As Dorothy Day documentary to air on TV, filmmaker says Catholic champion of poor is a ‘Wonder Woman’ for Women’s History Month
Mar 23, 2020
US & World
When Maryland Public Television premieres the Journey Films’ documentary, “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story” on March 23 at 9 p.m. as part of its Women’s History Month programming, viewers will be introduced to a champion of the poor who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement that continues to operate more than 250 houses of hospitality for those in need across the country. A writer and journalist, she helped found the Catholic Worker newspaper that continues her legacy on behalf of the poor and peace.
They will also see the story of a one-time anarchist who converted to Catholicism, whose commitment to live the Gospel led her to a life of radical poverty and to oppose war in all its forms. As a young woman, she marched on behalf of women’s suffrage and was jailed and beaten, but she apparently never voted in her life. She later vocally protested the Vietnam War. Known to her family as a loving grandmother, her opposition to war caused her at one point to be on the FBI’s watch list as a “dangerous American.”
When Pope Francis addressed Congress during his visit to the United States in 2015, he praised the example of four great Americans. Two were well-known, President Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The other two were Catholics: Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis noted was a man of prayer and dialogue and a promoter of peace; and Dorothy Day, whom the pontiff praised for “her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, (that) were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Before a Jan. 27 premiere of the Dorothy Day documentary at Georgetown University, experts on her life and legacy held a media briefing.
Martha Hennessy, one of Dorothy Day’s grandchildren who is interviewed in the film, said her grandmother “brings us the teachings of the Gospel” as the world faces problems like “permanent warfare and climate destruction.”
“Dorothy lived through all those dangers, and those dangers are still with us, and she was trying to warn us. We desperately need her today,” said Hennessy, an activist who has been arrested for protesting war, nuclear weapons and the use of torture.
Martin Doblmeier, the founder and president of Journey Films who produced “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” said, “What we are really hungry for in this country is a person living a life in an authentic way.”
The documentary is Doblmeier’s 35th film. His other documentaries, which have explored religion, spirituality, history and social issues, have included “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” about the noted theologian and ethicist; “Bonhoeffer,” a documentary about the German theologian and Nazi resister, and “Bernardin,” about the life of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Doblmeier added, “Religion has taken it on the chin in the last decades, sometimes deserved… You can’t help but admire the authenticity with which she (Dorothy Day) lived. It’s not hard to admire the conviction she lived every day of her life.”
His latest documentary also highlights the contradictions in Dorothy Day’s life, noting that she was a devout Catholic, a woman of prayer and action, who once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
That point was echoed by Henessy, who said, “We don’t want her to be held up as a plaster saint.”
Now Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood is under consideration. In 2000, Day’s sainthood cause was accepted by the Catholic Church, and she was declared a “Servant of God.”
Carolyn Zablotny, the editor of the newsletter of the Dorothy Day Guild and website promoting Day’s cause for sainthood, said, “There is no contraction in what she believed, wrote and how she lived her life.”
Robert Ellsberg, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Orbis Books who has edited and published diaries and letters of Dorothy Day and who edited the Catholic Worker newspaper and knew Day in the last five years of her life, said, “She showed there can be a holiness of action, of engagement in the events of our time.”
Her witness on behalf of the poor and against war, he said, was inspired by the homelessness, unemployment and hunger that people experienced during the Depression. “She brought Gospel action to that,” he said.
Asked about the personal side of her grandmother, Hennessy said her earliest memory of her was when she was three years old, “sitting on her lap, having my ear on her chest, hearing her speak. That was my first awareness of the presence of God.”
Hennessy, who was 25 when Dorothy Day died, said she did get to know her grandmother better through her writings, but added that she was “very attentive, very present to each and every person who came to her.”
When asked how her grandmother is a saint for today, Hennessy said, “She’s an example for young people to step out, and make an effort for peace.” She added, “Young people are desperate for a leader who speaks truth.”
Doblemeier noted today’s world has a hunger for “people living in a prophetic way,” and speaking in a prophetic voice that reveals and amplifies “the heart of God.” And he said that while young people might feel that some of the problems of the world are insurmountable, he believes one of the foundational messages of Dorothy Day’s life is, “You don’t have to change the economic system, but you can take care of the person in front of you.”
Zablotny said Day showed the importance of “recognizing one has more capacity to love than one knows.”
For Ellsberg, Dorothy Day’s life and work represented “the intersection of faith and action in the world.”
After the media briefing, Hennessy, Ellsberg, Zablotny and Doblmeier spoke on a panel hosted by John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
Introducing a premiere of the Dorothy Day documentary shown at the university’s Gaston Hall, Doblmeier noted that the film would be appearing on Public Television in March, during Women’s History Month and is now available on DVD.
“I think America is ready for a new superhero, a new kind of Wonder Woman,” he said. He added that Day “scares me. She challenges me, whether I have the courage and conviction to live my faith the way she does.”
The film includes narration by actress Susan Sarandon, reading excerpts from Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” The documentary’s interview subjects include actor and activist Martin Sheen, who during his days as a struggling actor in New York frequented a Catholic Worker house.
The documentary includes rare archival photographs and film footage, including interviews with Day, who at one point says she looked at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as “an examination of conscience” for his followers called to live their lives that way. She believed the greatest challenge of today is building a revolution of the heart – which inspired the filmmakers to choose that as the documentary’s title.
Also in the film, Day explains, “I first became Catholic, because I felt the Catholic Church was a church of the poor.” Years later, Pope Francis has expressed that desire for the Church.
After the screening of the film at Georgetown, Ellsberg noted, “I think Pope Francis is the pope Dorothy dreamed of.”
Carr kicked off the panel discussion by noting, “I met Dorothy Day once. She was to testify at a meeting of the bishops’ conference. I said, ‘You changed my life.’ She said, ‘Good.’”
Speaking about her grandmother’s impact on her life, Hennessy said, “Dorothy taught me to pay attention and feel suffering of others.” She added, “Dorothy gives us hope. Dorothy gives us courage. We do what we need to do in our times, if we are to be disciples of Christ.”
Hennessy said her grandmother “taught me to believe in love, to believe in God, and to keep on praying and struggling.”
Zablotny said she hopes Dorothy Day’s sainthood process offers a way of “ensuring that her story is told…” and that her life and work will be remembered “from generation to generation.” She added, “Dorothy Day doesn’t need to be a saint. It’s we who need her to be a saint, who need her story.”
(“Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story” will air on March 23 at 9 p.m. on Maryland Public Television and will also be televised on MPT on Sunday March 29 at 3 p.m.)
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