Book Review – Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement by Dorothy Day

by Mark Votava


This is a great book by Dorothy Day!  One of the best books on the Catholic Worker Movement.  Dorothy Day advocates for developing a life of voluntary poverty where we learn to love the poor, oppressed and marginalized in our world.  She looks at critiquing the systems (such as war) that contribute to poverty in our time.

Some people say that Dorothy Day was the most influential Catholic in American history.  She was a legendary social activist throughout the twentieth century before she died in 1980.  The Catholic Worker Movement started back in the 1930’s in New York during the great depression in the United States.  The church wasn’t doing much to care for the poor, so Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin opened houses of hospitality where they practiced the works of mercy together.

Loaves and Fishes is about this amazing movement of hospitality, community, peace, social justice, love and compassion.  Dorothy Day sought to see Christ in the poor throughout her life.  This book shares how she went about doing that.  She liked the phrase “love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

As I live in a Catholic Worker community in Downtown Tacoma, Washington in the Northwest part of the United States – I have found this book to be extremely helpful in understanding the life of the movement.  This book draws attention to the idea of personalism, where we take personal responsibility for caring for the poor instead of depending on the government to do that for us.  Institutions are a bad substitute for genuine care and hospitality that we are all called to.  Through reading Loaves and Fishes, you will be led to more of a compassionate, human life.

  • Love and freedom grow in us through community

“Love and freedom – they are great and noble words.  But we learn about them, they grow in us in the little ways I am writing about, through community, through the heart-rending and soul-searing experiences, as well as the joyful ones, which we have in living together.”

  • Poverty is a strange and elusive thing

“Poverty is a strange and elusive thing.  I have tried to write about it, its joys and its sorrows, for thirty years now; and I could probably write about it for another thirty without conveying what I feel about it as well as I would like.  I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter.  Poverty is an elusive thing, and a paradoxical one.”

  • Holy Mother the State taking over more and more responsibility for the poor

“In our country, we have revolted against the poverty and hunger of the world.  Our response has been characteristically American: we have tried to clean up everything, build bigger and better shelters and hospitals.  Here, hopefully, misery was to be cared for in an efficient and orderly way.  Yes, we have tried to do much, with Holy Mother the State taking over more and more responsibility for the poor.  But charity is only as warm as those who administer it.  When bedspreads may not be ruffled by the crooked limbs of age and bedside tables will not hold the clutter of those who try to make a home around them with little possessions, we know that we are falling short in our care for others.”

  • The importance of voluntary poverty today

“This and other facts seem to me to point more strongly than ever to the importance of voluntary poverty today.  At least we can avoid being comfortable through the exploitation of others.  And at least we can avoid physical wealth as the result of a war economy.  There may be ever-improving standards of living in the United States, with every worker eventually owning his own home and driving his own car; but our whole modern economy is based on preparation for war, and this surely is one of the great arguments for poverty in our time…”

  • We must give far more than bread, than shelter

“Easiest of all is to have so little, to have given away so much, that there is nothing left to give.  But is this ever true?  This point of view leads to endless discussions; but the principle remains the same.  We are our brother’s keeper.  Whatever we have beyond our own needs belongs to the poor.  If we sow sparingly we will reap sparingly.  And it is sad but true that we must give far more than bread, than shelter.”

  • The one action of the present moment

“Young people say, What good can one person do?  What is the sense of our small effort?  They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.  But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

  • All we have to give is our time and patience, our love

“It is too easy to forget that all we give is given to us to give.  Nothing is ours.  All we have to give is our time and patience, our love…”

  • A revolution which has to start with each one of us

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?  When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun’”

What do you think of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement?