Each year on May 1, the Catholic faithful celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph the Worker. This feast day, instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955, was meant to provide downtrodden laborers with a spiritual patron, as well as an alternative to the communist labor agitation that was prevalent at the time. The Catholic faith has a great heritage of honoring and celebrating labor and laborers. Because of that, this feast day offers us an opportunity, and a great responsibility, to build a robust and life-giving culture through laborers and their work. We must continue to take up that clarion call, even in the twenty-first century.
The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker was placed on May 1 specifically as an alternative to May Day, which was established in the 1880s by the International Workers of the World (IWW), a communist labor union. Their purpose was to provide laborers a break from the drudgery of their jobs, and to create space to advocate for fairer working conditions. There were many instances, however, of those rallies creating social strife and turning violent. The IWW agitated laborers with slogans like “Workingmen to Arms!” and “One pound of dynamite is better than a bushel of ballots!” For many years, fist fights, gun shots, and explosions pockmarked American cities each year in early May. These were radical, even deadly responses to contemporary labor conditions. They were not the responses that would lead to true and lasting peace or a healthy culture. Pius XII knew this and presented the example of Saint Joseph as a much better guide for bringing about what exploited laborers needed.
Since the late nineteenth century, the same communist labor unions also spread the “atrocious slander” that the Catholic faith stood “as an ally of capitalism against the laborers” (Pius XII’s address on May 1, 1955). That was the specific context for Pope Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum (1891), the first great social encyclical. Rerum Novarum presents a distinct contrast to the modern, secular understanding of labor. The human person is more than merely a replaceable cog in an ever-growing, never-stopping machine. Rather, labor is part of the fulfillment of the potential inscribed in a person’s nature, and a person’s labor has great dignity and creative power. The Catholic faith upholds and even celebrates the rights of laborers. Pius XII echoed that understanding by instituting this feast day.
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In Rerum Novarum, Leo also wrote about the prevailing “moral degeneracy” that he noticed in the world. He clearly made the point that ideological labor agitation is an accelerant on the sinful human condition, which is the primary source of moral degeneracy in any historical era. Leo’s teaching, followed by every pope since, presents the fact that laborers, and indeed all members of society, need to rely on a culture of life and respect, not a culture of violence and division, to overcome such moral degeneracy.
Just before he wrote Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII also wrote an encyclical encouraging devotion to Saint Joseph. Both encyclicals were penned for similar reasons. A devotion to Saint Joseph, Leo argued, was necessary for “the times in which we live.” It would be an antidote to the “depravity of morals” prevalent in that era. Finally, it was a way to restore faith, which is “the root of all Christian virtues” (Quamquam Pluries 1). In short, the Holy Father presented Saint Joseph as an irreplaceable example for those who wish to build culture upon the necessary pillars of faith, family, and labor. Pius XII knew this as well and established a feast day in Saint Joseph’s honor. The faithful in the twenty-first century would benefit, too, if we ask Saint Joseph to protect us from falling into a similar moral degeneracy in our own historical era.
Just over a decade after Pius XII established the feast day, the Second Vatican Council convened, and the Council Fathers remarked on the place of labor in the life of the Church and in the modern world. “By his work a man ordinarily provides for himself and his family, associates with others as his brothers, and renders them service; he can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection” (Gaudium et Spes 67). This affirms that human work is a centerpiece of culture. Work done well allows a person to provide for his or her family, which allows spouses and children to reach their full potential. Work done well allows persons to foster relationships and service, which will allow them to flourish and experience joy. Work done well allows persons a greater opportunity to lift up others in charity, which is the greatest social commandment. Each of these factors contributes to a robust, flourishing culture.
The Council Fathers also taught about virtue in the workplace, which is crucial for culture. “In business enterprises it is persons who associate together, that is, men who are free and autonomous, created in the image of God” (GS 68). Virtue is an indispensable condition for true freedom and autonomy. Virtuous men and women, who take virtue into the workplace, are the pillars of a robust culture. Saint Joseph is the example par excellence of a man who is “free and autonomous” in his work and in building culture. After all, we read in Sacred Scripture that he was “a righteous man.” Righteousness, namely, a right relationship with God, is a first necessary condition for virtue. Saint Joseph surely brought his righteousness and virtue to all of his labors and economic interactions, and we do well to imitate him as we go about our work and building our culture.
How shall we celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph the Worker in 2020? The very first thing that we can do is to pray, asking Saint Joseph’s intercession for anyone and everyone who has become unemployed or underemployed in recent weeks and months. The Covid-19 pandemic surely has negatively impacted workers in our economy, and we ask Saint Joseph’s intercession for their livelihood. Indeed, we ask this for all, whether or not Covid-19 is the reason for their troubles.
Beyond prayer, it would also be good to celebrate by building something. It doesn’t need to be huge or elaborate; it could be something small. Simply working with our hands to create something helps us to connect to God, who calls us to be co-creators with Him. Build a birdhouse or a treehouse, and build it for God’s glory. Developing such skills and making beautiful things will become the foundation for the Christian culture we desire to cultivate.
We need to begin our work on these developments and transitions now. In his 1955 address establishing the feast day, Pius XII said, “Jesus Christ does not wait for the way to penetrate social realities, with systems that do not derive from Him.” Rather, Jesus Christ sends saints—men and women of extraordinary holiness—who can help reform the culture. The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker is meant to be a recognition and celebration of the creative potential that is in every human being; a day to inspire people to build a great, life-giving culture; and a day to present us with an intercessor while we engage in that work. All of us, no matter the work we do, should look to Saint Joseph’s example, follow it passionately, and ask for his intercession along the way. This is the sure path to rebuilding and fostering a culture of life and respect. This is what the Lord expected in 1955, and what He expects of us today.