The Dignity of Work

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, a memorial instituted by Pope Pius XII and dedicated to the dignity of labor and to honoring workers.

In his Encyclical Laborem Exercens, John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.” Work is thus “a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God. Created in the image of God, human participate in the act of creation through our work.  From the standpoint of Catholic thought, all work, no matter how ordinary or mundane it seems, is an act of cooperation with God’s creative work. This might be a useful thing for us to keep in mind, both as we contemplate those aspects of our own work that may at times seem less than exhiliarating and as we encounter those working in jobs we dont’ typically value. 

On this day on which we remember St. Joseph the Worker, we pray in a special way for all workers and we pray that we may develop and use the gifts God has given us to do the work to which He has called us.

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My Friend, Joseph

I had no particular devotion to St. Joseph growing up nor, for that matter, in the early years after my return to Catholicism in my early 40s. He was simply a figure hovering in the background at events like the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a (literal) figure I placed near the crib when we put out our creche every Christmas.

When we were trying to sell our house in Port Washington, NY four years ago, and I was impatient with the progress, a friend suggested the old tool of burying a statue of St. Joseph. I rejected the idea – this smacked too much of the superstition surrounding faith that makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable.

But one day a package arrived in the mail from this friend. When I opened it I found the “kit” for invoking St. Joseph’s aid for selling a house – a little statue, instructions and a prayer. Thinking “what the heck, it’s here so might as well use it” I buried the statue. To alleviate my discomfort with the whole thing, I vowed that I would say a prayer to St. Joseph every day for a year, regardless of how the house sale went.

Something happened between me and Joseph during that time, and four years later, I still say a prayer to him every day. And when I visualize the Communion of Saints, Joseph has a prominent place in the gathering.

Joseph reminds me that one doesn’t have to have the starting role to play an important part.

Joseph reminds me that one can remain faithful even when the world seems turned upside down.

Joseph reminds me of the value of loyalty and fidelity even when they are hard.

Joseph reminds me to give people the benefit of the doubt even when their stories seemed strange (read: completely unbelievable).

He is a good man, this friend of mine.

Happy Feast of St. Joseph!

Praying with St. Joseph

I’ve just finished reading Go to Joseph , by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf, sent to me by the Catholic Company. There are things I both liked and did not like about the book.

The back cover of the book suggests that reading this “contemplative book is like going on retreat.” That was not my experience of it. I found both the tone of the chapters and the “Study Questions” that followed each chapter to be more suited for study group discussion than for meditative contemplation. Many of the questions seemed to be more in the nature of reading comprehension questions than invitations to reflection. The description of the book had led me to expect that latter.

With respect to content, there are many valuable insights contained in the book that will enrich one’s appreciation of Joseph and of the Holy Family. I was particularly struck by the linkage of St. Joseph with Joseph of the Old Testament, and the discussion of the parallels in their experiences. And I have already in a separate post talked about the image of Joseph traveling with Mary, the “living monstrance.” There are also beautiful images of the father who raised his son, Jesus, loving and protecting him. Finally, this was my first exposure to what the book refers to as the Seven Sorrows of St. Joseph (and you can be sure I will spend some time with those in my prayer).

Mixed in with the valuable insights and images were ones I found more questionable. For example, I, for one, find it hard to credit the notion expressed by the author that Joseph had not even a moment’s doubt about Mary’s purity…that he had not a scintilla of suspicion that Mary had been unfaithful. Similarly, being unconvinced of the importance of whether Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, I find it hard to be swayed by claims that Joseph was a perpetual virgin.

The book is rich in selections from various papal documents talking about St. Joseph, some in very beautiful terms and an appendix contains a list of sources that include these documents. Another appendix contains a number of prayers to St. Joseph, some of which I had not before been familiar with.

In short, my disappointment with the book was largely that it was not what I expected it to be from the description. Nonetheless, there is much here that readers will benefit from.

St. Joseph the Worker

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, one of two days in the church calendar on which we honor St. Joseph. The memorial was instituted by Pope Pius XII, some say in response to Communist-sponsored May day celebrations for workers. It is a day dedicated to the dignity of labor and to honoring workers.

Work is central to who we are as human persons. As my friend Randy Lee once put it, “man does not work because he does not have the wealth stored up to be constantly at rest; man works because his dignity is in creating.” Gaudium et spes speaks of work as the means by which humans develop themselves and in Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II observed that humans express and fulfill themselves by working.

This view of work stems from our creation in the image of God; created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God. We participate in the act of creation, we share in God’s creative activity, through our work.

On this day on which we remember St. Joseph the Worker, we pray in a special way for all workers and we pray that we may develop and use the gifts God has given us to do the work to which He has called us.

The Dignity of Work and the Worker

Because of the celebration in many places of Ascension Thursday yesterday, lost to those places was the optional memorial on May 1 for St. Joseph the Worker (one of the two Catholic feast days in honor of St. Joseph).  The memorial was instituted by Pope Pius XII as a day dedicated to the dignity of labor and workers.

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.” Work is thus “a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God; created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God.  We participate in the act of creation through our work.  Importantly, from the Catholic standpoint, all work, no matter how ordinary or mundane it seems, is an act of cooperation with God’s creative work.

This might be a useful thing for us to keep in mind, both as we contemplate those aspects of our own work that may at times seem less than exhiliarating and as we encounter those working in jobs we dont’ typically value.  Perhaps we might look at them…and even treat them…with a little more regard.