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  • Writer's pictureOmar Gutierrez

Work, Salvation, and the Just Man

Today is the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, a celebration founded by Pope Pius XII in 1955. He founded it in part to combat International Workers Day, i.e. May Day, which was a celebration touted by the Communist Soviet Union and the every-day socialists of Europe as their “high holy day” celebrating the proletariat, the working class.


The memorial feast invites us to think on the social teaching of the Church. After all, the original document by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, the document that started the whole edifice of modern social doctrine, was about capital and labor. Its support for labor unions and for just wages were central to it and remained central to Pope Pius XII’s motivation for this day as he announced its creation to the Catholic Association of Italian Workers.


But to bring this day into the present, I’d like to point out one of the more precious things of Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching, namely his articulation of the virtue of industriousness.


Generally speaking, we tend to see work as a bad thing, as a punishment against Adam and Eve after the Fall. But that’s not true. St. John Paul II tells us in his 1981 encyclical On Human Work that


Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’
Without this consideration it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness would be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man. (#9)


We become more ourselves through labor. We work not just to earn a paycheck but because it makes us more human and thus ennobles us. And this is possible no matter the kind of work we’re doing, presuming it is not in violation of God’s law. All work, even the most menial has the potential to make us better versions of ourselves.


That’s the theology, but how we can look at this day spiritually speaking?


When we look at the just man St. Joseph we see the ultimate example of the laborer who sacrifices himself for the sake of a greater good. One must imagine a man (young or old doesn’t matter as everyone has their own image of St. Joseph) who had a much different “plan” for his life when he was betrothed to the young and beautiful Mary. Those “plans” were all thrown out the window when he heard her news, and the new “plan” to divorce her quietly was tossed out when the angel appeared to him in the dream. All of a sudden, he was part of a larger plan, the true plan of God to provide the world with its savior. And in response to that larger, arguably terrifying plan, he responded with faith.


St. Joseph also helped provide us our salvation. He made sure that body that would eventually save us on the cross had enough to eat, that the savior’s flesh was well cared for, his muscles well-toned, his mind trained in the specific work of carpentry. By means of hard labor in the shop, St. Joseph taught the young Jesus what it was to work by the sweat of the brow and so taught him the glorious and invigorating fruit of a work that made the Son of God even more like us.


There’s a lot more that could be said, but let me just end with this. I like to believe that on particularly warm nights in Nazareth, as the cool wind began to sweep and swirl around their village, Jesus and St. Joseph went onto the roof of their home to escape the heat inside the house. The two of them laying down on the roof, I like to believe that St. Joseph would have tucked his wood-hardened hands underneath his head while the young boy Jesus would rest his head on his foster father’s arm.


I picture them staring up at the sky and together, silently, wonder at the creation before them. At the end of a long day’s labor, such repose would have been very refreshing for St. Joseph the Workman, especially as Mary’s quiet song drifted up to them and filled their much-needed night of rest with dreams of many more such evenings.


Happy Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Happy day of labor to you no matter what it might be. May we all work out our salvation in the just labor given to us by God, and thank Him for it even if it's not part the "plan" we wished for ourselves.

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