Editor’s note: The following homily was preached in advance of the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker (April 30, 2022) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
On May 1, 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker; the choice of the date was not accidental but quite deliberate: In many parts of Europe, May 1 or “May Day” was a Communist-inspired “celebration” of workers. The Pope wanted to counteract that fraudulent observance with one which had its roots deep in Christian life and devotion – hence, recourse to Jesus’ foster father – “the carpenter,” about which more in a moment. This year, May 1 falls on a Sunday, thus obviating the observance of the feast in the calendar of the Ordinary Form; oddly, in the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, the feast trumps even a Sunday in Eastertide.
Matthew 13:55 has the curious ask if Jesus isn’t “the carpenter’s son,” while Mark 6:3 ascribes that trade to Jesus Himself. The Greek word usually translated as “carpenter” is tekton, however, it would seem that “carpenter” is a rather scaled down understanding because tekton implies a bit more, more like “craftsman” or “artisan.” Interestingly, it can even mean “poet”! At any rate, we should know that Joseph wasn’t simply someone who nailed a couple of 2 x 4’s together. It is a bit strange that if Our Lord grew up in the home of a carpenter, not one of His parables deals with that profession – shepherds, farmers, vine-dressers, yes, but not carpenters.
All of that having been said, following the lead of Pope Pius, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider a theology or spirituality of work.
It is often asserted that one of the punishments inflicted on our first parents was that they would have to work, but that is not correct. We find them working before their fall (see Gen 2:15). The punishment is not that humans would have to work but that the work would be arduous, taxing, even unfulfilling – they would have to “toil” (Gen 3:17) and “work by the sweat of [their] brow” (Gen 3:19).
The Church has always had a concern for workers, one of the reasons that in the Middle Ages she created so many feasts calling for a rest from labor. That concern, however, took on a new urgency with the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the factories becoming sweat shops and workers being treated like chattel. Great writers like Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift highlighted the inhumanity of the situation.
Pope Leo XIII devoted his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, to the issue; we can say that that document launched the Church Universal onto a course of social doctrine that has been developed ever since. Indeed, Pius XI penned Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Leo’s work, but Catholic social doctrine took a mighty leap forward in 1981with Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens for the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. John Paul knew, experientially, of what he was writing as he had “toiled” “by the sweat of his brow” as a young man in a quarry and factory.
I spoke about a “spirituality” or “theology” of work; John Paul goes so far as to speak of a “Gospel” of work. What is the “good news” in work? It is precisely that the human person becomes a “co-creator” with Almighty God, whereby he experiences meaning in his labor. By our very nature, we want to work; we are homo faber (man the worker). Think about this: We all know people who, as they turn 64 tell us they can’t wait for 65 to roll around, so that they can retire. And within two weeks of retirement, they are going crazy and driving their spouses crazy because they don’t know what to do with themselves.
Back in the 1980s, when I was working for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and living at Our Lady of Vilna Rectory, I took the #1 train from Canal Street up to 79th Street every day. Over time, I got to know a late-middle-aged woman whose job was to change the light bulbs in the train station. One day, I asked, “Thelma, do you find your work boring?” Came her response: “Father, if I didn’t change these bulbs, you all couldn’t get around the City. And besides, I get to meet all kinds of lovely people like you.” That woman knew the dignity of labor; she had made her job a vocation. Unfortunately, I am sure some machine does today what she did with such verve.
St. Paul cautioned the Thessalonians: “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Paul wasn’t being cruel, heartless, and insensitive. Like John Paul, he too knew the value of work in his own life when he plied his trade as tent-maker. No, he was proposing a view of human dignity that may, at times, require a “hand up,” but not “hand out.” At the same time, we have to caution against developing the mentality of a workaholic, recalling the maxim of John Paul: “work is for man, not man for work.” Or, put another way, one should work to live, not live to work. All too often today, we encounter people who are consumed with work, driven by an out-of-control materialism, reflected even in being too busy for Sunday Mass. If you’re too busy for God, you’re too busy.
And now a few corollaries flowing from the above thoughts:
• Workers are not instruments, robots, or objects; they are human subjects, worthy of esteem, firstly, for their humanity, and then for the part they play in the overall enterprise.
• The Church, unlike Marxist dialectic, does not envision the relationship between employer and employee to be one of class struggle; she encourages and hopes for a relationship of mutual appreciation.
• It is important to know the difference between Catholic principles of our social teaching and their concrete application. For example, while the Church calls for a “just wage,” for “the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim 5:18), it is beyond her competence to set a “minimum” wage or even a particular plan of health care. Why? Because there are too many variables: If a small employer had to pay his five workers $20 an hour, would the solvency of his business cause him to cut everyone’s hours or even terminate one or more of his employees? If the relationship is healthy, particulars can be worked out in fairness, understanding and respect.
• When we work, we should put our whole heart and soul into it – no shoddy, slipshod efforts, taking pride in one’s work, doing it for the glory of God and thus making one’s work a prayer. The medieval artisans produced magnificent works with nary a thought about public acknowledgment.
• Appreciating (and never demeaning) the work of stay-at-home mothers, whose societal contribution can never be measured in dollars and cents. “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”1
• Although Pope Leo and all the popes since have asserted the right of workers to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining, in all too many instances (at least in this country), unions no longer represent those they are supposed to represent; beyond that, all too many unions have taken political positions in direct opposition to the truth and to the values of their members. Here I am thinking in particular of the teacher unions.
• Advocating for the family farm or family business arises from the Church’s commitment to the principle of subsidiarity and solidarity. “Small is beautiful.” The farther away from the base that decisions are made, the less human they tend to be.
The Pope who gave us “the Gospel of Life” sums up his “Gospel of Work” with this lovely thought: “Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth” (Redemptoris Custos, n. 22). What an exalted sentiment.
And the Church puts on our lips for this memorial the following Collect:
O God, Creator of all things,
who laid down for the human race the law of work,
that by the example of Saint Joseph and under his patronage
we may complete the works you set us to do
and attain the rewards you promise.
1As Mother’s Day appears on the horizon, consider this assessment of the Venerable József Cardinal Mindszenty: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral – a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body….The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God’s creative miracle to bring new saints to Heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature; God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation….What on God’s good earth is more glorious than this; to be a mother?”
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