It is your duty, dear priests, to make the church’s wish come true … That workers’ figure and situation be reconsidered, to allow them to be more human and to recover their true greatness as collaborators with God’s creative work … So that the gap between church and factory begins to fill, and that the fumes of incense mix with those of industries in rising up to heaven. — St. John Paul II
Today’s Feast of St Joseph the Worker was instituted in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a Catholic liturgical response to the Communist version of the May Day celebration.
Today is the day that Catholic workers all over the world should proudly celebrate the gift of labor. They must witness to their co-workers, by word and example, that, no matter how arduous or tedious or boring the task at hand, and no matter the inefficiency or incompetence or irritation of their colleagues, work is for them is always an opportunity to join Jesus’ work of Redemption. Jesus the Worker carried out His greatest act while hanging helpless on the cursed Tree. Yet because of His internal disposition of obedience to the Father and faithful love for the wreckage of humanity around Him (all working hard to destroy Him), He transformed every terribly un-ideal, non-conducive labor condition into a supreme opportunity for re-creating the whole of creation.
Work allows Christians to demonstrate concretely the hard virtue of charity and the costliness of grace by their relentless commitment to excellence amid mediocrity, patience amid failure, kindness amid asinine behavior, and a willingness to forgive amid injustices — even as they labor for justice. In other words, Christians reveal to others the way God Himself deals with us as His co-workers — and what a sorry lot He has to work with! Yet He loves His inept, uncooperative co-workers tirelessly, never ceasing to re-engage them again and again and again in His work … When He could be FAR more efficient if He just did it all alone. But God sees that the ultimate goal of labor is not efficiency but love that builds a communion out of a rabble.
I remember years ago when I was working as a maintenance man, my St. Joseph-esque friend and boss, Michael Pearson, and I were working together on some construction project. Michael epitomizes the Catholic theology of work that I have briefly described here. He taught me how to do (among other things) electrical, plumbing, carpentry and even car repair work. Anyway, while we were working on something together one day, he was teaching me how to locate studs behind drywall before affixing things to the wall. I said to him something like, “This would probably go a lot faster if you just did this yourself.” He replied, “Tom, that’s not the point. The point is to work together, like St. Joseph did with Jesus. So much more enjoyable, don’t you think?” I quietly teared up. That vision made me 1000 times more motivated to work. It reminded of that lovely line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince:
When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.
Without such a Christian witness in the vast world of labor, who will ever believe the “word of the Cross” we say we believe is the model for all laboring in a fallen world? How we labor each day is really where greatness shines brightest in the disciples of Jesus. Matthew 7:21:
Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
We may not be able to present people with persuasive apologetics or brilliant theological reasoning, but we can — and must — present them with deeds, words-made-flesh that give evidence to the hope that is within us. I met a man in RCIA this year who was becoming Catholic at the age of 82. He said he watched his wife live her faith every day for over 50 years and finally was convinced. He said, “I’m a slow learner, and stubborn, but she was patient with me. She never pushed me once. Just a quiet witness. Like a long, gentle rain.”
50 years. And I complain when someone does not respond after 5 years — or 5 minutes! — to offerings of faith. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
I’ll end with a pic of a shirt my students gave me on the last day of our Theology of the Laity class. They are awesome! And then with the Chapman song I post here about every six months. Happy Catholic Labor Day!