St. Joseph, the Worker (May 1)

By Fr. Claude Perera

The feast of St. Joseph the Worker which falls on the first of May is only to an optional memorial or a memorial in the Catholic liturgical calendar. On the other hand, today is also the beginning of the May devotions to the Mother of God. In many parts of the world this day is celebrated also as the International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, dedicated to the promotion of the dignity and rights of workers. It was originated by socialist and communist parties as a commemoration of the Haymarket Affair in Chicago on 4th May 1886. To counterpoint the leftist International Workers’ Day fixed for the first of May, Pope Pius XII named the same day as the commemoration of St. Joseph the Worker. So, on the first day of the month of May which is related to the Holy Family, as well as to work, it is only appropriate that we reflect briefly today on the Theology of work.

In the second creation narrative, it is said that after creating the heaven and earth, vegetative forms of life had not sprung up on earth nor was there a wo/man to till the ground (Gn 2:5). This shows that creation was incomplete without its caretaker wo/man. According to Gn 2:15, God settled Adam in the Garden of Eden and entrusted him to cultivate and take care of it. The dignity of human work comes from the fact that it is a participation in the creative work of God. However, as the aetiological narrative in the second creation story shows, the fall drastically altered everything. Work which was a joyful vocation of collaborating with God (Gn 2:5, 15), now becomes a terrible burden effecting fatigue, boredom and drab monotony. It turns into a dire necessity to survive. Since then, no human being was dispensed from this travail.

St. Joseph became the foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary providing them with nutrition, security, affection and family leadership. Jesus himself would have submitted to work during his stay at Nazareth home, helping his father whose semi-skilled profession was being a tekt¯n (meaning a wide range of things related to building craftsmanship such as a carpenter, wood-worker, mason, sculptor, metal worker, smith or joiner). The biblical tradition about the sanctity of work originated at the dawn of creation and has been reiterated right through the Hebrew Bible as well as in the NT. St. Paul writing to the Second Letter to the Thessalonians hit the nail on the head, when he said, “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” (2 Thes 3:10, 12). On the other hand, from the 19th century onwards, the papal teaching on the dignity of work and the worker has been very strong.  Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII (1891), Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI (1931), Sertum Laetitiae of Pope Pius XII (1939), Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII (1963), Populorum Progressio of Pope Paul VI (1967), Laborem Exercens of Pope John Paul II (1981) and Laudato Sii (2015) of Pope Francis are marvellous testimonies to this. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens  Pope John Paul II said: “… the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide [social] changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.”

In the Catholic tradition, Saint Joseph is presented as the model worker. Pius XII addressing the assembly of representatives of the Catholic Association of Italian Workers in 1955 elaborated this beautifully when he said, “The spirit flows to you and to all men from the heart of the God-man, Savior of the world, but certainly, no worker was ever more completely and profoundly penetrated by it than the foster father of Jesus, who lived with Him in closest intimacy and community of family life and work.”

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