Work & Identity

A reflection on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

Today we begin the month of May, which is a month traditionally associated with our Lady. But the month begins with a day dedicated to her holy spouse, St. Joseph. St. Joseph is one of those rare saints who are honored with two feast days on the calendar. The Solemnity of St. Joseph is celebrated on March 19. And today, May 1, we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955 as a way of Christianizing the labor movement and to provide a patron and model for workers.

This feast carries with it a special poignancy today when many workers find themselves unable to work due to shutdowns caused by the coronavirus. We find ourselves in a rather chaotic situation. Some workers, typically those who have been the least paid and the least appreciated in our society, suddenly find themselves deemed “essential” and told they must come in to work despite the danger of illness. Other workers, if they are lucky, are able to continue their work from home, but must adjust to new modes of work that perhaps are not as efficient. Many find themselves furloughed, told to stay home until this is all over. And some have lost their jobs entirely and now find themselves unemployed. A huge amount of the stress we are all feeling over this outbreak is not only due to concerns about health, but also concerns about our employment.

I feel especially for college students that are graduating right now. The prospect of finding a good job after college is stressful enough at any time, but now especially many students are feeling great uncertainty about their immediate future. It is a stressful time.

Cries to “reopen the economy” are met with criticism that people are placing greater value on their paycheck than on human life. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or. We can (and should) be legitimately concerned with both, because this isn’t all about profit. It’s about work. Yes, we do work to earn a living — the scriptures teach us that the laborer deserves his wages (1 Tim 5:18). But our work is about more than a paycheck. It’s about our identity.

You and I were made in the image and likeness of God; and that means we are called to share in God’s work. This is foundational to our identity and foundational to our faith. The very first chapters of Genesis show us God’s work of creation, and at the pinnacle of it all he created man and woman and commanded them to share in his work; to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth, and have dominion over all creatures within it. We are called to share in God’s work of loving and creating.

Pope St. John Paul II recognized this in his encyclical on human work, Laborum Exercens. He taught in that document that human work has two dimensions. There is the objective, external aspect of our work: designing, creating, building, trading, measuring, testing, all the external aspects of whatever our task may be. But there is also an inner, subjective reality to our work. What is its effect on us? On other people? Is God being glorified in our work? Are others being blessed by it? Are we loving God and neighbor by our work?

This, John Paul II recognized, is the real purpose and meaning of human work. It is to do God’s work. In fact, it is an extension of God’s work. Through our creativity and our artifice, our study, and all our human efforts, we, standing at the head of creation as made in the image of the Creator, are exercising the special role God gave to us to share in his work.

One of the consequences of the Fall is that our work has become toilsome (Gen 3:17-19). And it is certainly possible to sinfully place too much emphasis on our work, prioritizing it over our duties to family life or our duties to God. But work, if properly ordered, is also a path to holiness. The Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection once observed that “our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.” 

There is a real spiritual dimension to the suffering of those unable to work because of the coronavirus. The loss of a paycheck is a real concern, yes. But many are also suffering from a loss of identity and purpose. And so we pray in a special way today for the intercession of St. Joseph the Worker, to restore and strengthen all those who struggle at this time. 

As a carpenter and a builder, Joseph worked diligently to care for God’s creation and he utilized his own God-given creativity to build things for the good of others. Let us also endeavor to use the talents God has given us to find ways to care for creation and those things we have been given responsibility over. As the foster-father of Jesus, God gave St. Joseph care over His own Son who entered into creation to become one of us. We, too, share in the responsibility and the great dignity of caring for Christ by caring for the members of His Body, our brothers and sisters in the faith, and especially in caring for Him in the poor and neglected. 

We may not be able to carry out the usual duties of our employment at this time. But let us seek out what opportunities we do have to engage in the creative and loving work of God by being responsible stewards of what He has given us, and most especially in the love we show our neighbors. Let us set our minds and hearts on the work God has set out for us to do; may he bless our efforts to serve Him by cooperating through our work with his own great work of love and redemption, and grant that our work may bear the good fruit of salvation.