Crafting a message

The first Catholic Worker newspaper I encountered came from the back of an Episcopal church in Upstate New York.  A small wood cut illustration caught my attention as it peeked out from underneath a pile of leaflets.  I pulled out the paper and unfolded the cheap, ink-smeared pages.  I didn’t know what the Catholic Worker was, but the masthead seemed like something dropped in from a different century.  A light-skinned woman and child were depicted to the left of the image.  One hand held a basket, the other hand clasped that of a dark-skinned man on the right side.  She looked like a weary mother of many, just in from hanging the laundry.  He appeared ready to do heavy labor. Both were being embraced in the outstretched arms of Christ.

The Christ-centric composition and heavy black outlines called to mind 19th century French artist Georges Rouault.  However, the other illustrations scattered throughout the paper shared little in common with what I was studying then in art history.  The play on simple positive and negative space had a quality that suggested something more consistent with the propaganda leaflets and protest posters I had seen in graphic design class.  The images were crisp and direct.  They told a simple story that connected with the text in nearby stories.  Sometimes an image was coupled with a quote.  Some of these quotes were attributed to Dorothy Day.

I remember folding the newspaper back up and shoving it sheepishly in my book bag before I left the darkened church.  I was a staunch evangelical Protestant attending a conservative Christian liberal arts college.  I wasn’t sure that being in an Episcopal church—no matter how beautiful the music—was a great idea.  Taking something akin to Catholic leftist propaganda didn’t seem like the best, either.

And so began my introduction to the life and words of Dorothy Day.  A convert, a radical, a woman whom the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops chose to endorse this week for canonization.Upon hearing the news, I was reminded of that cold Sunday evening when I first laid eyes on the paper.  Not only was I eventually captivated and compelled by Day’s story, but also by the artwork that defined the Catholic Worker aesthetic.  A young Belgian woman known as Ade Bethune designed that masthead, first with two men and Christ in the ’30s, and then redesigned it in the ’80s replacing one of the men with the woman and child.  She too was an art student when she encountered the Catholic Worker.  Bethune felt that the paper’s message could be improved with better quality artwork that reinforced the working class ethos the movement embodied. “I thought it was only fitting to show working saints, since the paper was called The Catholic Worker. Then I began to realize there were no other saints. All saints were working saints,” she remarked.

Bethune went on to craft a career in liturgical art and architecture.  Her pen and ink drawings adorned two missals.  She received commissions for work that was installed across the country, many pieces reflecting themes found in the Worker and the emerging doctrines of Vatican II.  Bethune communicated this new way of creating religious artwork to students, art associations, artist guilds, and clergy.  In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said, “Whenever I visited Ade I came away with a renewed zest for life. She has such a sense of the sacramentality of life, the goodness of things, a sense that is translated in all her works whether it was illustrating a missal, making stained-glass windows or sewing, cooking or gardening. To do things perfectly was always her aim.”

Dorothy Day will someday “officially” join the ranks of Bethune’s working saints. May we, through her intercession, work for justice and peace.  May we, like Bethune, find creative ways to communicate a prophetic message of hope and hospitality to a new generation of Catholic workers.