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

By John Cavadini, 18 November 2021
'The Dead Christ with Angels' by Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Image: Wikimedia Commons


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.

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).

We may no longer recognize the language of “victim of love,” though the connection to compassion should remind us that it is Eucharistic language, the language of Eucharistic love, of those who have so allowed themselves to be configured to and united with the self-offering of Christ who is both Priest and Victim of Love, that they are perfected in the “spiritual sacrifice” which is the highest exercise of the baptismal priesthood. Dorothy goes on to make the link a little more explicit. “Someday,” she says, “something will be done. There will be decent places to live . . . There will be a church with the Mass, with Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.” Explaining what she means, she continues, “Yes, the nearest Catholic church is ten blocks away, but just the same, Christ is there, most surely there, in the least of His children. He has said it Himself” (226-27).

In a literary way, Dorothy has shown us how the ordering of the Christian life towards the marginalized, towards a renewed seeing of those who are otherwise invisible or from whom we might naturally avert our gaze, is not simply a matter of duty, following the instructions of a wise moral teacher named Jesus of Nazareth, which anyone who wished to follow these instructions could attain. Instead, it is here portrayed as an expression of love, an expression of the intimate, one-flesh union with the Jesus the Bridegroom, the savor and fragrance of his mystical Body, a union achieved even as it is represented, in the Eucharist.

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John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

With thanks to Church Life Journal, A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, and John Cavadini, where this article originally appeared.


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