May 1: Saint Joseph the Worker—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of workers
Liturgical Color: White
Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth. The Gospel specifies the kind of work Joseph did in order to support his family: he was a carpenter. This simple word sums up Joseph’s entire life. For Jesus, these were hidden years, the years to which Luke refers after recounting the episode that occurred in the Temple: “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51). This “submission” or obedience of Jesus in the house of Nazareth should be understood as a sharing in the work of Joseph. Having learned the work of his presumed father, he was known as “the carpenter’s son.” If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter. ~Saint John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, #22
Every age has its challenges. Therefore, every age needs a role model to look up to and to help the faithful navigate the particular challenges of their day and age. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Saint Joseph was especially held up to the faithful who engaged in the daily toil of work to support themselves and their families with dignity and love.
Work was not part of God’s original plan for humanity. Recall that when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield…” Thus, working “by the sweat of your brow” is a consequence of Original Sin. However, we must not see this consequence as something evil, but as a means by which we now fulfill our human mission. Human labor has dignity because it is an act of obedience to the will of God and is a participation in the work of God, the work of creation.
The invitation to turn to Saint Joseph as the patron saint of workers emerged over the past two centuries as societies went through drastic social and economic changes. Through the eighteenth century, most societies remained the same as they had always been. The majority of people tilled the land and raised animals to provide food for their families. Some engaged in various trades: a carpenter, blacksmith, tailor, baker, or shoemaker. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, societies began to change. Machines were developed to perform tasks that had been performed by hand. Workers moved into cities to labor in factories of mass production, and many of the individual tradesmen were left behind. And though production increased, new abuses also arose. Child labor, long hours, unsafe work environments, and low wages were among the new problems. These problems especially affected family life. In response to these new societal problems, the Church held up Saint Joseph as a model for all to emulate.
In 1889, Pope Leo XIII pointed the faithful to Saint Joseph. Unchecked capitalism began to tear families apart as profit started to become the goal of work, rather than as a means of providing for one’s family. An even greater concern was the introduction of the philosophy of socialism, which was coupled with atheism. Socialism presented itself as a friend and ally to the worker, but it did so through objectively distorted means. It sought to eliminate religion, the family, and private ownership of property. Instead, each individual was to become a subject of the state, while the state took the place of God. Work was for the fatherland or motherland, not primarily to care for one’s family. In Saint Joseph, workers had someone to emulate. Saint Joseph did not work to get rich. He was not a servant of the state. He was not an oppressed laborer who needed liberating. He was a family man who found dignity in work as he provided for his family in a humble way.
On May 1, 1955, in an address to the Catholic Association of Italian Workers, Pope Pius XII took devotion to Saint Joseph one step further. He confronted the growing concerns posed by communism and its socialist philosophy on human labor and family life by instituting the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. “The humble craftsman of Nazareth not only personifies to God and the Holy Church the dignity of the laborer, but he is also always the provident guardian of you and your families.” May 1 (May Day) was chosen for the feast because socialist countries celebrated “International Workers’ Day” on that date. A Catholic feast, honoring the laborer in the person of Saint Joseph, was a fitting way of combating socialist ideology and restoring the dignity of labor to its proper place.
Though socialism and communism have faded in many parts of the world, they certainly have not gone away. Their philosophies continue to permeate many political systems. Unchecked capitalism also remains a threat to healthy human development and family life when the common good is overshadowed by selfish gain. The answer is simple: Go to Saint Joseph! We do not have to become intellectuals who comprehend all of the economic and political systems of our times. Instead, we must all turn to holy role models whom we can imitate. For the laborer and the family, Saint Joseph is a just man, a faithful spouse and father, a hard worker whose primary concern is for his family, a guardian and protector, an obedient servant of God, one who is humble and hidden from the spotlight, but faithful in all he does.
As we honor Saint Joseph the Worker, ponder your own call to engage in the dignity of work. As you do, put your work into proper perspective. What is the goal of your work? Do you work in an excessive way, seeking excessive gain? Do you grumble about your work and feel as though it is beneath you, holding you back from personal fulfillment? Strive for the virtuous way of Saint Joseph. Work hard to fulfill your vocation in life, and avoid excesses and extremes. We are made for love, for family, for faith, for charity, and for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. If your goals in life are anything other than these, then go to Saint Joseph the Worker and choose him as your model.
Saint Joseph, God gave you great responsibility in life, which you embraced with loving devotion and hard work. You found dignity in your labors as you sought to fulfill the will of God by caring for your family. Please pray for me, that I will always keep the right priorities in life, never wavering from my duty to labor, and never laboring in vain for selfish profit. I choose you as my model and intercessor this day and always. Saint Joseph, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.