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Christians, the Gospel of Work and International Workers Day

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 Christ on the entirety of human experience, including the unique dignity and goodness of human work.

In that message to the Catholic Action members assembled on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker he reminded them that because work "has been profaned by sin and contaminated by egoism," it is an activity that "needs to be redeemed." This worker Pope broke open the true meaning and dignity of all human work and invited us all to understand what he called the "gospel (good news) of work." He reminded those who had gathered that "Jesus was a man of work and that work enabled him to develop his humanity," He emphasized that "the work of Nazareth constituted for Jesus a way to dedicate himself to the 'affairs of the Father,'" witnessing that "the work of the Creator is prolonged" through work and that therefore "...according to God's providential plan, man, by working, realizes his own humanity and that of others: In fact, work 'forms man and, in a certain sense, creates him...." Finally he proclaimed that "work -- Christ teaches us -- is a value that has been profaned by sin and contaminated by egoism and because of this, as is true of all human reality, it needs to be redeemed"

John Paul the Great emphasized the need for all human work to be rescued "from the logic of profit, from the lack of solidarity, from the fever of earning ever more, from the desire to accumulate and consume." He rightly insisted that when the focus of work becomes solely the accumulation of what he called "inhuman wealth" it can become a "seductive and merciless idol." That rescue will only occur, he insisted, when we "return to the austere words of the Divine Master: 'For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'" Finally, he reminded the assembly that Jesus, whom he called "The Divine Worker of Nazareth" also "reminds us that 'life is more than food' and that work is for man, not man for work. What makes a life great is not the entity of gain, nor the type of profession, or the level of the career. Man is worth infinitely more than the goods he produces or possesses."

The Catholic Catechism summarizes the Catholic Tradition concerning the true meaning of human work



"2427 Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another.[209] Hence work is a duty: "If any one will not work, let him not eat."[210] Work honors the Creator's gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive.

By enduring the hardship of work [211] in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish.[212] Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ. 2428 In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work. [213]

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

2460 The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive."


A Catholic world view positions work in the broader context of two key Christian truths concerning the nature and mission of Jesus and therefore the existential purpose of those who, through Baptism, now live their lives in Him. In so doing, it also brings insights into the deeper meaning and value of all human work. The first truth is the foundational Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God became a human person! The dignity of this God become man gives dignity to all work. In fact, the "end" (in the philosophical sense of "goal") of all work is the elevation and transformation of the human person.

The early Church Father Irenaeus, reflecting on the profound implications of the Incarnation, expressed it thus: "Whatever was not assumed was not healed!" In other words, the entirety of our human experience was assumed by Jesus--yet without sin (see Hebrews 4:15). Thus, human work is forever transformed in Him! The Son of God worked. As a child he learned from Joseph, the Worker, the goodness and dignity of work. He worked with His hands. He broke a sweat, got dirty and experienced tedium at times. Certainly, He who knew no sin was not suffering its punishment! Work and sweat are not punishment. Because Jesus was in a continual communion of love with His Heavenly Father, in His human work, He models for each of us the "good news", the "gospel of work". The same relationship He had with the Father we now have with the Father. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus brings us into communion with the Father. We who are joined to Him in Baptism do all of our work "in Him".

Though there is biblical support that the toil and drudgery or "sweat" of work was connected to the fracture in the order of the universe which was occasioned by sin (see Gen 3:19), work is not the punishment for sin. Our first parents worked before the separation occasioned by their errant exercise of freedom. It is the separation from God that changed everything. For the believer, work can be redemptive. Jesus viewed his entire life and mission as work. He was always doing the "work" of the One who sent Him (John 9:3-4). So should we.

The second key Christian truth that should affect our view of work is the foundational doctrine of redemption and salvation in Jesus Christ.

The early Christians would not embrace the personal pietism of many of their brethren today. They truly understood the deeper meaning of work. In fact, even their early worship became known as "liturgy" which literally meant the "work" of the Church. The world was not a place to be avoided--it was their workshop! They were there to bring all of its inhabitants to Baptism and inclusion in Christ and to prepare it for His return.

There is a fullness and depth to the redemption Jesus accomplished through His life, death and resurrection that continues to unfold in time. The Paschal mystery began a process of transformation--not only in His followers, but also in the very cosmos created through Him and for Him... and now being redeemed in Him.

The work of His redemption continues now through His Church. That Church, His Body, is now placed in that creation. The work of that Church work not only includes proclaiming the fullness of salvation and transformation (including a resurrected body) for all the baptized who persevere in Him, but issuing and invitation to all men and women to participate, even now, in ushering in the new heaven and new earth in a transformed creation! The unfolding of all of this work is a part of what St. Paul calls a "plan" and a "mystery", to bring all things together under heaven and on earth in Him (e.g. Eph 1: 9-10).

The letters to the early Christian communities (e.g. Ephesians, Romans, Colossians, Corinthians, etc.) reveal a Christian faith far more expansive and inclusive than much of what bears that name in some Christian circles today. The classical Christian worldview flowed from a decidedly Christian anthropology (understanding of the nature of man); an organic and dynamic ecclesiology (understanding of the nature and mission of the Church); and a Christian cosmology (understanding of what will come of the entire cosmos--the created order!) which brought a profound meaning to all human work.

This worldview was founded upon an understanding that the redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ was not only about "getting saved" - as if that meant escaping the "stuff"" of the struggle that is ordinary human existence. To the contrary, what changes through the dynamic reality of Christian conversion (which is an ongoing process) is the human person and therefore his/her relationship to everything and everyone. We then transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and super-naturalize the natural. Contrary to the bizarre claims of some best selling books purporting to show us the future of the world, we are not getting pulled out of the created order, by somehow "getting raptured" as if that meant escaping from this "big, bad" world. Rather, we are the Lord's hands and feet, if you will, now marching toward His return, and participating in a re-creation, in Him, of the entirety of creation. The Church is a central part of the continuing work of re-creation in Christ.

St Paul explained this clear teaching in his beautiful letter to the Colossians. All things were created in Him (see Col 1:15-20), and are being re-created and redeemed in and through Him as His work continues through His Body, the Church, of which we are members. "All things" are to be re-created in a new heaven and a new earth in the fullness of time. Thus, the Christian's "work" is an invitation to participate in that extraordinary plan. No matter what we are doing we are to "do it as unto the Lord" (see Col 3). Work is a true participation in both the creative and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. If we are "converted", having our minds renewed, we can begin to understand that work changes the world, both within us and around us.

That means all work--not just the "spiritual stuff." Remember, God Incarnate did not just do the "spiritual stuff." All human work not only sanctifies us, but also changes the world. Again, it is St. Paul who captured the hope of all creation when, in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans, he reminded us that all of creation "groans" for the full revelation of the sons and daughters of God. This Christian vision of human work and the human worker is genuinely revolutionary. It promises that we can have a new relationship to the entire created order - beginning now- because we live in the Son, through whom and for whom, it was all created. It is bold enough to proclaim that our real, human work continues the creative and redemptive work of the One who fashioned it all!

That is why Pope John Paul II called this message a "gospel of work". The word "gospel" means "good news." Over two millennia, the mission of Jesus has continued through His Body on earth, His Church. He has entrusted the work of that mission to all men and women who accept the invitation to empty themselves - of themselves - in order to be filled with the very life of God and bring that life to a God starved modern age. That is why the Church will never let events like "International Workers Day" pass by without speaking truth to the Nations.

By holding up the example of St Joseph the Worker, she symbolically proclaims the only truly revolutionary message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Man of work and the Hope of all nations.


Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond Virginia. He is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate. Deacon Fournier is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is an author whose eighth book, "The Prayer of Mary" will be in book stores this summer. He serves as the Senior Editor of Catholic Online and a contributing editor of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports.


Third Millennium, LLC VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580




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