May 1 – Saint Joseph the Worker – Optional Memorial

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Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White

Besides the Virgin Mary, there are just two saints who have more than one feast day dedicated to their honor on the Church’s universal calendar: St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph. Pope Pius XII instituted today’s feast in 1955 in direct response to the surge of atheistic communism in the decades after World War II. Communism at that time was not so clearly understood as the dehumanizing, anti-man, politically corrupt, and economically anemic system that it later revealed itself to be. Communism helped defeat fascism in Germany and Italy, after all. It was a liberating force, not an oppressive one, in some countries. And, for Jews, the Soviet Union replaced hated Tsarist Russia and its terrifying anti-Semitic pogroms. May 1st, or May Day, was the day of the worker in communist lands. A day of rest, a day of triumphant militaristic parades, and a day of pride in all that communism had accomplished, supposedly, for the proletariat.

Keen observers, including many Catholic intellectuals, Pope Pius XII, and one future Pope then serving as a priest in Poland, knew better. They had already, intellectually, torn the mask from the true face of communism. Part of the Church’s response to the communist appeal to workers was to exalt St. Joseph the Worker on May 1st as an alternative to May Day. Not only was St. Joseph to be understood, then, as the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, but also as the patron of labor. He was the carpenter, the working man, who taught his God-Son how to swing a hammer and run a planer over a rough board.

Pius XII’s lifting up of St. Joseph the Worker was an attractive idea. St. Joseph was a true icon of human labor in contrast to the rough factory worker in an industrial plant in Moscow or the tanned farm hand threshing hay under the Ukrainian sun. St. Joseph did not have his fist raised in anger at his capitalist oppressors. He was not leading a mob to burn down his boss’s house. St. Joseph worked like a normal person worked. He was quiet about it. He did his duty. He provided his family with food and shelter. He didn’t see injustice lurking behind every corner. He most likely made excellent furniture and received a fair wage for his handiwork.

Work, from a Catholic perspective, is a source of dignity. It has to be done. A life of pure leisure is no life at all. Work, and want, and trying times are required ingredients for a mature, responsible adult. No work, no adult. Work is not pure punishment. The onerous nature of work is one of the effects of original sin, but it was not so in the beginning. Work in and of itself was not meant to be a burden but only became so due to the sin of our first parents. What is the theology behind this? God the Father worked and God the Son worked. When man works, then, he is participating in God’s own work. Subduing the earth is one of God’s original commandments to man. And subduing the earth cannot come about except through work of one kind or another.

It has been observed that the dash (-) on a tombstone is far more important than the years that are on each side of it. What happened in the time of that dash is more important than the date of birth or death. For most people that dash denotes work. Mankind works. All the time. And the will of God for us cannot be found outside of what we spend most of our life doing. If that were the case then we wouldn’t have much of a religion. God is found in our work. So if we do it well, we give him glory, and if we do it poorly, we offer him a shoddy sacrifice. The earth becomes our altar when our daily work is our daily offering. Constant, daily work was good enough for St. Joseph and for the Son of God. So it is good enough for all of God’s children as well. Work is a pathway to holiness, and St. Joseph the Worker stands by our side to encourage us towards the reward that our daily sweat and labor will earn.

St. Joseph the Worker, inspire all laborers of mind or body to work for their daily bread as much as your glorification. May our work be done well to perfect us and to make us participants in completing the creation you began in Genesis.

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