The Church Is the Sacrament of the Preferential Option for the Poor

We read, in the entry for October, in Dorothy Day’s On Pilgrimage, that “the stink of the world’s injustice and the world’s indifference is all around us. The smell of the dead rat, the smell of acrid oil from the engines of the Pennsylvania railroad, the smell of boiled bones from Swift’s. The smell of dying human beings” (225). In the reader’s pilgrimage with Dorothy Day, one does not encounter the marginalized as an intellectual category, but as a smell, here, the smell of dying human beings and the stink of the world’s indifference to their dying. But, on pilgrimage with Dorothy Day, one encounters a contrasting smell as one walks along, and that is the fragrance of sanctity, perceptible only to the spiritual senses but none the less real for all that.

In the October entry, we meet Mary Frecon, who lived on Seventh Street in Harrisburg, running the Martin de Porres House of Hospitality though she could have lived with either of her sons, who both owned fruit farms. “She does not need to live on Seventh Street,” Dorothy comments, and then goes on to describe her care of the marginalized people, the discarded people, really, who also live on Seventh Street, almost all of them African-American. Dorothy Day paints a vivid picture of “Mary, nursing a diabetic swollen, heavy with water, holding her up at night so she could breathe, bringing the priest to her” (224), and she continues to evoke pictures of those whom Mary served:

Susie, burned by a jealous rival, oozing pus from her infected shoulders cut by glass from broken windows when she tried to escape, nursed back to health of body and soul. Katie, dying of cancer, tuberculosis, and syphilis, her body dung now indeed, but once a thing of beauty, strung taut with life and pleasure, and now overwhelmed with torrents of pain. Lucille Pearl, dying in an alley, flies and worms feasting on the open sores of her flesh—these women dying and yet alive today in heaven, literally dragged into the wedding feast, dying happy and sure, and already before their death given a foretaste of the life of come (225).

Dorothy goes on to comment, “How to draw a picture of the strength of love! It seems at times that we need a blind faith to believe in it at all,” but then goes on to evoke another story of death, “the death of the Little Flower, and,” Dorothy comments, “her death [was] just as harrowing in its suffering as that of Mary’s Katie. Her flesh was a mass of sores; her bones protruded through her skin; she was a living skeleton, a victim of love.” Dorothy goes on to comment, “We have not such compassion, nor ever will have” (ibid.). Do we recognize this fragrance? The fragrance of the Little Flower, the fragrance of sanctity, that emanates from Mary, and here especially from Therese, to whom Mary is compared: “Out in the backyard [of the house on Seventh Street] there is a little garden with sunflowers, marigolds, petunias . . . How little it all is, as obscure as the life of the Blessed Mother and as ‘little’ as the life and sufferings of the Little Flower!” (226).

To read this article by John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute, in its entirety in the Church Life Journal, a journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, please visit their website.

October 28, 2022

Religion and PhilosophyCatholicdigest161John CavadiniMcGrath Institute for Church LifeSacramentSt. Therese the Little FlowerTheology