Personalism and the Catholic Worker

December 10, 2023
by Fumi

My favorite Christmas story is the story of the magi. I imagine the “wise men” as astrologers from the East who for years (decades? lifetimes? generations?) studied the heavens and charted the stars, and then, when the moment arrived, set out without hesitation to a distant land to welcome a newborn baby destined for greatness.

There are many agencies in Portland that serve the unhoused, most at scales far bigger than the Catholic Worker.  Others besides us operate community gardens.  There are spiritual communities of every stripe.  We are certainly not the only ones to organize or resist systems of domination.  So what makes us different?

Perhaps it’s that, like the magi, we follow a star.  I like to think that at our best we are pilgrims who, like the wise astrologers, stake our lives on a vision of a new world order and personally set out in pursuit of this dream.  The magi didn’t send a representative to investigate, or mail a package with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or even organize a movement.  Instead, they personally made a journey to a distant land to offer their lives and their treasures to the one who, they hoped, would change everything.

The magi didn’t send a representative to investigate, or mail a package with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or even organize a movement. Instead, they personally made a journey.

This is our task – to make a choice, to take a risk, to live into a dream. Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day wrote frequently about personal responsibility. “I feel… confirmed in the conviction that we have to emphasize personal responsibility at all costs.” About her co-founder Peter Maurin she wrote, “He pointed out that we have turned to state responsibility through home relief, social legislation, and social security, that we no longer practice personal responsibility, but are repeating the words of the first murderer, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

This doesn’t mean we do any of this any better than anybody else, including the many wonderful, creative agencies that operate in Portland. It simply means we do it.

Catholic Workers and friends at Christmas

At Dandelion House, this means we offer housing to those in need in our home. It means we cook our community meals, or personally deliver hot food to the campers protesting the daytime camping ban outside of City Hall. It means we build and plant our own garden beds, and advocate at County Commission meetings. Of course, this “we” includes many of you – people like Barbara, Jean, Roz, Catherine, Marilyn, Janet, and Lisa who prep food with us, or John who picks up our bread donations, makes 80 cups of coffee, and serves hot food with us, Polly, Andrea, JV EnCorps members and others who help us in the garden, Jay, Colleen, Laura, Claire, Ben, Don, and Symphony who serve lunch, Margie who makes Costco runs for us, and so many more.

The gift of life at the Catholic Worker is the gift of freedom to be ourselves. Here, we are empowered to be who God created us to be – people in community, offering the world the gift of our authentic selves. It’s quite simple, what we do. In response to houselessness, we offer a room; in response to hunger, warm food; in a world of loneliness, community; amidst meaninglessness, prayer; in the face of nuclear madness, protest.

Along the way, we encounter other pilgrims who, like the magi, believe in a new world. It is a new world that is simple, beautiful, and – we believe – worth staking our lives upon.

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