On the Significance of the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker

Holy Family, Father and Son by Corbert Gauthier (2002)

In 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted May 1 to be the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. This feast, which perhaps intentionally coincided with “May Day” and “International Workers Day,” seeks to remind us of the spiritual dimension of man’s daily work. In holding Saint Joseph as the patron saint of workers, and in establishing this feast day, the Church reminds the world of the sacredness of man’s labors, and of his dignity in the workplace.

Ever since the beginning of his creation, man’s dignity has been inherently linked to his work. Genesis 2:5 relates that before the creation of human beings, “there was not a man to till the earth.” After Adam’s creation, God places the first man in the Garden of Paradise. In so doing, God specifically intends Adam to care for creation: “The Lord God took the man, and put him in the Garden of Eden, to till and keep it” (Genesis 2:5). God then charges Adam to subdue the earth, giving him charge over creation, and those in it.

Adam’s first task in the Garden was to name the animals:

…so out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19).

Just as God names Adam, Adam names the animals, which are entrusted to his care. In so doing, Adam accepts his role as steward of the earth, and asserts his authority over creation.

By entrusting creation to man, and giving him the responsibility to subdue the earth, exercising dominion over it, God affirms man’s dignity. God allows man to participate in His role as creator. Man then becomes a co-creator with God, for he shares in God’s eternal creative act through his work of caring for this new creation. Adam, while collaborating with God in caring for the earth, has been given the responsibility of being the steward of creation. In this way, God further distances humanity from the animals, for man finds dignity through work. Out of all creation, only man is capable of work, and only man is called to work. In the Garden, Adam realizes the importance of his calling, and views his labors as a blessing, for he shares in God’s creative power.

After the fall, the saving work of the Garden becomes burdensome to man. Once viewed as a blessing and a sharing in God’s eternal act of creating, and as an activity to be enjoyed, now becomes an object of pain and toil. The earth, now cursed because of Adam, no longer harmonizes with man:

…in toil, you shall eat of it, all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

Man’s responsibility of stewardship becomes more difficult, and his role and duties as provider more challenging. The earth’s elements, once in perfect harmony with man, react against Adam, presenting obstacles to his work by means of natural disasters. Because his affects (feelings and emotions) are disordered, man no longer sees the beauty of his call to work, and experiences the difficulties and stress, whether physical or mental, which his labors bring. In this way, man lives out his days until he returns to the dust from which he came.

That man experiences the hardships of work by the sweat of his brow does not, nonetheless, minimize the dignity of his task, nor that work is a good thing for man. Work truly is a good for human beings—our wounded natures, disordered affections and appetites, and associations of work with the pain it sometimes brings, make it harder for us to see why it is a good. Saint John Paul II reflects on the goodness of human labors, saying that:

 …work is a good thing for man—a good thing for humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adopting it to his needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.”1

Humanity finds fulfillment in work because just as the creation of the world was ordered to benefit all humankind, the world was intended to help sanctify human beings in their care of creation. When man collaborates with God in dignified work, man becomes transformed for he achieves fulfillment in his role as co-creator, and becomes sanctified by offering to God the fruit of his labors. Through his work, man mirrors the creative act of God in the world, ensuring that creation is ordered to the good, and to the service of his neighbors.

Work is a good because it’s ultimate aim is to give glory and praise to God. In fact, Saint Ignatius of Loyola says that man was “created to praise, reverence, and serve God.” By caring for creation, man leads all of the world in praise to God. In Laborem Exercens, Saint John Paul II reflects that:

…man, created to God’s image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself, and the totality of things, to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.2

Man achieves this mandate principally through his work, for by caring for creation, and subsequently all those in it, man leads all of the earth in a harmonious song of praise to God.

The end of all man’s activitiespraising Godinvites humanity to participate in God’s divine plan of salvation. Saint John Paul says that this should extend to even our most menial task: “awareness of man’s work is a participation in God’s activity and ought to permeate . . . even the most ordinary of everyday activities.”3 Jesus himself asserts the goodness of work by his labors, for he experienced the hardships of man’s daily toils. Christ “work[ed] by the sweat of his brow,” for as John Paul II reflects, Jesus “devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench.”4 By learning his earthly father’s trade, Christ blesses both the worker, and the task at hand. Christ demonstrates that anything that we dono matter how insignificant or burdensome it may bereflects our cooperation in God’s creation, and His plan for salvation, for Christ accomplishes the work of the Father on earth. Thus, Saint John Paul II continues, Christ provides a “‘Gospel of work,’ showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”5 Work itself, then, has a “measure of dignity” because man himself performs the activity of work.6

This is why human dignity becomes wounded when man is unable to work, or when working conditions degrade him. For this reason, the Church has repeatedly condemned communistic, socialistic, and utilitarian work theories or conditions, and has tirelessly defended the dignity of man in the workplace. When the value of man’s labors succumbs to force, and is driven towards a purely materialistic end, man’s inherent dignity, given him by God in the Garden of Eden, diminishes in the eyes of all. The person becomes a forced laborer whose sole purpose of existence is to serve the state, and its ends. Productivity now defines man, and his role in the work place. When the end of man’s work does not aim to benefit humanity as a whole, and to praise God, then human nature is degraded. Instead of work transcending man, completing him, he is reduced to productivity rates, becoming a disposable commodity. Work now defines who the human person is, and human dignity is reduced to what he produces.

Keeping the Sabbath is integral to recognizing the dignity of workers, for worship is oriented toward praising God. By keeping Sunday holy, working people imitate God who created for six days, and rested on the seventh. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks of the relationship of the Sabbath and the worker as that which causes man to understand his role as co-creator:

It is on the day consecrated to God that men and women come to understand the meaning of their lives and also of their work.7

Man was not made to work; work was intended for man, and in exercising this duty, man comes to a better understanding of himself. In taking a day of rest, man orders his week to God, the ultimate Creator, and so leads all of creation in praise to God.

Man’s work culminates on the Sabbath in his participation of the liturgy where all human work becomes sanctified, and culminates in the cross. The Liturgy, focusing on the sacrifice of the cross, is the opus dei, the work or act of God restoring creation. The liturgy transcends man, for as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, the liturgy as the opus dei is “the place where all opera hominum comes to an end, and are transcended and, thus, the place where a new freedom dawns.”8

At the Mass, the faithful unite their work to that of Christ’s efforts, and in so doing, their work becomes sanctified, blessed, and made new. This is especially emphasized during the words of consecration, for that “which the earth has given, and human hands have made . . . and the fruit of the vine, and the work of human hands” becomes the Bread of Life, and our spiritual drink—the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the liturgy, man offers to God the fruits of his labors, and his toils are sanctified, and begun anew.

Human work is sacred because it is redemptive. It is sanctifying for we are able to unite our work to that of Christ’s. God’s plan for humanity always entailed this redeeming reality, for work originated, not as a punishment for sin, but given to man as a good. Through his responsibilities, man sanctifies himself, and in so doing, sanctifies the world in leading all of creation in praise to God. Jesus Himself blessed man’s toils through the work of his hands as a carpenter, and by fulfilling his Father’s work through his public ministry. In everything Jesus accomplished, he did so in union with his Father. He teaches us to do the same, for in uniting our work to that of the Father’s, our work is blessed and redeemed. Thus, the daily toils of human beings transform them and the world, allowing humanity to actively participate in God’s eternal creative power.

From a Catholic perspective, May 1 entails much more than just celebrating worker’s rights. In choosing St. Joseph as the patron saint of workers, the Church reminds the world of the sanctity of work. Jesus learned the importance of work from Saint Joseph, who labored and experienced the trials of providing for his family. Without the spiritual element of work, man will succumb to its drudgery, and consider his labors as toil. By ordering his work to praise God, man experiences, in some way, the joy and blessedness of labor which Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden.

  1. John Paul II. Laborem Exercens. September 14, 1981. Vatican Website. w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Benedict XVI. Sacramentum Caritatis. February 22, 2007. Vatican Website. w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis.html.
  8. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. A New Song for the Lord. Translated by Martha M. Matesich. Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1996. p 77.
Maria Cintorino About Maria Cintorino

Maria Cintorino currently teaches at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia. She has been published in Crisis Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor’s “Catholic Answers,” The Imaginative Conservative and Dappled Things.