The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker – May 1
The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker is a relatively new one in the Catholic liturgical calendar, though feasts of St. Joseph are not. Celebrating St. Joseph’s vocation as a carpenter, a worker, dates formally to 1955 when the feast was proclaimed by Pope Pius XII as a response to Communist celebrations of a festival honoring workers on May 1.
It’s not uncommon for the Church to take non-Christian celebrations and give them a Christian focus. Celebrations such as Christmas and the Feast of All Saints, for example, have been set for times when non-Christian communities into which Christian witnesses/missionaries were entering were celebrating their own religious or civic feasts. Sometimes we say those feasts were “baptized” — a kind of shift in interpretation to give new meanings to old rhythms and rituals.
Reverence for human labor and an insistence on the protection of workers predated the Communist revolutions in the Soviet Union and other nations of the world. The writers of the Gospels noted that Jesus was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, and that He was also a carpenter. His first disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, home makers — the everyday, ordinary folk now celebrated as “workers” on May Day.
Pope Leo XIII laid out the biblical and intellectual foundations of contemporary Catholic social teaching with his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, subtitled On Capital and Labor, in 1891. From that first encyclical, through the 20th Century and into the 21st, the Church, through the writings of its Popes and Bishops, has insisted that the dignity of human labor and human laborers is to be respected and protected. No perfect social system exists – from communism through capitalism, the negative excesses of all have been critiqued and the benefits of all have been noted.
The Church insists that laborers are entitled to a fair wage. Employers have a right to make a reasonable profit, but not to excessive profits at the expense of the health and safety of their employees. Working conditions must be safe. The poorest of the poor must have a chance to live with basic human dignity and security assured. Those who are in positions of power must use that power to protect the powerless. Those with education must look out for those who have not. People of faith must speak on behalf of those treated unjustly.
Fundamentally, we are a family — God’s family. And we are responsible for each other. Each of us has our own “work” to do. Whether our work is to build bridges, tend the sick, educate the children, prepare the meals, or write blog posts, we each have a calling to work for the good of all and to build up the community.
On this Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, may we be aware of the work of great and small in this world, respect the gifts we all bring, and be attentive to protect those whose labors are least valued and respected.