Pope Francis honours 'radical' Catholics in U.S. Congress

Douglas Roche


October 12, 2015

Of all the sights and sounds that filled the air during Pope Francis's inspiring visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia, I was most moved by his surprising references to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Of course, I was deeply honoured to have the privilege of meeting Pope Francis myself, but it was his praise of two persons who combated establishment thinking of the time to work for peace that really lifted me up.

I think the legislators sitting in Congress must have been shocked to hear the pope include the names of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as great figures who "shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people."

I'm sure most of them had never heard of Day or Merton.

Yet here was the pope, in this most political of all settings, praising Day's "social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed" which had been inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of saints.

A journalist who had lived a bohemian life, Day founded the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s. She fought the Archdiocese of New York on labour issues.

An uncompromising pacifist, she urged non-cooperation when the U.S. entered Second World War in 1941. She praised Fidel Castro when his name was anathema in the U.S.

To say that the hierarchy shunned Dorothy Day would be putting it mildly. But gradually, her relentless stand for non-violence and social justice won her a large following.

In 2000, Cardinal John O'Connor asked the Vatican to open her cause for sainthood, and she is now called a Servant of God.

For the pope to also single out a Cistercian monk while speaking to politicians who consider themselves hard-boiled pragmatists must have caused head-scratching.


What has Merton got to do with the messy world today? He told his spiritual journey in his enduring book, The Seven-Storey Mountain, and most of his books revealed his struggle to make monasticism connect with a violent world.

From his monastery in Kentucky, he became a leading advocate for peace, so much so that when he produced a book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, his abbott general forbade publication on the grounds that monks shouldn't be writing about war and peace.

The book, a prophetic call for dialogue to replace violence in the resolution of conflict, was disseminated underground through mimeographed copies. Its themes found their way into Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

The book was finally published long after Merton's death in 1968. That book has guided me for years.

Pope Francis hailed Merton in Congress, saying, "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.

"He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."

There will be some in the Church surprised, if not shocked, at the pope's praise of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Even today they are considered "radicals."

Prophets is probably an easier term to digest. Either way, they stood against the establishment of their time in fighting to move the world from a culture of war and violence to a culture of peace and social justice.

When I had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis in the residence of the Holy See's Ambassador to the UN, I decided to use my moment with the Holy Father to also talk about peace.

"Holy Father," I said after being introduced to Pope Francis, "I have had the honour of being an adviser on the Holy See delegation to the United Nations for many years.

"I want to thank you for your leadership on the nuclear disarmament issue. The world very much needs a global treaty prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons."


Those few words express my core political belief and this was the opportunity to express them to the figure who has become the new voice of moral authority on the global stage.

The pope nodded, as if to say, "I get it." Indeed, Francis does "get" nuclear disarmament. An hour later, in his speech at the green marble podium in the UN General Assembly, he stated:

"There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in letter and spirit with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons."

Sometimes I think I should become as "radical" as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.