“Labor Day” in Italy and The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

When divorced from God’s plan, work is merely labor—a rudderless everyday job

Today May 1 is Labor Day in Italy and in virtually all of Europe. Alas, it is hardly festive. There is not much to celebrate here in terms of job growth and wealth creation. Economic figures across this Old and Aging Continent are like proverbial diamonds in the rough: there is much potential for glory, but with a lot of precision cutting and polishing still to do.

Simply read the latest statistical lampoon on European GDP in The Economist on April 14: “Taking Europe’s Pulse“. With a walking-dead growth of 0.3% in the first quarter of 2015, nation after European nation is stifled by union strongholds on hiring and firing practices, crony capitalist deals born in Brussels’ backrooms, governments’ insatiable appetite for taxation to prop up bankrupt social welfare programs, and many other politico-economic and cultural tentacles holding back a not-so-free European Union.

Here in Rome, few are celebrating in an anemic peninsula with 12.70% unemployment and virtually no growth in the last 20-plus years. Absolutely no fist pumps are raised on this day in traditionally leftist Spain (23.78 %), nor in the communist party-run Greece (25.70%), and by no means in the rebuilding nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (43.78%).

Nonetheless today, for good measure, is a public ‘holiday’, whether the economic mood is truly merry or not. At least it is a day to put workers’ worries aside. It is a day to forget about the sorry state of many economies on this extended weekend when Europeans head to the mountains, sea and its many cities of art.

May 1 is also a ‘holy day’, the Catholic Feast of St. Joseph the Worker instituted by Pius XII in 1955 in response to the May Day communist celebrations installed across Europe. Therefore, it is no small coincidence of calendar or etymology.

According to the American Catholic web site, Pius XII’s intention was, in effect, to give deeper meaning to a public holiday de-christened merely as ‘Labor’ Day in a hyper-secularized and socialist Europe. It was a day, though mixed with revelry and parades, that had become, spiritually speaking, a hum-drum day off from routine of production lines and cubicles:

In a constantly necessary effort to keep Jesus from being removed from ordinary human life, the Church has from the beginning proudly emphasized that Jesus was a carpenter, obviously trained by Joseph in both the satisfactions and the drudgery of that vocation. Humanity is like God not only in thinking and loving, but also in creating. Whether we make a table or a cathedral, we are called to bear fruit with our hands and mind, ultimately for the building up of the Body of Christ.

When divorced from God’s plan, work is merely labor, a rudderless everyday job. It even can turn us into hunchbacks, as if debilitated and humiliated by meaningless, repetitive, backbreaking activity.

This is exactly what I find lamentable about today. Is not the dire unemployment rates, but the spiritual vacuum that has set in on this first day of May, a month our Church devotes to Mary and begins by celebrating her husband, Joseph, and his economic contribution to the Holy Household. This day is dedicated to a holy man who is the patron saint of all forms of labor, unskilled and skilled, and who was the ideal pater familias. Today is the particular day of the year in the Church’s calendar of saints when she invokes all workers to pay reverence to a man who humbly dedicated himself to a professional vocation he enjoyed, though fatigued, and performed with excellence.

We are invited to contemplate Joseph’s economic contribution to the common good, providing tables and chairs for family homes, desks for offices, and other products of his carpentry, such as the all-important structural beams for roofs and bridges. Imagine all the collapsed buildings and structures without a truly devoted attention and love for such a craft!

We do not know precisely what St. Joseph produced and sold in his shop. Yet, we can well imagine that he served the needs of his time, his particular market, and was reasonably successful. After all, the Holy Family had a stable home, with a true breadwinner, and Jesus was not sent out to provide a second income and beg on the streets for his daily needs. Instead, he apprenticed with Joseph to learn a profitable and most valuable trade.

What we also know about St. Joseph is, like his beloved Mary, his will was in constant union with God’s.

When contemplating and putting into practice his daily labor, work was not merely what we mean by Old English “weorc” (produce, toil) or “gobbe” (lump, mass, or heavy load)  from which we derive the dull word “job” and we get the Italian gobbo – “hunchback”. Joseph did not associate heavy beams of wood, his nails, hammers and the other tools of his trade with constant backbreaking, arduous activity. His work was certainly had negative effects – even on his upright posture –  but he remained a true and dedicated professional, as he “professed” a labor of love and a love of labor. Thus Joseph worked every day for his Lord, the Son of God, the Queen of Heaven, and for the community of Nazareth he served through his creative enterprise.

I am worried by statistics such as those I observed at Rome sociology conference on work and religion, which correlated a 47% desire among 17-19 year Italian old youth to become entrepreneurs and freelance professionals with roughly 50% of them describing themselves as believing Christians. On the surface, this is not cause for anxiety. After all, believing in God and our human dignity makes us want to be co-creators, co-captains of industry as we cooperate with Him to build His Kingdom on earth.

The worrisome statistic came later with less than a 1/5 of these so-called “believers” declaring themselves also as “practicing”. And then there were surveys that negatively revealed their conception of the nuclear family and divorce as well their association with progressive ideologies of gender and homosexual union.

How can today’s youth put into practice that which they hold to be true in their hearts and heads while other beliefs and opinions are in direct contradiction with some of the core tenets of their Christian faith?

And does this not lead us to think that some other contradictory beliefs to entrepreneurship – like those  for security and entitlement – will hinder them from putting into practice a risky professional vocation? I fear this is so, translating into a disjunction of wills and apathy, unless a ‘higher power’ or idolatry such as Materialism, Ego, Fame, or a Big House and Fast Car inspire them to persevere in a stagnant European market.

I fear that these youth may contribute to the already dire unemployment percentages unless infused with religious zeal and a vocational understanding of work. Like Joseph, because his will to work was undeniably united to God’s, he never gave up. It was not merely a coincidence that this same unwavering, passionate dedication to a vocation was passed on to Jesus, his apprentice carpenter son. It was Jesus who learned from Joseph the divine value of the heavy wood beams, hammers and nails which served as the very materials for his own ultimate calling, his humiliating crucifixion on Calvary.

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.