Why this feast of Joseph the Worker? And why St Joseph? The clue lies in the day on which we celebrate this feast and is rooted in the tumultuous history of the twentieth century. Man is the only one of God’s creatures who is called to work. In Genesis, what we just read, man is given dominion over the earth and is placed there to till it and keep it. Adam and Eve, as they are placed in the garden, have a vocation from the beginning to work. It is through their work that they fulfil the command to have dominion over the earth. This dominion is not to do as they please, but an aspect of the image of man; they are to shape the world and make it fully into God’s likeness, in partnership with God. The word, ‘to till’ is the same word used to describe the work of the Levites in their temple ministry. Work, from the beginning, has a strongly spiritual dimension. Work, in other words, does not come because of the Fall. With the Fall, work becomes more difficult; but now it becomes even more important as it becomes a part of man’s redemption. This idea has been very much a part of Christian tradition, for example the Benedictines – their vocation is very much about sanctifying work. In our own times, the Opus Dei movement immediately come to mind, those who have captured the sanctification of work as their main charism. But Opus Dei or not, this forms an important part of all of our lives, however and wherever we work, whether you’re male or female.
This feast was instituted by Pius XII in 1955. May 1st is of course popularly May Day, the international workers day. Its origins come from the industrial revolution of the late 19th century. As you know, this changed everything in terms of scale of economics, migrant populations, societal structure and what not. Between 1750 and 1850, the population of Europe doubled. But it was also a time of great exploitation. May Day was when a number of workers striked against inhumane working hours and the right to limit it to 8 hours a day. It was also during this time that the Communist Manifesto was published by Marx as they claimed the cause of the workers as their own, inciting class agitation against the rich in demanding better wages for workers. But the Popes could see that this new violence that was brewing was just another way of reducing man to the value of his work, rather than work being something that got value from man. In that, it was just another way that man would be and remain enslaved.
The revolution was the catalyst for the modern Catholic Social Teaching programme, inaugurated by the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII. Catholic Social Teaching on work is rich and nuanced (this is a good introduction). It is poised on a knife edge between those who would fall on the right or the left of the debate. It doesn’t take sides with the workers or with the capitalists; what it is concerned with is the dignity of man, who is the one who works.
Pius XII, as he consecrated May Day to St Joseph, was reclaiming the dignity and the spiritual dimension of work, from the Communists who had made May 1st their own. In St Joseph’s life, we see the dignity of work. He was chosen to be the earthly face of the heavenly Father of the Son of God, yet he never claimed any privileges for himself. He continued working and living a simple life. St Joseph’s virtues, which he would have exemplified in his fatherhood, are inseparable from his work, just as much as they are a fruit of his love for God. Jesus was apprenticed in Joseph’s workshop and would not be ashamed to be called the son of the carpenter (Matt 13:55). In taking up this menial work, St Joseph gave a new dignity to it. We ask him this day for his intercession, for those who do not have work, for those who do, that they might value the spiritual dimension of their work, and that God might use the little we do to renew all creation.