Saint Joseph the Worker, Pray for Us! {or: Happy May Day}

May Day! What's not to love? Spring... Flowers... The first day of the month of Our Lady...

And Communism!

A 1970s button celebrating May Day or International Workers' Day
1970s May Day button
photo credit: Washington Area Spark
CC BY-NC 2.0 (no changes made)
Wait, what?

In the late 19th century, international communist, socialist, and anarchist movements established May 1st as a day to celebrate laborers and the working class. Today, many countries throughout the world celebrate a Labor Day holiday that coincides with International Workers' Day on May 1st.

But in 1955, Pope Pius XII dedicated May 1st to St. Joseph the Worker as a counterpoint to the socialist and communist ideology behind International Workers' Day.

Side note: this co-opting of the socialist holiday and, as it were, baptizing it for the use of the Church follows a long and venerable tradition; the early Church often took pagan holidays and transformed them into Christian celebrations. (Which is certainly not the same thing as, for example, claiming that Easter is some vaguely disguised celebration of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.)

So. Why have a feast dedication to St. Joseph specifically as the patron of workers?  Is it just to Christianize the concept of labor and show the working-class that the Church really does care about them? Is it just a way to oppose Communism and give faithful Catholics an alternate celebration for May 1st?

Or is it something deeper? Something that, perhaps, goes all the way back to the beginning?

In the beginning...

We all know the story of Genesis 1-3. In the beginning God created the world and everything in it. He created man and woman in his image and likeness, and he placed them in the garden. But the serpent showed up, and Adam and Eve gave in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. As a result, they were exiled from their easy life in paradise. Instead of their perfect, endless life in the garden they faced a life of suffering and, ultimately, death. Because of sin we have pain, suffering, and death. Because of sin we must "toil" for our food (see Genesis 3:17-19).


Well, mostly.

The primordial vocation of work

Prior to Adam and Eve's sin, there was no suffering or death. They experienced no sorrow in the garden. But they did work. 

When God placed Adam in the garden he commanded him "to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15) God "planted a garden in Eden" (Genesis 2:8), but it still required the work of man. Even before the Fall, mankind had to work. Why? Precisely because we are created in the image and likeness of God.

God chose to make mankind in his image and likeness. This means that we are his sons and daughters (the next time the phrase "image and likeness" is used in Genesis is in 5:3, describing the relationship between Adam and his son Seth). 

God entrusted mankind with the stewardship of creation. He has created each of us to share in his magnificent work of creation. Because of this, there is an inherent dignity and value in work.It means that we have an intellect and will, so that we can know and love in imitation of God who is all knowing and is Love himself. 

But it also means that God, the creator and ruler of all creation, entrusted mankind with the stewardship of creation, as we see when Adam is given the authority to name the animals in Genesis 2:19-20.

God has created us to share in his magnificent work of creation. There is an inherent dignity and value in work that relates directly to what it means to be human. But when human nature was damaged by that first sin in the garden, one of the consequences was that work would no longer always be the gift it was intended to be. Hence:

"Cursed is the ground because of you; 
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; 
and you shall eat the plants of the field. 
In the sweat of your face 
you shall eat bread 
till you return to the ground, 
for out of it you were taken; 
you are dust, 
and to dust you shall return." 
--Genesis 3:17-19

A punishment that heals

Work is not a curse of the Fall. But work that does not bring forth its intended fruit, work that is burdensome and toilsome, work that wears us down instead of fulfilling us--this is a result of the disorder brought about by our first parents' sin.

However, the very consequences of the Fall "embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin" (CCC 1609). Submitting to and persevering in toil and the sweat of our brow draws us away from pride and self-centeredness and leads us into love and the service of others. Work is still a gift from God, even though it often involves difficulties and sufferings that were not part of the original plan. 

And work is still inherently tied to the dignity of the human person. And so the Church continues to affirm both the dignity and the duty of work, as well as its potential as a channel of grace and sanctification (CCC 2427).

St. Joseph the Worker vs. International Workers' Day

So why not just go along with International Workers' Day? The Church teaches that everyone has a right to work, and that there is a great dignity in work. Why do we need to co-opt this holiday and make it something that is particularly Christian?

It is certainly necessary to recognize the dignity and rights of the worker, as International Workers' Day claims to do. And it is certainly true that capitalism often fails to do this, frequently exploiting workers rather than fully respecting their dignity and rights. 

But the crucial difference is that the Church sees the dignity of work as having its source in the inherent dignity of the human person--not the other way around. As St. John Paul II so succinctly put it, "Work is 'for man', not man 'for work'" (Laborem Exercens or "On Human Work," 6).

On this feast of St. Joseph the Worker, we celebrate the value and dignity of human work because it is done by human persons. Ultimately we recognize and honor the dignity of each and every human person--not because of what they can (or cannot) do, but because of who they are: individuals created in the image and likeness of God. 

We are all called by God to be "workers"--whether that work brings in a paycheck or not. Doing laundry, constructing buildings, washing dishes, performing surgery, changing diapers, discovering new solar systems, teaching young minds, tending gardens, running a business, creating art, vacuuming, serving food, writing--we bring the dignity to these tasks as sons and daughters of God. We do not derive our dignity from them, or from the money or recognition they may (or may not) bring.

Work is for man, and it is for every man (and woman, obviously). The Church teaches that every person has a right to work that matches one's dignity as a human person and that allows one to provide for one's needs and one's family. This doesn't mean that any person has a right to any job they want, regardless of qualifications, etc. But it does mean that unemployment is more than a merely practical problem--it's a human rights issue. As the Catechism puts is, "Unemployment almost always wounds its victim's dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family" (CCC 2436).

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us!

The Church didn't really choose St. Joseph as our model and our patron in the vocation of work--he was chosen for us. When the Word of God became incarnate he chose to spend 30 years living a quiet, ordinary life in Nazareth. And he chose St. Joseph as his protector, his foster-father, and his teacher. 

Jesus, the Son of God, placed himself under the protection of this carpenter from Nazareth. He apprenticed himself to him, learned from him, and worked under him. He lived his silent life of labor and love alongside him. We could certainly do no better than to imitate our Lord and place ourselves under the protection and patronage of St. Joseph.

And so we beg the prayers of St. Joseph for all workers, and especially for those who are without work, for those who are exploited in the workplace, for those who cannot work, and for those who are responsible for the well-being of workers.

Saint Joseph the Worker, pray for those who are without work, for those who are exploited in the workplace, for those who cannot work, and for those who are responsible for the well-being of workers.
Image source: Unsplash

Want to know more about what the Church says about the dignity of the worker and the right to work? 

This is a huge, complicated, and unspeakably important issue, and the Church has many beautiful things to say about it. I highly recommend the following for further reading: 


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