Tag Archives: pope

Dorothy Day and the Pope

The Halls of Congress well could have shuddered when Pope Francis stood before a joint session of Congress and listed Dorothy Day as one of four great people who represent the best of America. Dorothy Day is considered by many Catholics and others to be an American Mother Teresa. Yet when I met her in 1974, she was virtually banned by the Roman Catholic Church and the priests around her celebrated mass at risk of excommunication.

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had a classified file that described her as a communist dupe and “a very erratic and irresponsible person.” Not from what I could see.

Pope Francis’s mention of Dorothy Day offers insight about who he is and what the Catholic Church is and whence it has come.

I was a very young reporter at the Hudson Register Star in upstate New York in the late fall of 1974 when a dispute arose in Tivoli, a bucolic Hudson River village of about 1,000 people, adjacent to Bard College.

Local burghers were concerned about the streams of hapless men who came to the village in search of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Workers retreat house established in a dilapidated old mansion there. The village council was looking at plumbing, electrical and health violations in the 19th Century building and its outlying shacks.dorothy-day

I remember driving up the rutted driveway to the old mansion one day that fall and that one or two men wearing thread-bare clothes were shuffling up the hill on the side of the road as I got there.

The building, it was true, was in bad repair, but something else was going on. I recall being brought in to meet Dorothy Day, who was just about to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday. She was seated in a broken down easy chair, slightly reclined and wore simple clothing, a shawl or a sweater. Sharp, thin features, a bright, warm gaze under glasses that needed repair;  she spoke easily and calmly about what she was doing.

She said she split her time between a Catholic Workers’ site in Brooklyn and this place in Tivoli. The problem was that every time they opened a soup kitchen or a retreat it was immediately filled and overcrowded. The need was great.

She told me that people were always afraid of having poor folks in their midst, and that was probably the trouble the organization was feeling from the village fathers of Tivoli. But helping these poor men was her vocation — some of them winos, homeless, mentally ill, or just too poor and alone to have any place to go. The goal was to offer these men safety, mercy and forgiveness. No drinking, no carousing, a place of meditation.

She invited me to stay for a Mass, the only Mass I have ever attended. It was celebrated by a priest who wore a work shirt and jeans, broke bread and gave communion — probably not with real wine — and then joined in with a communal lunch. I remember beans and rice and garden vegetables grown on the property.

The rest of the memory is fogged by time, except that I did write a feature about Dorothy Day, impressed as I was by these Catholic Workers who saw that their simple mission in life was to serve the poorest of the poor, and to live among them as they did.

After publication, I received a phone call from a local nun who asked — virtually demanded — that I meet her and a friend for a cup of coffee in nearby Rhinebeck. I didn’t know what to expect.

The two nuns showed up nervously, hoping no one was watching. For the next hour, they grilled me for every detail of my visit with Dorothy Day, tearfully confessing that their mother superior had banned all contact with Dorothy and the Catholic Workers, even though they lived less than ten minutes away. Was she healthy? Was she eating well? What did she say exactly? They wanted to hold the hand that had held the hand of Dorothy Day. They wanted every detail. They were devoted to Dorothy Day, who was the embodiment of why they had entered their vocations.

As I moved on from upstate New York, I reported from Brazil and Argentina and Central America, where I met other renegade Catholic Church workers who took, as Liberation Theology put it, “the option for the poor.” Now, for the first time in a long time, the renegades — who saw their humble purpose as central to the meaning of their faith — are seated at the center of their church with a bishop, now pope, who agrees and breaks bread with them.

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The Pope and The U.S. Cuban Breakthrough: Gracias pero….

It’s fine to thank Pope Francis, but let’s not overplay the idea that the Vatican took a significant role in the historic change of U.S.-Cuban relations after more than half a century.

Officials in Washington and Havana have been in contact all along, albeit at lower levels through their periodic and sometimes secret meetings in Havana and Washington.  They didn’t need an intermediary–they needed a political moment, and the timing is perfect.

It is great that the pope could provide a meeting room, write some letters to presidents Obama and Castro and express his concern on humanitarian grounds for Alan Gross and the other prisoners on both sides. But the Vatican involvement is probably little more than diplomatic cover. Cuba is a Catholic country, the pope is seen as a progressive peacemaker; perhaps the idea of his participation soothes the animus of a few Cuban exiles in Miami with the inference that President Obama listened to a higher power.pope and obama

Neither did the countries need to meet in Canada, other than for the sake of following through on diplomatic protocol.

Rarely have two countries known one another as well as do the United States and Cuba. The change in relations has its own moment. First, President Obama can do it now without expending much political capital. He need not face elections again and taking this step right after the midterm elections can cushion the eventual Democratic presidential candidate from what he has done. Meanwhile, the profile of Senator Robert Menendez, one of the key opponents to a modern rethinking of Cuban policy, is on the wane. He will move aside as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Republicans take over in January.

In addition, a persistent domestic political problem for Democrats is wasting away with time.  Florida International University’s most recent survey about Cuban-American views of the embargo is emblematic of change. This year for the first time the tri-yearly survey shows that a majority of Miami Cubans support an end to the Cuban embargo. Florida was once a more troublesome problem. Democrats thought they could not win Florida’s 29 electoral votes without taking a strident anti-Castro position. President Obama, however, took Florida both in 2008 and 2012 with the support of Cuban-Americans.

Times are changing. The pope is Latin American and his support cannot hurt. But the eventual resumption of Cuban-American relations has everything to do with two presidents of two countries, one term-limited out and the other dealing with actuarial tables.

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Questions About Argentina and the Catholic Church

LATIMES OP-ED

The Catholic Church and Argentina

In Buenos Aires, joy over Pope Francis’ election is tempered by questions about the ‘dirty war.’

Pope Francis
Peter Eisner  March 17, 2013

Very few Argentines were on hand for the proceedings, for the white smoke followed by the traditional proclamation, Habemus papam — “We have a pope.” But on the other side of the world, the people of Buenos Aires erupted with jubilation when they learned that the new pontiff, Pope Francis, was Argentine.

The celebration was more about national pride than religious pride, however. At the moment that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become the face of Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere and the world, his own country is becoming far less religious. Only about 25% of Argentines regularly attend church — far below the 44% attendance rate in the United States — and evangelical Protestantism is growing in popularity. Even churchgoing Catholics in Argentina, like their counterparts in North America, flout the church’s dictates about marriage, birth control and education.  (FULL STORY)

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How a Pope Can Make a Difference–1939 and now.

Pope Benedict XVI’s abrupt decision to resign reminds us of the departure of another pope exactly seventy-four years ago this week, a moment at which the Roman Catholic Church faced a different crisis.

Pope Pius XI had died on February 10, 1939 and the world was on the brink of a second war. As the Nazis massed forces against Europe, in Rome Pius XI was engaged in a last-minute effort to awaken world leaders against Hitler, Mussolini and the Nazi campaign against the Jews. But the pope faced dissidents within the Vatican.

I’ve just finished a book about Pius XI and his challenge to Hitler — The Pope’s Last Crusade — which comes out in March.

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI

Just as now, the Catholic Church was divided among factions that would either modernize and deal squarely and openly with injustice, or retreat, circle in closely and insulate their institution from the outside world. Now the challenge involves moral values – including the response of the Catholic leadership to a sexual abuse scandal that has traumatized the conscience of the clergy in Europe and America.

But then, on the eve of World War II, the Vatican was dealing with a different, vast moral question – how or even whether to battle and confront Hitler and the murderous machine descending on Europe.

When people think of the Vatican during World War II, they think not of this pope but of his successor–Pius XII–who has often been criticized and condemned for his silence during the war. But before that, there was a little-remembered pope, Pius XI, loudly outspoken against the Nazis and determined to call attention to their atrocities. The pope did not resign; he pleaded with his doctors to help him stay alive long enough to issue a major declaration against Hitler and anti-Semitism.

Benedict XVI’s departure – he is the first pontiff to resign in more than 600 years – gives the Roman Catholic Church a chance once more to decide between modern and conservative values and to clarify its role in the world.

At key moments in history, the rare decision to choose a new pontiff has extended beyond the confines of the Vatican and beyond the hopes of the world’s Roman Catholics. The challenges are different but the essence is the same – will the Catholic Church act forcefully to confront injustice? Or will it withdraw quietly and declare tacitly that religion must be cloistered from politics and justice.

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