What Is The Catholic Worker? – Betsy Keenan

If someone has a quick and easy definition of what a “Catholic Worker” is they display ignorance of or lack of appreciation for the width and depth of this movement and its impact. One who undertakes to give a talk for a parish, church group or class to explain it usually ends up grabbing one thread in the tangled ball of yarn that is the Catholic Worker story and following it for a time – then answers questions that arise. We date the CW founding firmly as May 1st, 1933 because that was the day The Catholic Worker newspaper hit the streets of New York City. The economic Depression had thousands of people displaced and traveling looking for work; hungry, discouraged and often unwelcome. The Catholic Worker was meant to preach Good News to these people, that Jesus had a program for us to eliminate such dire need by action for justice and meeting our brothers’ and sisters’ needs.

In fact the Roman Catholic
 Church started bringing its social teaching into the modern era with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Principles of Catholic Social teaching are summarized as: 1.The dignity of the human person, 2. The Common Good – Social conditions which allow all people to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily, 3. Subsidiarity – Allow co-creation by addressing issues at the most local level, 4. Solidarity – Take care of our neighbor (as Christ reminds us, that is everyone).

Peter Maurin convinced Dorothy Day that this was the dynamite of the Catholic Church that needed to be exploded, the yeast that needed to be kneaded into the bread to bring about positive change, as an alternative to the revolution of political structure being preached by communists and socialists. A personalist revolution.

The Catholic Worker is a newspaper. Or the Catholic Worker is a place, a house or a farm. A place to drop off surplus food so it may be shared instead of wasted, or to get a free meal without condescension. Maybe a place to sleep on a cold night, or take a shower on a hot day. Maybe a place to sit with a cup of coffee and talk about your struggles, or listen to someone else’s story. The havens created by readers of The Catholic Worker are many and varied, and sometimes called simply “Catholic Worker House”, or perhaps named for some other inspiration like St. Francis, St Martin de Porres, Oscar Romero or Dorothy Day.

But who is a Catholic Worker? A person inspired by the work or words of those early founders of The Catholic Worker, or the work of a Catholic Worker house, or by the same writings and examples that inspired those projects, and those who have followed after? Radical hospitality, radical peacemaking, solidarity with those in need and those who struggle for justice may help identify Catholic Workers, but there is no membership list, no graduation from a program, often no moment to point to when a participation in these activities becomes a vocation, or an identity.

When I first arrived at the Catholic Worker Farm at Tivoli, New York in my 20’s, what I knew about the Catholic Worker movement came from The Catholic Worker newspaper. My first flesh and blood CW teacher was Stanley Vishnewski who divided his time in the 1970’s between Maryhouse in Manhattan, where the CW paper’s editorial offices were and Dorothy Day was living in retirement, the Farm at Tivoli and traveling to various places around the country to speak and show a slide show about the CW movement. During the early decades of the movement, Dorothy was often traveling around speaking at colleges and inspiring and encouraging people to start feeding and housing those in need, or to come to New York and help at the houses there.

Stanley was not the standard bearer, but he was a veteran of community life and its struggles. One explanation for his longevity in the CW has to be his sense of humor. Even when it was the repetition of the lamest puns, a houseful of young volunteers who took themselves too seriously deserved the reminder to lighten up. He was observant of those around him, faithful in the tasks he undertook and he captured with his camera the scenes of daily life and caught the shifting array of people that came and went through the community. In Kate Hennessey’s book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty (see my review, the Sower, #27) I got the sense of Stanley as a constant member of this non-traditional family. When I had times of frustration and discouragement he often had a “Dorothy story” to tell me the problems the challenged me were nothing new, just part of the struggle to live with unperfected humans with great ideals.

Speaking with a Catholic Worker much younger than myself, Maria Bergh, about Catholic Worker identity, she said that as a teenager, reading “The Long Loneliness” she had a sense that being a Catholic Worker was a vocation, a possibility. Later as she became immersed in CW life, either on a farm or in Chicago and gathering with others in the same process at the Sugar Creek she grasped more of the depth of commitment some people have given. War resistance, speaking and acting against racial injustice, welcoming the homeless, land stewardship that brings food to the hungry and healing to the environment, visiting the prisoners and yes, cooking dinner and paying the bills are all part of the picture. There is so much to be done. We welcome all co-workers, but always seek to nurture those who might either stick around, or take an altered view of reality with them from the Catholic Worker into the “normal world”.

*Reprinted with permission from The Sower, Strangers and Guests CW Farm, Summer 2019

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Betsy’s pots, Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm