A Potential American Saint’s Big Day in Italy

Servant of God Dorothy Day’s profile received a big boost in Rimini this past Sunday, possibly indicating that her cause for canonization is picking up steam.

The 20th-century socialist-turned-Catholic Worker founder and now Servant of God was the focal point of a mainstage presentation on the opening day of the Meeting for Friendship Amongst Peoples in Rimini, Italy.
The 20th-century socialist-turned-Catholic Worker founder and now Servant of God was the focal point of a mainstage presentation on the opening day of the Meeting for Friendship Amongst Peoples in Rimini, Italy. (photo: Jonathan Liedl / National Catholic Register)

RIMINI, Italy — Italy is home to more canonized saints than any other country. But this past Sunday, on one of the country’s biggest stages, it was the American potential saint-to-be Dorothy Day who was in the limelight — in what might be one of several possible indications that her cause for canonization is being viewed favorably in Rome.

The 20th-century socialist-turned-Catholic Worker founder and now Servant of God was the focal point of a mainstage presentation on the opening day of the Meeting for Friendship Amongst Peoples in Rimini, better known simply as “the Meeting.” The annual weeklong event, which is organized by the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, typically attracts 80,000 in-person attendees (with hundreds of thousands more following the proceedings online). The Meeting is sponsored by some of Italy’s biggest companies, and regularly includes some of the most prominent names in Italian religious, political, and social life among its speakers.

The importance, therefore, of an entire Rimini presentation focused on the life of Day, a figure who was not previously well-known among Italians, was not lost on one of the invited speakers, Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Day’s collected writings and a major proponent of her cause.

“I think this meeting is an extremely significant milestone [toward her canonization], because the idea is that Dorothy Day is not just a saint for America,” said Ellsberg, who met Day as a young man involved with the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1970s.

Day, who died in 1980, was put on the path to sainthood recognition in February 2002, when New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor formally requested and then received approval from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to consider her cause for canonization. A significant threshold was crossed in 2021, when evidence for her sanctity was sent to Rome from the Archdiocese of New York following a Mass presided at by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Ellsberg was joined during the hour-and-a-half long Sunday afternoon panel, entitled “Inexhaustible Friendships: Dorothy Day and Social Friendship,” by Simona Beretta, director of the social doctrine center at Sacra Cuore university in Rome, and Giulia Galeotti, a Vatican journalist and author of an Italian language book on Day. Francesco Magni, a professor of pedagogy at the University of Bergamo who has previously researched Day, moderated the conversation. 

Ellsberg, whose talk focused on the spiritual arc of Day’s life, noted that he had never been invited to speak about the Catholic Worker founder to a crowd in the United States as big as the one who came out to hear him talk in Rimini.

“This was amazing to have this audience,” he told the Register at the Meeting.


A Sign of Papal Approval?

Day’s big debut at the Meeting coincided with a potentially more significant indication that her cause is viewed favorably in Rome. The same day as the presentation in Rimini, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had written the preface for a new Italian edition of From Union Square to Rome, an autobiographical work by Day, published by Liberia Editrice Vaticana (LEV), the Vatican’s official publishing house. 

“Reading these pages of Dorothy Day and following her religious journey becomes an adventure that is good for the heart and can teach us so much to keep awakened in us a truthful image of God,” Pope Francis wrote in his preface to the new version, which is titled “I found God through His poor. From atheism to faith: my inner journey” in Italian.

The two events — the Rimini presentation on Day and the Pope writing the preface to her book — were not coincidental. In fact, according to Magni, who is also a member of Communion and Liberation and helped organize the Rimini presentation on Day, part of the impetus for the event on the American Servant of God came when LEV reached out to share that the Pope was writing the preface of the forthcoming book, and encouraged organizers to hold an event on her. In fact, Ellsberg said that LEV’s director, Lorenzo Fazzini, and not Rimini organizers, served as his initial contact and “go between.” 

Magni told the Register that Day’s life — devoted to communal living and solidarity with the poor — was easy to incorporate into the broader theme of this year’s Rimini Meeting, which is on the fundamentality of human friendship.

“We had more and more signals to try [to include her],” he said.

From Ellsberg’s perspective, the Vatican’s apparent interest in Day and her witness was neither new nor surprising. After all, the Holy Father had mentioned Day as one of the four American figures in his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress. Speaking about Day alongside such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis said that Day’s “social activism, her passion for justice and the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” 

Ellsberg said that he sees present-day indicators from the Vatican of Day’s significance as “a kind of signal” that, when the question of Day’s canonization is put before him, “the Pope is going to be waiting for it.” The next step in the canonization process for the American Servant of God would be for Francis, recognizing her heroic virtue, to declare her “Venerable.”

“I don’t think the outcome is going to be in doubt,” said Ellsberg.


A Witness for the Times

Ellsberg added that he sees Francis’ recent boosting of Day’s profile as a sign “that the Pope recognizes Day as a kind of particularly relevant model in terms of his vision and agenda for the Church.” The editor in chief of Orbis Books said that Day’s own witness and thought aligns with many of the Pope’s own priorities and teachings, including his emphasis on peace and justice, care for creation, and “the agency of people on the margins.”

“Undoubtedly, popes have their favorite like everybody else, and I think somebody like Dorothy is exactly the kind of holiness that he is hoping to inspire,” said Ellsberg.

Day may have found favor with Pope Francis, but her holiness and example have also long been championed by those in the American hierarchy. Following Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, for instance, has spoken frequently and powerfully about the witness of Day. Archbishop Gomez told a conference in 2015 that while he couldn’t declare Day a saint, what he did know is that “she makes me want to be a saint.”

“She has shown us the way — the way to follow God in a world that has forgotten him,” the Los Angeles archbishop added in his remarks.

New York’s Cardinal Dolan, of course, has also spoken powerfully about Day, calling her a “radiant star” of “American sanctity” at the Mass marking the end of the archdiocese’s investigation.


Impact in Italy and Beyond

Day may be a favorite of Pope Francis and now, after her debut at the Rimini Meeting, she’s likely to be better known in Italy.

Giovanni Carfi, a hospital technician from Sicily, hadn’t heard about Day before attending the presentation, but says he found her message impactful and applicable today.

“She made the message of the Church come alive” in her life, he said, saying that Day helped him to see how with God he could be happy in his work and family.

Likewise, Ester Lucchetti hadn’t heard of Day before. But the high school student from Liguria told the Register that she was struck by Day’s willingness to fight for what she believed in, and found the fact that she did not have the “standard” life of a saint relatable.

“I wish I had something so strong to believe in, that I would give my life for, like she had,” Lucchetti told the Register.

It’s a desire often expressed by those who encounter Day’s witness. And it may be a big part of why Pope Francis seems eager to push for greater recognition of this American Servant of God — and possibly for her sainthood.

This story was updated after posting.

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