In 1954, Pope Pius XII delivered an address to conventioneers of the Hemp and Linen Confederation in Rome. Why was the Pope speaking at a trade show? He certainly had no need to network or do business development. He was not working up a legislative agenda or seeking to lobby for the association. He was not running for office, or raising money, or asking for endorsements or votes. And he surely had no need for a speaking fee or a free lunch. So why was he there? He was there to inspire his listeners by impressing upon them the ultimate, spiritual value of their work.
Pius’ speech was respectful. He did not simply drop into the event and speak down to the business men and women. There were no admonitions against greed or excess profits. No suggestion that employers needed to be reminded of the priority to provide dignified wages and working conditions. No hint whatsoever that work in agriculture, manufacturing, or business was somehow morally or spiritually less dignified than the religious life. Instead, Pius rolled up his sleeves, learned the concrete issues facing the growers and manufacturers, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them to acknowledge their challenges and sincerely encourage their efforts.
Much of the speech centered on the practical concerns of the organization. He discussed the technical challenges facing the growers and manufacturers of Italian hemp, including international regulations and market fluctuations, and the need for new production technology to ensure quality and efficiency. He talked about how important it was for growers to choose “the species best adapted to his land” to avoid degeneration and to maintain a quality crop. He lauded the association’s efforts to support and promote linen production, and he encouraged the organization to increase their cooperative business endeavors. The speech must have been the marquee listing on the program, with Pius drawing record attendance and convention floor buzz.
While the Pope addressed the practical concerns of the association, he also discussed the most profound meaning of their work, starting with a concrete example to teach a spiritual point. Pius noted that linen cloth was used in sacred worship in the Old Testament, where the Scriptures called for “the faithful to come and present each year the first fruits of the harvest.” He explained that in line with this tradition, the Church uses linen vestments in the sacred liturgy. Thus, something as ordinary as linen cloth has long been included among the primary matter of divine worship. And because cloth encapsulates the work of the many who produce it (laborers, growers, manufacturers, managers, HR, entrepreneurs, and others), all of their various work efforts have a role, even a fundamental, spiritual role, in Providence. One can conclude that, in the words at the preparation at Mass, this lofty dignity applies to all “work of human hands.”
Pius thus emphasized that all work, no matter how ordinary, can have a spiritual quality, as “all man’s activity finally ends in God and that nothing that is good, nothing that is beautiful can remain entirely mundane.” That’s good news for us. We can do our best work with the ultimate trust that God can and will use our labors, our networking, and our collaborations to serve God’s purposes. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10).
Pius affirmed the high spiritual value of ordinary work as a form of prayer:
And not only the higher forms of artistic and industrial activity, but also the labors of mechanics and of factory workers have their part to play in the chorus of praises which should rise to the Lord from all over the earth. Bless the Lord, ye workshops and factories; bless Him, ye laborers and administrators!
All good work has this transcendent dignity, whether or not it is highly valued by the culture or the market. Business, manufacturing, and agriculture are no less morally serious endeavors than the arts and sciences. This teaching was affirmed a decade later at Vatican II when Gaudium et Spes taught that to the extent that our labors contribute to integral human development, they form the stuff of the Kingdom of God. This is the highest purpose for human labor.
Many trade shows are successful if the attendees make new business connections, get more insights into their markets and competitors, learn new marketing, sales, and production techniques, eat some good food and score a bag full of trade association tchotchke. But with the Pope’s address, they also received a new appreciation of the spiritual dimension of their work, and a new moral energy and purpose for their life’s vocation.