For several years in my 20s I worked for the State of Connecticut. It was a great job, and its regular hours made it perfect for someone going to school at night. I also learned a lot through my daily interactions with the public, which were often very challenging. For the most part, I found my co-workers to be extremely dedicated and hard-working and they took great pride in the service they provided. There were, of course, some who did not like their jobs and who spent a depressing amount of time calculating the benefits that they were accruing for retirement. It was as if they couldn’t wait to be old. One of my co-workers, who was a nice man but who had acquired this bad habit, when I told him that I had decided to enter seminary and study for the priesthood, couldn’t understand how I could walk away from the state benefits. Then he stopped himself, considered the path that I was going to pursue, and said: “Well, I guess you work one day a week and they give you a place to live… that sounds like a pretty good deal. Do they give you a car?” The poor guy had developed a philosophy of work that saw it as an interruption to life, a necessary evil for survival, something to be avoided if possible. But as Catholics, we have a different perspective on work.
In 1981, John Paul II issued an encyclical entitled Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”) in which he points out that in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings in His image, He commands them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). St. John Paul II understands this as a command to work and he says that through our work, done in accord with the divine instruction, we reflect God’s action as Creator of the universe. But when work is reduced to a commodity, an object or action done merely as part of an economic exchange, something is lost. People can end up being treated like anonymous cogs in the machine of the economy. But the pope reminds us that work is not just economic action. It has economic consequences, but is primarily about the human person. Through work, a person shapes the environment around him as he is shaped by his work. Thus, we give glory to God through our work, and the inevitable hardships that we experience in work are transformed into a share in the cross by which we are saved.
I remember in seminary, one of the spiritual directors liked to refer to the seminarian’s desk as a kind of altar. As students, we were called to make our studies an offering to the Lord in preparation for the day when we would offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass. And that is true for all kinds of work, whether it be in an office, at home, in a kitchen, in a truck, in a classroom, in field, or in a shop. Work that respects the fundamental dignity of human beings is not an interruption to our lives or a necessary evil. It is an essential part of what it means to be human – the Incarnate Lord Himself worked alongside St. Joseph and learned the trade of carpentry. He desires to make us holy through our work.
These are hard times for working people. The pandemic has caused extensive economic damage and people are suffering with the consequences, which likely will linger for some time. Today we begin the nine-day period leading up to the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker (May 1). I ask that you join me in this novena either at home or by coming to the Church of St. Cecilia to light a candle at the shrine of St. Joseph. May those who must work to support themselves and their families not only find work, but also discover the inherent nobility of work by which we give glory to God and become saints.
Novena Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker
Joseph, by the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow, you supported Jesus and Mary, and had the Son of God as your fellow worker. Teach me to work as you did, with patience and perseverance, for God and for those whom God has given me to support. Teach me to see in my fellow workers the Christ who desires to be in them, that I may always be charitable and forbearing towards all. Grant me to look upon work with the eyes of faith, so that I shall recognize in it my share in God’s own creative activity and in Christ’s work of our redemption, and so take pride in it. When it is pleasant and productive, remind me to give thanks to God for it. And when it is burdensome, teach me to offer it to God, in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world.
O good father Joseph! I beg you, by all your sufferings, sorrows and joys, to obtain for me what I ask.
(Here name your petition).
Obtain for all those who have asked my prayers, everything that is useful to them in the plan of God. Be near to me in my last moments that I may eternally sing the praises of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Amen.
(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be)