The man who taught Jesus a trade – Memorial of St Joseph the Worker
In order to understand this memorial, we need to understand a bit of its origins. In 1889, 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.
Socialism 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. It is in this context that Pope Leo XIII pointed the faithful to Saint Joseph. 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 labourer who needed liberating. He was a family man who found dignity in work as he provided for his family in a humble way.
The idea of communism continued to gain support from many leaders around the world, and entire nations had succumbed to its ideas. In 1937, Pope Pius XI realised the serious threat that communism posed to the common good and called upon St. Joseph to protect the Church from the many errors of communism. He wrote, “We place the vast campaign of the Church against world communism under the standard of St. Joseph, her mighty protector.” As a result of Pope Pius XI’s words, Catholics fervently began to pray to St. Joseph, specifically under the title “Terror of Demons,” to combat the atheistic ideas of communism. They also invoked the help of St. Joseph in the cause of workers’ rights.
Finally, to confront the growing concerns posed by communism and its socialist philosophy on human labor and family life, Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955. It was his hope to foster a deep devotion to Saint Joseph among Catholics in the face of these growing challenges and in response to the “May Day” celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists.
Interestingly, 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 fulfils our human mission.
By work, humankind both fulfils the command found in Genesis to care for the earth (Genesis 2:15) and to be productive in their labours. Saint Joseph, the carpenter and foster father of Jesus, is but one example of the holiness of human labour. Jesus, too, was a carpenter. He learned the trade from Saint Joseph and spent his early adult years working side-by-side in Joseph’s carpentry shop before leaving to pursue his ministry as preacher and healer. Human labour 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.
As we honour 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 fulfilment?