They say that necessity is the mother of invention but, as today’s feast of St. Joseph the Worker shows us, sometimes measures taken for practical purposes can point to deeper truths.
The memorial of St. Joseph the Worker is a very recent addition to the liturgical calendar. Pope Pius XII, who wanted to present a Catholic alternative to the Communist celebration of May Day, instituted this feast day in 1955. Who better to counter the self-proclaimed “vanguard of the workers” than a great Saint who was also a laborer, a man known for his patience and perseverance, but also his piety? As such, St. Joseph is also the ideal embodiment of the Dignity of Work. He shows us that work is not simply something we do to survive, or that connects us to a certain economic class, but is an essential part of our humanity, a way in which we act, at least in a small way, as co-creators with God (see St. John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens).
At the same time, we can see that while a worker may be honored for his work, he is not defined by it. Here the Catholic view stands in sharp contrast to the outlook of Marxism, where a working person’s primary identification is with his class, and he finds meaning by working toward the “workers’ paradise” of a fully communist society. Since the realization of the workers’ aspirations is the Greatest Good in this worldview, those who are seen as obstacles (such as members of the Capitalist Class) deserve to be extirpated. Western market-driven societies have their own false anthropology in the phenomenon of the workaholic, whose whole life centers on his career, and who sees no meaning beyond it.
As Christians, however, we see our primary identification as adopted sons and daughters of God: equal in dignity (regardless of externals such as class, sex, race, etc.), called to love, and all of us members of the One Body of Christ who are made in the image and likeness of God the Creator. What we do is an expression of what we already are, particularly when, as Christians, we dedicate our work to the Greater Glory of God: Ad Maiorem Dei Gratiam, as St. Ignatius Loyola put it.
Now look at St. Joseph. There have probably been carpenters more skillful than Joseph, or more productive, but none of them have feast days. We honor him today in his role of Worker, but that’s not why he is a Saint. He’s a Saint, and a great Saint, because he cooperated in God’s great work of salvation. Today’s feast reminds us that we can all aspire to sanctity, even humble laborers, and that whoever we are, and whatever we do in this world, what we do for the Kingdom of God and who we are in the eyes of the Father is what matters in the end.