NJPN Comment in the Catholic Universe: Catholic Worker Life

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Henrietta Cullinan

The Catholic Worker movement, present in the United States and in Europe, has traditionally been formed of autonomous communities that practise ‘faith, hospitality, and resistance’. From my experience of working with the Catholic Worker in London and Calais I have come to realise more and more the important message the movement holds for individuals: for those who don’t wish to live in an intentional community, and for whom the idea of a ‘third order’ would be a bit of a disappointment.

With the London Catholic Worker as a model and the works of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, the movement founders, as an inspiration, I have long sought to see how best to bring faith, hospitality and resistance into my daily life. Reading and reflection have led me to examine how I can follow the radical Gospel, with the resources I have to hand, with the aim of encouraging others to take part.

The London Catholic Worker is based at Giuseppe Conlon House, a disused presbytery and church belonging to the Archdiocese of Westminster. Here a community of five volunteers lives with over 20 destitute asylum seekers. Most of the guests are pursuing immigration cases, a situation which means they cannot work, they have no right to claim any support from the state, apart from health care, and they have no right to vote. They are among the most marginalised in our society, who are in danger of becoming stateless and whose rights to safety and dignity, are routinely ignored.

The community members live in voluntary poverty, relying on a small weekly allowance, and share donated food with the guests. The community prays together, participates in the ‘works of mercy’ and in direct action against ‘the works of war’, such as nuclear weapons and the arms trade.

It’s possible for individuals to replicate all these activities outside a community: living simply, trying to take only what you need is an act of resistance against consumerism and the damaging wastefulness of our capitalist economy. It’s possible to practice hospitality of all kinds in your own home, without being the perfect host. All over the country there are night shelters, soup kitchens and drop-ins, places to practice hospitality and to be in solidarity with refugees and the marginalised. Through volunteering, I have learnt of the injustice of the present benefit system for example and gather motivation for resistance, to resist the unjust policies that leave people destitute, hungry and homeless, to resist the wars that force people to leave their homes and become refugees. Practicing hospitality, in whichever way we can, is, in the words of Dorothy Day, ‘how to bring about a revolution of the heart’.

One project of the Catholic Worker is the Urban Table soup kitchen in Hackney. It has become my home from home, as familiar as my own sitting room. Often we read a Gospel passage, such as the parable of the King’s wedding feast, (Matthew 22 vv8-9) and share the meal, which becomes an enactment, both literal and symbolic. The guests themselves sometimes bring food to share, help with clearing up and handing out clothes, look after each other. Through the enactment of the parable, comes a literal reading, a reading by doing and then a deepening of understanding.

In this way the three principles of Catholic Worker communities – faith, hospitality and resistance – come together in a ‘seamless garment’.  

Find out more about the London Catholic Worker here:

To find out about the wider movement and read the writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin:  

click here