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Christians, the Gospel of Work and International Workers Day

5/1/2005 - 5:29 AM PST

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By: Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online

May 1 is commemorated as “International Workers Day”, or “May Day” in much of the world. I still have vivid memories from my childhood of seeing the armaments and military troops paraded down the Streets of then officially Communist Nations on this day. Back then, a false ideology almost swallowed up half the world. It positioned the human and social rights of workers over and against the perceived tyranny of a “ruling class.” It promised a “revolution” and a “workers paradise” through economic reformation. It failed. Rooted in “economism”, a materialist worldview that perceives reality predominantly in terms of economic distribution, it missed the mark. Materialist ideologies, no matter what name they bear, always do. This ideology was also atheistic. It connected any belief in the existence of a God with the “oppressor”.

In response to this lie, the Church, under the gifted leadership of Pope Pius XII, instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. In the Catholic Liturgical Calendar, had the date not fallen on a Sunday this year, today we would be celebrating, at least in the Western Catholic Church Calendar, the Feast of “Joseph the Worker.” Because of the primacy of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the Day of the Resurrection, all Feast days that fall on Sundays are rightly subordinated to that singular greatest event in human history. However, the need for an emphasis on Joseph the Worker is even more urgent in our day. Though the threat from that one failed materialistic ideology no longer looms as large, its root is found in a “new” false view that presents the world through a materialistic lens of consumerism and materialism, another lie.

In the nineteen nineties, Pope John Paul II addressed an assembly of the leaders of the “Catholic Action” movement in Italy on the theme of the “gospel of work”. That theme was one of the many contributions of his extraordinary pontificate. At the heart of his personalism, he proclaimed, as the Church always has, the true meaning and redemptive value of all human work. In 1981 he authored an encyclical letter titled “On Human Work” that received little emphasis during his life. It should be re-examined as we begin the real work of unpacking his tremendous legacy. The Churches’ insistence on the dignity of human work, because of the dignity of the human person who is the worker, was the original purpose of the Feast of Joseph the Worker. The Church, our mother and teacher and an expert in humanity, speaks the truth to the world. That is her vocation. Part of that mission is to position human work and the human worker within the very purpose and plan of God for the whole world and for every human person.

We live in an age that has clearly lost the deeper understanding of the Christian meaning of work; that work, redeemed by and joined to the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, is filled with dignity and redemptive value! This dehumanizing detachment of work from its true value - and the separation of its place as an intricate part of the deeper meaning and purpose of our lives - is not a new problem. It is a part of a larger social and individual malady. It is one of the bad fruits of the rupture of human integrity and solidarity wrought by sin, the rejection of God and His purpose in our lives.

In the “industrial age”, men and women were often reduced to mere instruments in a society that had lost its soul. A misguided notion of “productivity” over purpose and confusion over the right relationship between work and the goods of the person, the family and the common good, led to horrid conditions and false counterfeit ideologies. Now we live in a “technological age”, one that promised more “time” for leisure and other pursuits. Yet the industrial “man the machine” has simply been “refined” because the huge instruments of production have been reduced, sometimes to something as small as a chip. Men and women seem to be hopelessly “working” slavishly once again, as though work were a necessary evil, rather than a means for the transformation of the world - both within and without.

At the beginning of the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul writes: “ I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect “(Romans 12:2)

It will truly take this kind of a “renewal of the mind” to grasp the deeper truth concerning human work. This is the kind of renewal that Pope John Paul II championed and demonstrated. He called the world to embrace the fullness of the implications of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus ...

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