St. Joseph and the dignity of work

Many people are familiar with the feast of St. Joseph on March 19. This is an enormous holiday in Italy, where many Italians, as well as their descendants in America, eat delicious crème-filled pastries called Zeppole di San Giuseppe, often in the middle of Lent (Isgro’s and Termini Brothers’ Bakeries in Philadelphia make spectacular ones by the way). This year the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis was held on that day, one honoring Jesus’ foster father as the patron saint of the Universal Church.

However, perhaps less known is the separate feast of St. Joseph the Worker, recently celebrated on May 1. This feast is relatively young, at least from the perspective of Catholic history. But its development is a fascinating one.

In 1955, Pope Pius XII was disillusioned with the spread of atheistic communism and the increasingly icy diplomatic relations between socialist and capitalist nations which came to result in the Cold War. Daybreak on the first of May, originally celebrated by the pagans on Walpurgis Night exactly six months removed from All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), had been adopted by communist and worker parties in the wake of the Haymarket Affair in 1886.  May Day celebrations provided a focal point in which Marxist and socialist groups and regimes rallied to condemn the perceived excesses of consumer capitalism and to fight to redefine socio-economic structures and wealth distribution.

To combat what he saw as a distortion of the Christian vocation to dignified labor and of the right to own private property, Pius dedicated May 1 to St. Joseph the Worker. It became the feast most associated with “sanctifying” our daily workdays, and of offering all of the efforts of our hands, minds, and toils to God, even if unrecognized by others. Like the carpenter,  Pius argued, we ought to use our talents, humble though they may be, for the greater glory of God.

Pope Francis said the following on the feast this year: “The work [God does in creation recorded in Genesis] is part of the plan of God’s love; we are called to cultivate and safeguard all the goods of creation and in this way we participate in the work of creation! The work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ us with dignity, it fills us with dignity; it makes us similar to God, who has worked and works still; He Who is always acting.”

It is important to reflect upon how each day is not only an opportunity to encounter God in the midst of our employment or personal vocation, but also sheer unmerited gift. I once read a story years ago about the conversion of a simple launderer in a dry-cleaning business somewhere. I do not remember the exact context so I must paraphrase, but the image has always stayed with me. He said that over years of working in the business, he came to realize that those who picked up their dress shirts rarely checked under the collars to see if small stains had been removed there, where no one could ever see. So he simply stopped cleaning there to save time. But upon his conversion he came to believe that even if no human eye saw his corner-cutting, a Divine one did. And so he saw this small, extra, unsung step of diligently cleaning an area which no one examined as a silent path to holiness.

A good lesson there on the sanctification of work and one I try to draw to mind when I’m grading my 150th undergraduate essay of the semester, when no one would know whether or not I point out for the umpteenth time that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition (that is something up with which I will not put!). But I realize it’s part of my vocation and calling to help make each and every student think more deeply and articulate him- or herself more clearly, not just for my eye, but for their eventual careers.

Lastly, St. Joseph the Worker does not cease to intercede for us or serve as a role model once we get our golden pocket-watch and retire to the Jersey shore. When a member of the Society of Jesus is of advanced age and can no longer contribute in a palpable way to active works of ministry, the Jesuit directory lists his official position as “Ora pro Soc.” (“Praying for the Society”), a phrase I’ve always liked.

He, like us, is never completely excused from engagement with the world through the vocation of work, even if in humble and silent union of our sufferings with those of the Lord.  St. Joseph the Worker, also relatedly the patron saint of a Happy Death for tradition, holds that he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, continues to inspire us to make every step of our working lives, from their idealistic beginnings to their quiet twilight, meaningful and holy.


Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

About Author