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Thursday, November 05 2015 10:33
  • A few weeks ago, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Some of the names he mentioned surprised me. I was happy, of course, when he mentioned Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, scenic figures, not only in the United States, but throughout the Americas.
    However, his immediate addition of two other names was quite unexpected. An ABC news report on the speech sums it up: “Two people, who are likely to be Google Search terms by the end of the day, are Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”
    Even though some of his audience were unfamiliar with the names, the pope had solid reasons for including them. Both of the two were Americans and Catholics, whose work continues to be a source of great inspiration to many.
    As soon as I heard their names. I began to think about how they had affected my own life. They had enough influence on me, and still do, that I felt moved by the very mention of those names.
    In the early 1970s, I once had the pleasure of inviting Dorothy Day to the Harvard Catholic chaplaincy when I served as its director. She took part in our liturgy and later, at a Sunday morning gathering she shared with students her views of faith and concern for the needy.
    In her lifetime (1897-1980), Dorothy Day was often seen as an eccentric remarkable figure. A convert to Catholicism after a turbulent early life, she had a passionate commitment to the Gospel values of justice and charity. Particularly with regard to the poor
    In 1933, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker newspaper (you can subscribe for 25 cents a year) and a movement which continues to create communities of people who live with and for the poor.
    Dorothy Day’s writings bear witness to a rich spiritual life, and constant, unsentimental devotion to dispossessed people, seen as individual people and not as a social category or problem.
    I hope that last month’s listeners - - among them, perhaps some of these students from long ago - - will think of this noble woman noted by Pope Francis. And I stand among those who hope she will be honored as a saint (even though this was something she emphatically did not want herself.
    Turning to Thomas Merton, I still value his “Seven Storey Mountain.” It is an account of the author’s conversion to the Catholic Church at age 23. And his subsequent decision to enter a Trappist monastery. In the late 1940s, this book strongly influenced the spiritual direction of many Americans, including me.
    In the post-war era when I began to read him, he helped many Americans to understand what it meant to approach God in the way monks do.  Before entering the monastic life he had led a worldly life in France and New York.
    As a Trappist monk. Merton went on to write other books on prayer and the monastic life.  
    In 1968 when he was attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand Thomas Merton was electrocuted by a lamp. I belonged to the large number of people who mourned his loss.
    In citing his name, Francis called Merton "above all a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religion."
    I do not know if members of Congress made much of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. But I would likel to think that combined with Lincolnand King, they provided food for thought about what it means to serve people.