When Pope Pius XII declared May 1 to be a memorial in honor of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955, it was obviously a rebuke of Communist Russia’s “May Day” celebrations of the rights of workers. Yes, Pope Pius indicated, we Catholics believe in honoring the hard work of ordinary people in their ordinary jobs too, but we do so in the light of Christ. Who—besides our Lord Himself—could be a better example of the dignity and rights of simple workers than the great Saint Joseph, who fed and clothed our Savior and our Blessed Mother through the work of his own hands?
But toil and work has been a curse—literally—ever since the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:17-19), and it is very human to often see labor as painful and even pointless. Fortunately, there are plenty of Catholic saints who demonstrate that work can be the exact opposite. In fact, there are so many saints that prove this point that we can limit ourselves to only the saints and blesseds commemorated in the month of May in the Church’s calendar.
One of the lies of Communism is that violence is sometimes (or perhaps often) needed to overcome the poverty which many ordinary people face. The saints prove this to be a lie. They even show us a peaceful way to destroy poverty: through giving oneself first and foremost to the loving service of the poor.
For example, Saint Germanus, the sixth century bishop of Paris, taught his flock about caring for the poor by dressing simply and personally, and regularly serving the poor.
Saint Dominic of the Causeway was an eleventh century Benedictine-monk-turned-hermit with a more practical bent: he built a bridge, road, and hospice for pilgrims on a well-travelled path to the famous shrine of Saint James of Compostela because he saw that people needed them.
How can you help poor women in particular escape the ever-present threat of homelessness and prostitution? Teach them about God (so they know of His love for them) and then teach them the skills they need to earn a living. That’s what Saint Agostino Roscelli, a nineteenth century Italian priest, and Saint Mary Domenica Mazzarello, a nineteenth century sister, did when they founded religious orders to educate women and girls.
Caring for the sick is a very Christ-like labor; He was (and is) a healer. Saint Godehard, an eleventh century German bishop, knew that to be true, which is why he built a hospice for the sick in his diocese. Blessed John Martin Moye, an eighteenth century French priest, cared for the sick during an epidemic, as did the religious sisters of the order he founded.
Saint Theodore Guerin and her sisters cared for orphans in Indiana in the nineteenth century, but they also operated pharmacies that were free to the poor. Saint Damien de Veuster’s dedicated service of lepers on Molokai island in the nineteenth century saved them from despair and poverty but cost him his life.
Though it is commonplace to treat civic leaders as the enemies of the poor, that is not the case when they are canonized saints. Saint Sigismund was a sixth century king of France who, after undergoing a personal conversion, was noted for his generosity with the poor. Saint Ferdinand III of Castile was a thirteenth century king who was also a third order Franciscan and was renowned as a just leader who cared about helping the poor.
Four saints from the month of May: Theodosius of Kiev (an eleventh century Russian abbot), Peter Nolasco (a thirteenth century Spanish priest), John of Avila (a sixteenth century priest), and Francis Montmorency-Laval (a seventeenth century Canadian bishop) all used their authority to protect the poor. They spoke out against unjust treatment of minorities and people in need, and all of them were persecuted by the rich and powerful as a result.
But what if you have a family to feed, hate the sight of blood, and are a better follower than a leader? The second most obvious worker-saint of May after Saint Joseph is Saint Isidore the Farmer. This eleventh century Spanish saint spent his entire life as a simple peasant. He worked the land of his feudal lord with the help of his saintly wife. Isidore’s neighbors mocked his piety—until they noticed that, despite his generosity to the poor and devotion to attending Mass frequently—his crops were more abundant than their own. There are many other stories from Saint Isidore’s life that show his holiness, but all of them prove that any one of us, regardless of our occupation, can imitate his example by working humbly and diligently and by trusting in God.
Pope Saint John Paul II’s wonderful encyclical on Saint Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer, includes a short but excellent chapter titled, “Work as an Expression of Love”. “Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth,” states Saint John Paul. That is, Saint Joseph, just like every other father, showed his love for the members of his family through his daily work. Quoting from Saint Pope Paul VI, the encyclical also states, “St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies: … he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things—it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.”
God is Creator and Lord of all things. But God the Father chose to place His Son in the home of a carpenter, not in a king’s palace, not with a comfortable merchant, and not even in the home of a devout rabbi. Precisely because Jesus’ foster-father was a working man, Jesus Himself spent thirty years performing the same menial tasks of working for a living and caring for a home that the rest of us often grudgingly endure.
But Saint Joseph did not endure his work. He is the perfect example of how we can try to spend all our time, energy, and dedication focused on adoring God and becoming holy through our work—because that is certainly what Saint Joseph did.
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