The feast of St. Joseph the Worker was first established in the 1950s by Pope Pius XII. In a time when Communism was growing in power, St. Joseph served as a powerful reminder of the real purpose of work. Work is meant to be participation in the work of God.
St. John Paul II, that famous champion against Communism, wrote Laborem Exercens in 1981, and this encyclical shed more light on the dignity of work for the Christian person. In doing so, it also gives us a better understanding of Joseph.
Work and the Image of God
In the beginning of Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II writes,
“Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work.”
From the moment of creation, we are made aware of God’s work. God’s work is creative and ongoing. God’s activity in the world doesn’t ever cease. He does not simply design the world and then step back to observe, contrary to what some philosophers believed.
Likewise, for John Paul, work is a continual and fruitful process for humanity. He links it to God’s command that man and woman exercise “dominion” over the earth, “…we must always keep in mind the biblical calling to ‘subdue the earth’, in which is expressed the will of the Creator that work should enable man to achieve that ‘dominion’ in the visible world that is proper to him.”
The Pope also reminds us that this command was not made after the Fall of Adam and Eve, but rather before. Even though the Fall enforced an aspect of “toil” to work, work was always a part of God’s plan for humanity.
Work has value because it is a part of that plan. “Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’,” St. John Paul states.
St. Joseph and Real Manhood
Joseph never utters a word in the Gospels, but the words said about him are impressive. He is described as a “righteous man,” and the very fact that he is chosen to be the earthly father to the Son of God speaks volumes.
Although Jesus had nothing to learn in his divinity, he partook in the process of learning through his human nature. In his human nature, Mary and Joseph had to teach him to walk, talk, and eat solid foods. And Joseph taught him how to do the work of a carpenter.
As the King of Kings, the Son of God could have chosen to be born into a regal family, one in which he would have been permitted idleness and rest. However, he chose the little family in Nazareth for his own. He chose a man of work — and manual labor, at that — to be his foster father.
In doing so, Jesus reveals to us the dignity of work. He himself chose to live a life familiar with manual labor, growing under the care or a man familiar with physical labor. There is a fittingness about the Word through whom all things were created, choosing to be raised by a man who continually worked to make things.
In this sense, we can say that Joseph truly embodied manhood, but also what it is to be a man. He showed what it was to be a patriarch, providing for his family with the work of his hands. But he also was a beautiful example of what it is to be man (i.e. human). He demonstrated the dignity of living a life devoted to simple, honest work.
Following the Example of Joseph
When I think of St. Joseph, I always think of my dear father-in-law, whose patron is Joseph. He is an example of a man who works tirelessly (in more ways than one) to care for his family. I also think of other men in my life who have done the same (even ones who are not named Joseph). I think of the strong arms and tender care of my husband for his little family. I am reminded of my Polish grandfather (a refugee from Communism), who worked in a steel factory for much of his life in order to provide for his family.
But I also think of the priests and seminarians in my life. I think of them waking up before sunrise, going to adoration or praying the Liturgy of the Hours for us. I think of their bleary, exhausted joy during Holy Week. I think of the moment when they lay prostrate before the altar at their ordinations, willingly giving over their entire lives for the sake of the Church.
Although St. Joseph is a man, work is not intended only for men. Work is intended for women, too. I currently work part time from home, while homeschooling and raising my three young daughters – and being their mother is the hardest job I have ever had in my life. I have had a lot of jobs, but none in which I have felt more fully what it is to work. Parenthood is an opportunity to truly practice loving dominion over God’s creation, guiding little people to a life of order and virtue.
But even aside from the work of motherhood, women have valuable contributions to make through their work. In the Communion of Saints, we are blessed with beautiful examples of working women. St. Gianna was a doctor, and St. Zelie supported her entire family with her lace making business. Dorothy Day (whose cause for canonization has been opened) devoted her entire life to a movement called The Catholic Worker, advocating strongly for the dignity of work in the Christian life.
No matter our vocation, we are called to follow the example of Joseph. The dignity of our work is not found in the size of a paycheck or in the recognition we receive, but rather in the opportunity to contribute to the work of God is caring for creation and practicing dominion over the earth. May we work with the humble love of Joseph.