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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Robert P. Russo

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Gordon: When did you join St. Rose of Lima in Perrysburg, Ohio and how has the parish contributed to your spirituality?

Robert: I became a parishioner of St. Rose in 2003; I have also been affiliated with St. Joan of Arc in Toledo, Ohio. During my time at both parishes, I have experienced a great desire to lead a life of service to my fellow parishioners. I have been involved in a number of ministries (e.g. Eucharistic Minister, Lector, Usher, etc.), and I have met many wonderful people; a reaffirmation that we are all members of the Body of Christ.

Dr. Knight Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your background in Theology? What prompted you to pursue theology?

Robert: I received an MA in Systematic Theology from Lourdes University (Sylvania, Ohio), about ten years ago. My desire to study Theology arose out of my participation in the Lay Ministry program of the Toledo Diocese. I was also very active in my parish, and I wanted to know more about my faith. Studying Theology on a rigorous level was a wonderful experience, and I hope to pursue similar studies after I retire.

Gordon: You earned a Master’s Degree in Systemic Theology from Lourdes University. What was the most challenging course that you took and why?

Robert: Yes, a most-wonderful experience which helped to plant the seed for my later work on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. I must say that the toughest course was “Old Testament Themes: A Critical Study.” I was not then as well-versed in OT literature as I could have been. However, this course taught me to appreciate the Torah, and especially the suffering and wisdom found in the Book of Job.

Gordon: Who is your favorite theologian and why?

Robert: I have a vast appreciation for the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who sought to make the Universal Church more inclusive. I love the hope found in Karl Rahner’s Theory of Anonymous Christians (i.e. God’s grace working through all religions), Henri de Lubac’s notion of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, as present in Lumen Gentium, especially Lg, 7 (“The head of this body is Christ. He is the image of the invisible God and in him all things came into being.”), and Bernard Lonergan’s teachings on Conversion (i.e. operative and cooperative grace, which I used in a paper about Dorothy’s conversion [“Saintly Chain of Causality”]).

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your early education and its influence in you?

Robert: I find this question very interesting, because nothing in my early background (in education or work experience) indicated a future study of Theology, or Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. I had a B.B.A. in Human Resource Management from Iona College (New Rochelle, New York); I spent about fifteen years in the business world after that (banking, accounting, etc.). After moving to the Toledo area in 1997, I completed an M.B.A. in Finance at the University of Toledo. God called me in a different direction!!

Gordon: When did you start writing professionally and what was the first article that you had published?

Robert: I began my career by writing book reviews, in 2009, for Pierre Hegy’s Catholic Books Review. From there, I also began writing reviews for Catholic Library World. I then wrote my first full-length article on Dorothy Day, entitled “Paper, People and Work: A Review of the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University,” (Catholic Library World 84 [March 2014]). I also had an article published in the Houston Catholic Worker (Jan.-Feb. 2014), entitled “Dorothy Day and the Holy Other,” which dealt with my notions of Dorothy as a mystic.

Gordon: Please list the books that you have written.

Robert: My first full-length book, “The Thrills of 1924: Dorothy Day Encounters the ‘Underworld Denizens’ of New Orleans,” was released by Epiphany Press in March. The book includes all of Dorothy’s fascinating articles for The New Orleans Item. I have also contributed chapters on Dorothy for two books: “The Radical Example of Dorothy Day as a Living Response to Matthew’s ‘Rich Young Man,’” (Christianity in the Public Square: Literatures of Politics, Protest, and Social Justice, edited by Anthony R. Grasso, CSC, Lulu Publishing, 2014), and “The Saintly Chain of Causality in the Conversion of Dorothy Day,” (Dorothy Day and The Church: Past, Present, & Future, edited by Lance B. Richey and Adam DeVille, Solidarity Hall, 2016).

Gordon: When did you become the publisher at Epiphany Press and what are your primary responsibilities?

Robert: Epiphany Press, Ltd. was established in March of 2018, for the purposes of publishing works of a scholarly nature. I serve as Publisher, Author, and Editor—I am currently editing a volume of prose written by my wife, Patricia M. Russo, entitled Graced and Gloried. Her work is very spiritual, reflecting her faith journey, and some of her prose includes themes of Social Justice. This volume should be available later this year. I have also had thoughts about editing a volume of articles regarding different facets of the life of Dorothy, or the Catholic Worker movement. I would be looking to publish works written by Graduate students, Doctoral candidates, and those having recently received their terminal degrees. It is sometimes very difficult to obtain a publishing credit, and I wish to give back for the opportunities that I have had in contributing to the work of others.

Gordon: When did you become aware of Dorothy Day and what impact has she had on your life?

Robert: I began to become more aware of Dorothy Day in 1995, during my first year of marriage. My wife Patty had been a parishioner of The Church of the Nativity (Lower East Side of Manhattan), where Dorothy had often worshipped. In the late 1970s, Patty was introduced to Dorothy by the late Sister Eileen Burns, OSF. I then read The Long Loneliness for the first time. For the past ten years, or so, I have dedicated my research to Dorothy and the Catholic Worker movement; she has taught me to “keep digging until I uncover the roots” of any particular issue. The day was a voracious reader, and I have often read the books that she mentioned in her writings, in order to gain a deeper sense of perspective.

Gordon: I loved "The Thrills of 1924: Dorothy Day Encounters the 'Underworld Denizens' of New Orleans” Do you plan on writing any more books about her life?

Robert: Thank you, Gordon, you are too kind. Let’s remember that The Thrills of 1924 is primarily Dorothy’s book---her writings, with my analysis and annotations to put her time in New Orleans in its proper context. I am slowly working on my next volume, called Not Contrary to Her Beliefs: The Probationary Nursing Career of Dorothy Day. This will be released by Epiphany Press, Ltd. in 2021, and will be an in-depth look at the forces behind her becoming a nurse at KingsCountyHospital (Brooklyn, NY), in 1918. She ministered to victims of some harrowing events, including the Malbone Street elevated train wreck (120 people killed in Flatbush, Brooklyn—and at least 200 wounded) and the Spanish Influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide. I also have future plans for volumes dedicated to Dorothy’s articles in the New York Call, The Masses, and one combining her experiences as a suffragist (she was arrested and brutalized at the Occoquan Workhouse; Lorton, VA.), and Greenwich Village.

Dr. Knight: What in the culture of the present moment indicates the call to the Catholic Worker programs?

Robert: The widening gap between the rich and poor which was present in Dorothy’s time, and progressively worse in our own. Day stated several times that “the poor would always be with us.” Many people could not fathom what she meant—after all, how could there be poverty in the richest nation in the world? I believe that Day meant that, as long as there was a wage system, there would always be injustice. Although the system may be flawed, that does not mean that we should stop fighting for equality.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the hopes you might have for the future Church?

Robert: My greatest hope is that the universal Church accepts Dorothy Day as a Saint; I was privileged to be one of many volunteers for the Dorothy Day Guild. I spent the past two years transcribing and vetting other’s transcriptions of Day’s handwritten diaries as part of the Vatican inquiry. I had my hands in most of the 6,800 diary pages. I am told that the Vatican will shortly receive over 21,000 pages of her writings and biographical material—all this to make her Venerable. I would also love to see more of a reconciliation with other Christian denominations---all working to eradicate disease, poverty, and injustice—in the name of Christ.

Dr. Knight: Our beloved Pope Francis insists that we pay attention to the economically poor and disenfranchised. How are we doing in regard to his directive?

Robert: I would say that before the recent pandemic, that we have all engaged in an epic failure to meet the needs of the poor and eradicate poverty. That is, perhaps, too general of a statement, because I recognize that there are people and corporations who have helped society immensely. The current climate, and post-pandemic world, however, offer a golden opportunity for all of us to help humanity—I know of several corporations who have shown great concern for the public. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

Dr. Knight: Social media has made a lasting effect/affect on our society. Tell us both the good and the bad as you see it.

Robert: It’s the proverbially double-edged sword! It is a great thing to reach friends, family, and co-workers instantly; also, a great way to conduct instant research. However, one must be wary of fake news…one must often dig beneath the surface to get at the truth. I love to research and write about Day’s earlier life, pre-conversion to Catholicism. Not much is known other than her surviving articles and what she wrote in a few books. There are no surviving diaries from her teenage years.

Gordon: What were some of the challenges in retrieving some of her past columns from so many years ago?

Robert: Unfortunately, the articles from The New Orleans Item were never digitized, as in the case of the New York Times. For The Thrills of 1924, I had to use a composite of archives (i.e. both paper and microfilm). The physical newspapers were bound, and several articles could not be read in their entirety. The papers could not be separated, and there were illegible words hidden beneath the folds. There were also burn holes in the newspapers, small sections missing, which is understandable because the papers are 95-years-old. I was able to make complete transcriptions of the articles with microfilm. However, not every issue of the paper was archived, and there was some severe damage done to the microfilm by Hurricane Katrina.

Gordon: You are also a popular public speaker. Where are some of the recent places that you have presented and what were the topics?

Robert: Thank you for noticing, Gordon. Unfortunately, with the amount of research that I have been doing lately, I haven’t had the time to make any recent presentations. Here are some of the presentations I have made regarding Dorothy: “The Saintly Chain of Causality: As Seen Through the Conversion of Dorothy Day,” University of St. Francis, Fort Wayne, IN, May, 2015; “The Mystical Vision of Dorothy Day: As Seen Through Her Radical Views on Poverty,” University of Notre Dame, IN, March, 2015; “Dorothy Day: A Holy Witness in Our Time,” Lifelong Learning, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH, April-May, 2015; “Dorothy Day on Conversion,” Sisters of Notre Dame Spiritual Formation Program, Toledo, OH, April, 2014; and, “The Radical Example of Dorothy Day as a Living Response to Matthew’s ‘Rich Young Man,’” King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, November, 2012.

Gordon: You also have a strong interest in pro-life challenges. What are some of the major pro-life challenges that affect our society today?

Robert: I am quite certain that Dorothy Day would love this question, as it presents the opportunity to offer reconciliation—greater healing for those who may have regretted certain life decisions. Too often, society is fragmented over the battle for individual rights, sometimes leading to unnecessary acts of violence. We need to preach one of Dorothy’s core beliefs: “When one member of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer.” We do need to keep reaffirming that life begins at conception. However, we must also offer forgiveness and pray for those individuals who may have fallen away, becoming beacons in sharing the light of Christ.

Dr. Knight: Gordon and I thank you this enlightening interview. We are glad for you to be in Profiles in Catholicism.

Robert: Thank you for the opportunity, and God bless you in your work and research!


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