We Are All Called to Be ‘Heroes’
Massachusetts General Hospital Dining Hall, July 19, 2020. Photo by Elam D. Jones.
In the week following the World Health Organization’s assessment on March 11, 2020, that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) could be considered a pandemic, I was sent home to continue the second half of a year-long hospital chaplaincy residency working remotely. Almost overnight, my work now included not only learning and employing best practices for providing spiritual care to hospital staff, patients, and their loved ones, but doing so from a distance while navigating an additional set of anxieties and uncertainties layered over what are often already delicate and challenging interactions. In work that stresses the essentiality of “presence” for care, my weeks suddenly became composed of instances of offering staff support for nurses on Zoom, providing bedside comfort to patients over FaceTime, and calling families and interpreters for three-way phone conversations.
A month later, as news and more information about the disease began cycling across the country, and many state officials issued orders and constraints to help contain the spread of the disease—including promoting social-distancing practices and limiting travel, movement outside of the home, and the functioning of “nonessential” businesses—I returned to the hospital to resume a reduced on-site schedule. This meant rejoining others throughout the United States working for businesses deemed “essential,” like grocery stores and post offices, that remained operational, with restrictions. This placed a significant portion of the U.S. workforce—a national average of 45.2 percent who are categorized as “essential workers”—at a heightened risk of infection.1
To honor their continued service during the pandemic, these essential workers came to be widely characterized as “heroes” serving on the front lines of the ongoing battle against COVID-19 in mediums ranging from widely consumed news stories to letters written by grade-schoolers to local hospitals.
Given the popularity of this practice, and my “essential” role as a hospital chaplain resident for the first six months of the pandemic, I have found myself pondering the significance of naming essential workers “heroes.” Using Dorothy Day’s proposal for canonization as a point of comparison, I have reflected on the attention and context that a religious declaration process gives to the activity of America’s deeply Christian civil religion, and how it has played out since the rise of COVID-19. I have come to understand that the label “hero” and how it has been employed in the United States to refer to essential workers not only generates complicated and ambiguous feelings that are more often burdensome than uplifting for those being honored, but it also greatly reduces the ability of all Americans to more equitably assume shares of a rightly common load.
Dorothy Day was an American journalist and social activist who cofounded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 and remained a dedicated patron until her death in 1980. The Catholic Worker movement is a collection of autonomous communities of Catholics and their associates that aims to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ” by feeding, housing, and advocating for those on the margins of society.2 Today, Day’s legacy survives in the continuation of the well over 200 Catholic Worker communities that exist throughout the world, and in the many writings, recordings, and memories that she leaves behind. This movement has served to inspire Catholic (and other Christian) activists and magisterium alike, and to guide the gaze of the Roman Catholic Church toward the social elements Day believed plague societies across the world: “war, race, poverty and wealth, violence, sex, and drugs.”3
Given these significant contributions, it came as little surprise to many in 2000 when, at the request of the archbishop of New York, Pope John Paul II granted permission for a cause to be opened on Dorothy Day’s behalf. In accordance with canon law, the Archdiocese of New York then submitted this cause for the endorsement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2012. This effectively completed the first step of Day’s canonization proposal, at which point she was named and regarded as a “Servant of God.” But this cause has forced the Catholic Church into a decidedly challenging position, because members of Day’s Catholic Worker movement continue to object, insisting that she gave every indication in her well-documented life of activism and true service to her community that she did not want to be named a saint.4
“Don’t call me a saint,” Day was often quoted as saying, in perhaps the clearest and most concise declaration against canonization attributed to Day herself. As many in the Catholic Worker movement have asserted, the mere act of naming Day in a manner that sacralizes or sets her apart from others is a deliberate contradiction to Day’s core values and concerns.5 This debate has led me to explore two questions, both of which provide helpful insight into why the naming of essential workers as “heroes” is wrongheaded.
The first question that comes immediately to mind is: Why would anyone even want to name another in such a way that sacralizes and sets them apart from most others? According to the Catholic Church, an answer to this question, for Day, consists, at least formally, of a posthumous agreement in which she is regarded as “heroic in virtue,”6 which is to say that she has performed “extraordinary virtuous actions with readiness and over a period of time . . . with ease, while faith, hope, and charity are practiced to an eminent degree.”7 Put very simply, the Roman Catholic Church believes that what Day has done over her lifetime in service of humanity goes far beyond established expectations. By naming her as a Servant of God, and perhaps someday a saint, the church creates an opportunity to honor Day and to celebrate the attention and care that she provided so many others.
In much the same way, the naming of essential workers as heroes provides a communal, agreed-upon method that makes explicit reference to the Christian imagery commissioned by American civil religion to acknowledge and applaud the extraordinary efforts of those shouldering a disproportionate share of the risks and worries associated with maintaining essential services and manufacturing operations. People in the United States gain the chance to show essential workers respect for their continued labor and sacrifice and appreciation for their salvific contributions to the safety and sustainability of the country during the pandemic. This is an undoubtedly kind, well-meaning, and often warmly welcomed gesture.
However, a second question comes to mind in both cases that problematizes the designation’s anticipated reception and brings attention to the complicated and ambiguous feelings that “hero” may generate for essential workers: Why would anyone not want to be named in such a way that sacralizes and sets them apart from most others? If Day’s life can provide further guidance, there are at least three reasons why someone would not want to be sacralizingly named as a hero.
The first is quite simply because, when judging against conventional standards, they do not consider themselves to be particularly heroic. Many who are against Day’s sainthood make certain to underline “a woman who had an abortion, had a daughter with her common-law husband, and consorted with communists makes [for] a poor model for a righteous Christian life.”8 But Dorothy Day always spoke openly about and embraced all the experiences in her life, including everything that happened to her before she converted to Catholicism. “She completely trusted God’s love for her and did not wallow in guilt over the mistakes of the past,” as “An Introduction to Dorothy Day” in America Magazine puts it.9
Because she celebrated the ordinariness and messiness of human life, it wouldn’t be surprising that Day would experience some discomfort at the idea of the Catholic Church regarding her as a saint—a feeling truck drivers and nurses may also be experiencing but have some trouble communicating to a country that has already reviewed and approved their cause for “herohood.”
Essential workers have been subjected to a great deal of misconception in the United States in recent months, as they have been admired and regularly idealized on public platforms for an obfuscating mix of perceived and presumed characteristics—such as courageous, exceptional, and honorable—that can be easy to buy into but difficult, if not impossible, to live up to. Two of the more common thoughts that were offered during my staff support sessions with members of nursing teams in the hospital had to do with people feeling unworthy because they are not on the front lines dealing directly with COVID-positive patients, and feeling uncomfortable when praised by strangers for their service.
These complicated and ambiguous feelings should serve as reason enough to reject the name “hero.” But further cause is found when we are made aware of just how burdensome this misconception can prove to be. It can prevent “essential” workers from honestly presenting themselves as feeling tired, sad, scared, unenthusiastic, angry, annoyed, or even resentful about having to face a heightened risk of infection on the job, especially if they are receiving waves of increased attention and praise for doing what, in many respects, amounts to the same work that they did before the pandemic.
This leads to the second reason why someone would not want to be named in a way that sacralizes and sets them apart from most others: It over-celebrates the ordinary and, in doing so, makes special what should be considered unexceptional. When elaborating on her resistance to sainthood, Day makes clear that she believes all people are “called to be saints . . . [in] the priesthood of the laity,” and that she would never want the commonplace work of “recycling food from the dumpster, sleeping on a stinky prison cell floor, and getting to mass every afternoon to be dismissed as being only for special people.”10 If this work were to be valorized, a divide or distance bearing both physical and social dimensions would take shape between those performing and those not inclined to do the work of “special people.” And this would only serve as fertile ground for the continued growth of misconception as those who are not doing such work knowingly or unwittingly become increasingly reliant on the underexplored characteristics already circumscribed to special people—“heroes”—thereby keeping them from attempting to navigate the distance and searching for relation to those people and characteristics.
This distance and misconception also produces social and political challenges, since it frequently lets others off the hook for not treating people decently and equitably in real, day-to-day material ways—denying workers hazard pay and vacation, and demanding rent without consideration for increased economic strain, to note just a couple. More commonly, however, it simply allows those who are serving in nonessential roles, or not working, to avoid grappling with the disproportionality of their reduced risk of infection. As these potentially trivializing characterizations separate essential workers from the everyday world in which they live so fully, people are gradually enabled to dismiss the courageous, exceptional, and honorable few who were given less advantageous odds.
“I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” These were Day’s closing words in protest to canonization, and they can serve as the third and final reason why someone would not want to be named in a way that sacralizes and sets them apart from most others.11 When essential workers are dismissed as being people of heroic virtue as a consequence of misconception and distance, it greatly reduces the country’s ability to care and for all people to more equitably assume shares of a rightly common load.
If deference takes the place of true engagement as the accepted and seemingly appropriate method to relate to essential workers during this pandemic, and if this mechanism is left unchallenged, calling essential workers heroes may very well undermine even the best intentions to appreciate and be of support to them. What essential workers need is for each and every one of us to consider in what ways we can support and be essential to one another during this time, and how we can stand with these workers, rather than standing apart and cheering them.
People in the United States would better serve those who continue to work during the pandemic in the face of an increased risk of infection by endeavoring to reduce social distance between us—while maintaining a safe physical distance, of course—and by making serious, sustained commitments to contribute to the protection and provision of social allowances and care that might minimize their physical, psychological, and economic sacrifices. We must work together to forge an exchange of service and support that benefits those who need it most. The best way to thank essential workers is to honor our common humanity.
- Celine McNicholas and Margaret Poydock, “Who Are Essential Workers? A Comprehensive Look at Their Wages, Demographics, and Unionization Rates,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog, May 19, 2020, www.epi.org.
- “The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker,” The Catholic Worker Movement, www.catholicworker.org.
- Bernard V. Brady, Essential Catholic Social Thought (Orbis Books, 2008), 70.
- James Martin, S.J., “Don’t Call Me a Saint?,” America: The Jesuit Review, November 14, 2012.
- Valerie Schmalz, “Some Followers Question Day Sainthood Cause,” Catholic San Francisco, December 5, 2012.
- Robert J. Sarno, “Steps to Sainthood,” Fr. Solanus Guild.
- Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, “Heroic Virtue,” The Divine Mercy, March 10, 2020.
- Rose Marie Berger, “Don’t Call Me a Saint,” Sojourners, July-August 2000.
- Stephen J. Krupa, “An Introduction to Dorothy Day,” America, August 27, 2001.
- Dorothy Day, Selected Writings: By Little and By Little, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 1992), 262.
- Phillip D. Smith, Why Faith Is a Virtue (Cascade Books, 2014), 108.
Elam D. Jones, MDiv ’19, is a PhD student in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, with research interests in the intersections of conflict, memory, public space, law, and the religious themes guiding symbolic representation. He also holds a BA from DePaul University.