DE PERE — November of this year will mark 40 years since Dorothy Day’s death. Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who was also a journalist and social activist, continues to inspire people today. When she died in 1980 at age 83, there were 30 Catholic Worker houses. Today, there are approximately 250.
“That is a remarkable testament to Day’s vision, but also to the ongoing need to meet the poor in our society,” said filmmaker Martin Doblmeier in an interview with The Compass. “The other reason we continue to turn to Dorothy Day is because of the authentic way she lived her faith. People, especially young people, are keenly aware of the disturbing degree of hypocrisy in religion. We see every day how too many speak the language of God yet fail to live up to his commandments.”
Doblmeier’s new documentary, “Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story,” will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, in Fort Howard Theater in the F.K. Bemis International Center on the St. Norbert College campus in De Pere. The event is free and open to the public. A discussion with Doblmeier will follow the screening. The film is scheduled to debut on PBS in March.
The documentary is the third in a series of biographical documentary films by Doblmeier called “Prophetic Voices.” The series has also profiled theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Howard Thurman.
“These are not only fascinating historical characters but, by revisiting their lives and exploring their thoughts and influences, we are wiser and better equipped to face the challenges of our day,” he said.
Day’s contributions go beyond religion, he added.
“She was a journalist who began her career using her pen to defend workers’ rights and to champion the cause of the poor,” he said. “But she soon realized simply writing about problems of poverty and unemployment was not enough.”
Day continued writing in the Catholic Worker newspaper, which she created with Peter Maurin. She started what became the Catholic Worker houses to feed the hungry and care for the needy.
“She lived the Beatitudes by showing mercy to those in need and living up to the challenge of being a peacemaker in her times,” said Doblmeier. “What she leaves us is a roadmap for how to be faithful to the challenge of the Gospel in our times.”
Doblmeier, who has been producing films on religion since the mid-1980s, created the film with two audiences in mind. The first is the broadcast audience for PBS.
“There, we assume most people have no idea who Dorothy Day is,” he explained. “And within that audience we also assume many will be skeptical of anything religious.”
The approach for that audience is to introduce Day as a “remarkable and courageous woman and humanitarian,” said Doblmeier.
“Then as the story unfolds we begin to see the deeper spiritual dimensions and the important influences in her life,” he said.
“The second audience is for the millions of Catholics across America who not only know Dorothy Day, but hold her in high esteem,” he added. “They are looking for new insights and, in particular, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of her life. They want to see the connection between Dorothy’s love of the saints, her hunger for daily Mass and the rosary, and how that gave her direction and purpose.”
“Revolution of the Heart” features archival photographs, film footage and interviews. The interview lineup includes New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the leading advocate for Dorothy Day’s canonization; Martin Sheen, actor and activist; Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine; Cornel West, author and philosopher; Day’s granddaughters, Martha and Kate Hennessy and others.
Martha Hennessy will visit the diocese next week to speak at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere, on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
One of the best interviews for the film was Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author of numerous books, including “The Gift of Years,” said Doblmeier. It was his first opportunity to work with her.
“Clearly, she was deeply influenced by Dorothy Day,” he said. “Even now, 40 years after her passing, Sr. Joan becomes emotional recounting the details of the Dorothy Day legacy.”
Doblmeier hopes that viewers connect with a theme that he stressed throughout the film: “personalism, the idea that each individual has a personal responsibility to care for those in need.”
“Dorothy Day didn’t invent the idea, but she certainly embodied it every day of her life,” he said. “For any caring person it is easy to become discouraged by the enormous challenges we face.
“But the personalist philosophy opens a path that any one of us can take to help whenever or wherever we can, even if it is simply person-to-person, one-to-one,” he added. “In that way it is incredibly liberating because it frees us to become involved in the most direct ways and you can see in the eyes of people how much you are helping.”
Doblmeier sees his films not just for television, but also as teaching tools. Free educational materials are posted at journeyfilms.com to facilitate use of the film in high schools, colleges, parishes and seminaries.
“Dorothy Day is larger than any one film can contain, so hopefully the film will spark increased interest,” he said.