The first of May is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. I have a sincere love for St. Joseph under all of his titles – Patron of Canada for example – but this one has been a particular favourite.
This year the feast was of particular importance for me because my employment situation has been tenuous, especially so in these last few weeks. So I prayed the novena, having seen in the past that St. Joseph always helps in obtaining answers to our sincere prayers. The very first day of the nine, I learned that one of my jobs would be ending (I had four at the time) and in fact my last day would be the eve of the feast day itself. Of all my jobs, that one I was hoping to hold on to because I enjoyed the work, liked the people, and it paid well. People often remark that God has a sense of humour. I have noticed that His sense of irony is also well developed. (So far no answer, but I await it with hope!)
Personal circumstances and the novena led me to reflect on how important it is to have work in order to feel good about oneself. In fact, the dignity of work is a key component of Catholic social teaching.
“We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work. […] Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work anoints with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked, still works, who always acts.” (Pope Francis, 2013)
I live in Niagara, where the economy is largely driven by agriculture and tourism. This area would really struggle without those two industries, and yet they pay the least. We rely on students to do the service work, and migrant labourers to do the field work. I work in schools, and see that certain vital roles are filled by lower-paid employees. I can’t help but think it is because we value those contributions less highly than others. Maybe that is right and natural – of course not everyone will earn the same amount of money, nor will one set of skills will have the same value as another. What really bothers me is the general attitude many people have to those workers and the jobs they do. I’m also bothered by how contract workers are treated by employers – a widespread problem in libraries, because so few hire permanent, full-time staff in these days of diminishing budgets. We’ve lost sight of individuals in favour of bottom lines – but that is a subject for another time.
Work – any work done well – is worthy. It isn’t what we do, but how we do it that makes it dignified. That we do the work, gives us dignity. There is an intrinsic good to work. We have the example of Jesus to follow, who laboured for 30 years before He took up His public ministry. And He learned from the example of His foster father, Joseph.
In Laborem Exercens, Pope Saint John Paul writes, “Jesus became ‘like us in all things, devoted most of His life on earth to manual work at the carpenters bench.’” He explains that man, “Through work… achieves fulfillment as a human being and in a sense becomes ‘more a human being’” and that, “work is always the action of a person, and therefor “the whole person, body and spirit” is involved in it.
Because the whole person, body and spirit, partakes in his work, we hope that the work itself has meaning. I think it is a very great suffering to have to perform work that has no real reason behind it, makes no real contribution, or is not creative in some way. A person in that situation would have to carefully his sense of self-worth, his innate sense of dignity.
Pope Francis recently spoke of the very great need there is for work for young people. Far too many are without employment, and therefore are losing hope, have no voice, do not participate in civic life. I believe there is also a crisis of sorts in that too many young people do not value work itself. There is a pervasive attitude of entitlement. To counteract that, we can teach our children and students the value of work: it makes a contribution; it uses our skills; it brings satisfaction; helps us grow in virtue (thereby avoiding sin) and thus holiness. Work isn’t only onerous – it can bring joy. It can be fun!
Of course we are more as people than how we earn an income, and work itself is more than a means of income. We do work around the home, as volunteers, in creative pursuits, for the Church, and in many more ways. If it is work you would not do, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the person who is doing it. And if you know a person who is without work, offer a prayer for them as well, that they may soon have meaningful work and adequate income.
St. Joseph, Patron of workers, pray for us.