Throughout most of the world, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1 in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot, which occurred at a labor rally in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The communist movement seized upon the affair, making the first of May an annual exaltation of the proletariat. Even a metro stop in Moscow is named Pervamayskaya, which translates to ‘First of May’. To distance a desirable commemoration of workers from socialism, President Grover Cleveland favored placing the holiday in early September in the United States. Pope Pius XII had another way of countering the communist celebration of labor: he dedicated May 1 to the memory of St. Joseph the Worker.
While little is told us about St. Joseph in Sacred Scripture, we are informed that he was a tektōn (cf. Mt. 13:55). Usually portrayed as a carpenter with a carpenter’s square in hand, the term describing his trade has a wider meaning, implying a craftsman working in wood or stone. St. Joseph seemed perfectly suited to become the Patron Saint of Workers.
By 1955, when Pius XII instituted the feast, the awful plight suffered by many workers during the Industrial Revolution had passed. The original rally in Haymarket Square was already calling for an eighthour workday. While many persons in underdeveloped parts of the world still suffered (and continue to suffer) from inhumane working conditions, a new threat to workers had arisen.
Just a few years earlier, in 1947, Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper had issued his famous essay, Leisure: Basis of Culture. In it, he exposed the modern phenomenon of a culture of ‘total work.’ This mentality, Pieper argued, has made many think of leisure as a vice or at least as a mere necessity ordered to restoring energies for more work. No longer would one work to live, but now people seemed to live in order to work. Pieper points out that the word ‘leisure’ in Greek is also the word for ‘school’; in other words, leisure, properly conceived, is a humanizing and ennobling activity, consisting of endeavors worth doing for their own sake and not as a means to an end.
The world of ‘total work’ had arisen in both communist and Western societies. It presupposes a materialist worldview. Man is reduced to what he does, measured by the utility of his output. “[T]he process of production… is itself understood and proclaimed to be the intrinsically meaningful realization of human existence,” writes Pieper.
This context can help us see the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in a new light. Yes, certainly, we grasp the value and dignity of work from the humble dedication of such an extraordinary saint. If God willed this luminous figure to dedicate many hours to manual labor, it must be not only a worthy life, but a genuine path to sanctity. Nonetheless, we see clearly in the example of St. Joseph that work was not the end all and be all of his life. It did not define who he was or serve as the measure for his self-worth.
On the contrary, St. Joseph surely worked primarily or even exclusively for the purpose of providing the necessities of life for his wife, Mary, and the Child entrusted to them. One of the greatest sacrifices of his life must have been the time that his work kept him away from home or perhaps even away from Nazareth. Certainly, he would have had a workshop in the house, as is commonly depicted, but he also would have had to seek work on buildings and equipment elsewhere or travel to markets to buy materials or sell finished items.
In our ‘total work’ mentality, ‘hard worker’ is a compliment, and failing to be a hard worker is considered a defect. Would one think of St. Joseph as a hard worker? The term does not seem to fit the great saint. As mentioned, he surely sought to limit the amount of time that he was kept from the company of Jesus and Mary. Moreover, communion with God would have been his greatest priority, both limiting his work time and characterizing it. Likewise, would the description ‘hard worker’ suit a Benedictine monk laboring at making beer or cheese? The motto of Benedictines, of course, is ora et labora, which translates to ‘pray and work’. Their prayer is work (liturgy has been called the “work of God”, opus dei) and their work is infused with prayer. Joseph, too, would have had his mind on God, laboring while recollected, not bustling with fervid activity.
As the expression ‘total work’ indicates, work can become a threat to man, to all that truly humanizes and elevates him. Only when one is focused, as Joseph was, primarily on love of God and neighbor – neighbor beginning with family – does work find its proper context and place in the hierarchy of values. Work serves to humanize man when he lives on a transcendent horizon. In the world of ‘total work,’ on the contrary, demands are made which increasingly exclude time to serve God or family. Then work enslaves and oppresses man, even though he pursues his work willingly and freely.
This can occur as easily in a secular liberal society as in an atheistic communist one. The ‘total work’ mentality can trap people in offices and airports, as well as sweatshops and coalmines. Many men and women in affluent societies are pursuing careers to find self-fulfillment. They believe that money, status, and success in a particular field will bring them happiness. To this end, they dedicate all their time and energies, finding, too often, that transcendent values and interpersonal relationships are pushed lower on the scale of values by career advancement. They may also look back on their college education, regretting that they did not study more ‘liberal arts’ before beginning to train for a useful career, often a technical one.
St. Joseph reminds us of this, too. While he no doubt apprenticed as a boy with his father, he also would have learned to read. This was not so that he could read manuals on carpentry, but so that he could better open his mind and heart to God through the history, poetry, and prophecy of the Sacred Word.
The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker reminds us that work, like all created realities, is good insofar as it serves the glory of God. It will do this, only if the worker works for love of God and neighbor and not for personal ambition. St. Joseph, pray for us!