May 1 has long been associated with workers’ rights. Since 1889, socialist and Communist groups have marked the day as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago, during which police and striking workers engaged in a bloody confrontation.
On May 1, 1933, the first copies of the Catholic Worker newspaper were distributed in New York City, marking the start of a long-lasting organization that to this day is dedicated to the laboring classes, the poor, and oppressed.
The papacy has given special attention to the day by associating May 1 with St. Joseph, the Worker. St. Joseph is the patron saint of fathers, carpenters and social justice. In 1955, Pius XII instituted a liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Already, though, Pius IX had declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II reflected on the significance of St. Joseph in his 1989 apostolic exhortation, Redemptoris custos, “On the Person and Mission of St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.” Importantly, Jesus spent his “hidden years” working alongside Joseph as a carpenter. As John Paul II writes, “At his workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of Redemption” (22). Consequently, work becomes an important avenue for sanctification. “What is crucially important here,” explains John Paul II, “is the sanctification of daily life, a sanctification which each person must acquire according to his or her own state, and one which can be promoted according to a model accessible to all people” (24). St. Joseph is one such model.
Jesus was a worker during his earthly ministry. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, discusses the significance of work in Jesus’ own life, as a laborer alongside Joseph and, later, during his public ministry. In the Gospels, Jesus identifies himself as a co-laborer with his Father in heaven and describes his disciples as “workers in the harvest of the Lord” (259). Christians can recognize the dignity of work by association not only with St. Joseph but with Jesus the worker.
Made in the image and likeness of God, write the authors of the Compenedium, human beings are co-creators with God: “It falls to man [sic] to discover the order within it [the cosmos] and to heed this order, bringing it to fulfillment” (262). In a powerful statement, the authors of the Compendium link human activity with the action of God from the beginning of time: “Human activity aimed at enhancing and transforming the universe can and must unleash the perfections which find their origin and model in the uncreated Word” (262). Seen from the cosmic and eternal perspective, work seems not only to be dignified but indeed a sacred act performed in concert with the Creator.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies
John Paul II, Redemptoris custos, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15081989_redemptoris-custos_en.html
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html