life. Of course, that’s not the case: her newfound Catholic faith and deep piety (daily Mass, daily praying of the office, deep devotion to several saints, etc) only reinforced her political activism on behalf of and in solidarity with the poor. Perhaps since her story is so well known, though, my concern here is unfounded.

The closing line of the Pope’s address is also well worth noting and reflecting on as we begin Lent: “Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become most important.”

Complete text of his reflection is here. More on Benedict and his legacy, in light of his resignation, to come here soon.

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