Christian labor, whether in the workplace or at home, is a way to glorify God and evangelize the world by following the example of St. Joseph the Worker, Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre said in his pastoral letter released ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
“Jesus, with calloused and gloriously scarred hands, never ceases to say to us, ‘Follow me!’ as he leads us as laborers into his fields ripe for harvest,” Barres said in his 12-page letter, “Our Holiness and Mission in the Changing World of Work“. He reflected on the religious meaning of work, the possible mindsets and social practices that distort a true understanding of work, and what Christians can learn about work from Christ and the saints.
A Catholic spirituality of work has a missionary character, said the bishop.
“In every work setting throughout the world, sanctified work glorifies God and attracts people by its splendor and virtue,” he said. “We preach through the quality of our work, testifying not only to the importance of work well done but to the great work God accomplished at the beginning and is calling each of us to help bring to completion.”
According to Bishop Barres, “the Church proclaims the splendor of truth about human work that is meant to lead us through our labor for God’s glory and the service of others to holiness on earth and ultimately to eternal life.”
“Each precious human being created in the divine image must be given the opportunity to develop his or her latent talents for the common good of the whole human family,” he continued. “Likewise, when we recognize how working is part of human dignity, we become sensitive to all types of injustice that happen in the workplace or in society that frustrate this dignity.”
The bishop’s letter reflected on some of the hardships of working life.
“Our work often requires a type of death to self, when we need to get up early for a long commute, deal with bosses or colleagues who try our patience, or have to endure the difficulties of layoffs or unemployment,” he said. “But those can all be openings to the realization that the Risen Lord Jesus seeks to accompany us in our work.”
Bishop Barres’ Rockville Centre diocese includes much of Long Island. It is one of the most populous dioceses in the U.S., serving 1.5 million Catholics. Among his spiritual reflections in his pastoral letter, the bishop noted the importance of human work for the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass.
“Human hands shape and create that ordinary bread that is transformed into the Bread of Life. Human feet traditionally crushed the grapes that are transformed ultimately into the Blood of Christ,” he said. “The central mystery of our Catholic life and liturgy – the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Real Presence, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ – presupposes and incorporates the human work that prepares the elements that will be consecrated.”
“Indeed, all noble work performed by Christians united to Christ by sanctifying grace is presented on the paten at Holy Mass and raised up to heaven and made holy in Christ,” Bishop Barres added.
He emphasized the role of St. Joseph the Worker, who “was chosen by God the Father to be the mentor of Christ the Worker.”
“Christ learned how to be a carpenter at St. Joseph’s side and under his guidance. Christ’s understanding of work reflected St. Joseph’s patient mentorship in the craft of building,” said the bishop. “Like St. Joseph, Jesus lived his hidden life immersed in the working world. His thoughts and eventually his teachings were close to the everyday reality of people at work.”
Bishop Barres cited Christ’s parables which invoked the work of shepherds, farmers, sowers, cooks, servants, stewards, fishermen, merchants, and laborers. “Some of the most memorable people in the Gospels are described not by name but by the work they do, like the woman at the well drawing water,” he said.
Many saints are the patrons of different kinds of labor and are “eloquent models of how the Catholic Church views work as a source of personal sanctification and the sanctification of others,” said the bishop. His letter cited the examples of Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva, teenage computer expert Blessed Carlo Acutis, and St. Oscar Romero, who worked in construction at a young age before entering seminary.
Bishop Barres noted the role of work in family life. Parents teach their children to clean their rooms, to repair their bicycles, to do yard work, to prepare food, to do their homework, and to do other household chores. He discussed the kind of paid work done by teenagers, describing it as “key means to form their character” and a way of “serving others and making genuine contributions to the Church and the world.”
The Labor Day pastoral letter further considered the example of St. Joseph the Worker.
“From St. Joseph, we can all learn the virtues of maturity, reliability, responsibility, industriousness, integrity, initiative, self-sacrifice, self-mastery, teamwork, optimism, humility, contemplative concentration, and charity in our labor,” said the bishop. “He grounds us in the ethical compass of the Ten Commandments and the moral virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance.”
For Bishop Barres, the virtues of St. Joseph are suggested “in the quiet but indispensable labors of so many immigrants,” noting that Joseph too was a migrant, taking his family to Egypt and back.
“As he mentored Jesus, so St. Joseph desires to mentor us who are brothers and sisters of Jesus and therefore members of the Holy Family. He wants to train us in his virtues. He wants to instruct us how to live our spiritual fatherhood or motherhood to the full. We must simply ‘go to Joseph’ to receive his wisdom.”
Bishop Barres’ letter asked Catholics to pray for each other and for the whole Church, “that each of us may apprentice ourselves to St. Joseph and learn from him, as Jesus did, how to convert our daily labor, whatever form it takes, into opportunities to cooperate with God in the ongoing perfection of creation and the continued harvest of the redemption.”
The bishop said unemployment is not only an important economic problem but “a profoundly dehumanizing one that can deprive millions of a sense of moral worth through making them feel useless.”
“We pray for all those out of work that, through St. Joseph’s intercession, they may find dignified jobs by which they can develop their gifts, serve others and provide for their and others’ needs,” said Bishop Barres. He also voiced prayers for those who cannot work due to illness or old age, saying they can learn from St. Joseph “how to collaborate interiorly in the work of redemption by uniting themselves to the extraordinary work Jesus did on Calvary when the hands that used to build were hammered to wood.”
Bishop Barres reflected on the major changes in work life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who were forced to work from home, he said, found themselves experiencing “the work-life flow that would have characterized the holy house and workshop of Nazareth.”
“Those of us working among family members were able more easily to see for whom we were working,” he said. Those forced to work at home alone could sense the importance of having coworkers and customers present. Those furloughed might have learned about “the gift of work” and how so many people could be left jobless by a phenomenon that no one could imagine at the start of 2020.
The bishop’s letter included some warnings. Many philosophies and mindsets about work should be seen as “expressions of a culture of death.” He noted the history of slavery in the U.S., the mistreatment of workers in the industrial revolution, and the sex and labor trafficking that continues today.
“The underlying premise that our self-worth and human dignity are defined by our net-worth ultimately results in tragedy and self-destruction,” he said. “Sadly, many today are tempted to value themselves, not according to the judgment of God and value of their immaterial soul, but according to their value in the employment market.”
For the unemployed, this mentality is a cause of depression. For the employed, this can mean viewing work as “merely a means to a paycheck or to underwriting the few hours of freedom from work that they look forward to on the weekend.”
The workaholic, the bishop warned, “makes work a false god, a golden calf, an idol that can erode and destroy his or her marriage, family and faith life.”
“It is possible to work too hard and too much, forgetting that work is by its nature relational, tied to the love and service of others,” he said. The duty to keep the Sabbath holy is not only about Sunday Mass, because it also maintains a biblical practice of work-life balance.
Bishop Barres also criticized “unbridled capitalism,” which he depicted as a situation in which “profit becomes the only goal of an enterprise” and “monopolies distort the market by driving out competition at the expense of consumers, instrumentalizes both the worker and the consumer when corporate financiers seek money and power for their own sake.”
“Without a legal framework to promote and protect the common good and a foundation in virtue to foster respect for human dignity, capitalist forces distort the market economy, revealing a woefully inadequate approach that Pope Francis calls an ‘economy that kills’,” said Bishop Barres.
Several Catholic events were scheduled for Labor Day. These included Wilton Cardinal Gregory of Washington’s celebration the National Labor Day Mass at Our Lady, Queen of the Americas in the District of Columbia.
Pope Francis, in a June 17 video to the International Labor Organization’s World of Work Summit, cited his predecessor Pius XI, whose 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno “denounced the asymmetry between workers and entrepreneurs as a flagrant injustice that gave carte blanche and means to capital.”
The pope said the trade union movement must face the challenges of innovation and resist internal corruption. It must not forget its “prophetic” call to “expose the powerful who trample on the rights of the most vulnerable workers” and “defend the cause of foreigners, the least and the rejected.”