“Don’t call me a saint,” Dorothy Day
once said with irritation. “I don’t want
to be dismissed so easily.” We may
smile but can understand this complaint
from the cofounder of the
Catholic Worker Movement, who lived
from 1897 to 1980.
In fact, her cause for canonization
has been introduced by the Archdiocese
of New York. Many people already consider
her an outstanding witness to the
Good News of Jesus Christ.
Canonized saints and all holy
women and men are often seen as well-intentioned
but unrealistic people, as
possessing heroic virtues impossible for
Sin is real (it happens), yet hardly
realistic (it always requires that in some
way we lie to ourselves about who we
are before God and in relation to other
people). Were Adam and Eve being realistic
when they expected that eating
the forbidden fruit would make them
Realists see all of life, not simply
short-term hopes. Holiness is, in fact,
Challenged by Holy People
There’s something oddly comforting
about placing holy people on such a
high pedestal that we do not have to
take them seriously.
The November 1 feast of All Saints
reminds us that becoming a holy person
is possible in all times, for people
of both genders, of all ages, in all places
and at all points along the social and
Saints (those canonized and those
“in waiting”) do not become holy simply
by challenging their contemporaries.
They become holy by allowing
God’s grace to influence more and
more of their decisions. Many of their
contemporaries feel challenged by that.
Who was more realistic—St. Francis of
Assisi or his father, Pietro Bernardone,
a prosperous cloth merchant? Was St.
Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast day
is November 19, less realistic than the
relatives who bitterly criticized her for
being too generous to poor and sick
people? Were Sts. Frances Xavier
Cabrini (November 13), Rose Philippine
Duchesne (November 18) or the
martyred Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J.
(November 23) unrealistic?
Contemporaries of holy people often
consider themselves much more in
touch with life than these individuals.
But are they?
Was Dorothy Day less realistic than
John D. Rockefeller, Sr., or Henry Ford,
Sr., who achieved great economic success
by 1933, the year that Dorothy
Day and Peter Maurin began the Catholic
One measure of Dorothy’s realism
was her ability to see all of life as interconnected.
Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990), who admired Day greatly, made
a famous woodcut of Christ in a breadline. In Jesus’ parable about
the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46),
who is more realistic: the people who
respond to human need with compassion
or the people who fail to see Jesus
in their suffering sisters and brothers?
Was Dorothy more realistic when
she had an abortion or when she later
repented of it? When she began living
with Forster Batterham or when she
left him for refusing to marry her after
the birth of their daughter, Tamar?
Conversion to God’s ways is always a
move toward realism, not away from it.
Every sin claims to be prudent and realistic.
“That’s just the way the world is,”
people often say. In fact, Satan works
most effectively when we consider sin
as ordinary and virtue as something
reserved for superheroes.
Perhaps that’s why during the Easter
Vigil and sometimes during a Baptism
at Sunday Mass the celebrant asks the
congregation: “Do you reject Satan?
And all his works? And all his empty
The term “empty promises” stings.
When we give in to temptation, we
move farther down a dead-end street,
not along some shortcut promised by
Have we unconsciously bought into
the lie that sin is more realistic than
virtue? Are the people we emulate truly
realistic? What people say they most
admired about the late Tim Russert was
his integrity. Is that dominant in the
women and men whom we most
admire? How much do people see that
virtue in us?
Holy people are not lost on life’s side
roads. As the only realists, saints invite
us to embrace passionately our God-given
freedom and dignity.—P.M.