Following Dorothy Day to a Life of Faith and Service

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Dr. Joe Sclafani (far right, red shirt) lived in Malawi for four years, using his skills and expertise in obstetrics/gynecology to improve the health of women. Photo courtesy of Joe Sclafani

Dr. Joe Sclafani wasn’t motivated by faith when he moved to Malawi in 2014 to help improve the health of poor women in the developing county. Mostly he went for pragmatic reasons: to broaden his use and understanding of his obstetrics/gynecology specialty outside the United States.

Yet it was faith that brought him back home to New York — and it was the faith of the late Catholic writer and activist Dorothy Day who planted in him a firm desire to serve and advocate for the poor.

Faith and service converged for Sclafani in 2018 after he returned home from Malawi, where he worked with Baylor University to improve the health care provided to women. Struck by the deep spirituality of the Malawians he encountered, he felt an urge to reconnect with his own Catholic roots from which he had long fallen away. 

“The charity of the people I met [in Malawi] had a profound effect on me,” Sclafani says. “The decision to go to Africa was not a spiritual reason, but I came back more aware of my roots and what God meant to me through the example of the people I met.

“When I came back, I needed to envelop myself in that same spirit of charity and love,” he says.

Sclafani started going to Mass again and read a notice about IVC. It seemed exactly what he was looking for — a place to develop and deepen his faith, to serve the poor, and to be part of a community of people who were striving to do both.

Joe Sclafani has read and transcribed hundreds of pages Dorothy Day’s 6,800-page diary. Photo courtesy of IVC New York

At the same time, IVC New York had just entered into an unusual partnership with the Archdiocese of New York’s Cause for the Canonization of Dorothy Day. Sclafani wasn’t familiar with Day, and the Cause wasn’t exactly how he thought he would serve the poor. He signed on anyway.

Indeed, the Cause for Canonization isn’t the typical IVC assignment. But Dorothy Day’s life embodied the very mission of IVC, says Maureen Fullam, IVC New York regional director. 

Day lived out the Gospel, even before her official conversion to Catholicism in 1927 until her death in 1980. Her unrelenting advocacy for nonviolence, social justice and service to the poor sparked the Catholic Worker movement, which continues to provide houses of hospitality and farming communes today and remains an advocate for social justice across the globe. It was her dedication to living the Gospel values that led Pope Francis to herald her as a great American when he addressed Congress in 2015.

The New York Archdiocese formally took up Day’s Cause in 2000. It has taken nearly two decades to conduct interviews with eye witnesses to Day’s life, gather and transcribe her published and unpublished writings, and meet the myriad requirements outlined by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, says George Horton, Catholic Charities director for the Department of Social and Community Development in New York. It was challenging in large part because Day, a journalist, was a prolific writer who authored books and works in various publications, including the Catholic Worker’s own newspaper, as well as unpublished letters and diaries.

“Part of Dorothy Day’s power is the fact that she wrote about living out the Sermon on the Mount,” Horton says. “And the Catholic Worker movement had a strong intellectual side to it.” 

Because Day’s Cause was largely based on volunteer efforts, the process was slow given the amount of writing she left behind, adds Horton, a vice postulator for the Cause. In fact, Marquette University Archives dedicates 200 cubic feet to her writings, publications and other materials related to the Catholic Worker movement.

It was in gathering all the written works that Sclafani has had the greatest impact, says Jeff Korgan, an archdiocesan consultant charged with managing the process. 

“The sainthood process is a legal process that involves very specific things,” even down to the specific paper and specific margins on the pages, he adds. Dorothy Day wrote a 6,800-page diary and had more than a thousand distinct published writings. They’d even found 36 boxes of hand-written pieces. All her writings are to be reviewed by two theologians. But in order to be reviewed, they need to be transcribed.

When Sclafani came on board the past year, he created a process to ensure the integrity and quality of all transcriptions — not an easy feat, given there are 105 volunteers scattered around the United States and other countries like India and the Philippines. Motivated by the professionalism that Sclafani brought to the work, Korgan asked for a second IVC member. So John Dowd, a retired computer programmer who had also taught Greek and Latin, joined the Cause earlier this year.

For Sclafani, the process of reading and transcribing Day’s diary and other writings has expanded his understanding of the Catholic faith and its embrace of peace and justice. To him, Day is a model of faith in action.

“Saints are our role models, and I think that in recent times good role models in contemporary life in the U.S. are hard to come by,” says Sclafani, who has since been invited to join the advisory board of the Dorothy Day Guild, the organization supporting Day’s canonization. “I have the opportunity to help tell her story, and now more than ever, we need to talk about social justice and care for the poor.”

Day believed that it was in personally, directly working with the poor, recognizing each individual as a person, that we are changed, Sclafani says. In that fundamental way, IVC and the Cause for the Canonization of Dorothy Day are kindred.

Sclafani says IVC has given him a community in which he can truly deepen his relationship with God. “I get to be around people who don’t necessarily wear their religion on their sleeve but with whom I can speak about God and spirituality in a way that I don’t feel like a religious nut,” he laughs. “That community is really, really important to me.”

“The real impact of volunteering from the point of view of faith and fellowship is understanding its connection to God,” he says. “God becomes visible in the work.”

The cause for Day’s canonization “can make people aware of the value of taking individual responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged,” Sclafani adds.“We need Dorothy Day, and we need her story.” 

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