Work and Our Common Dignity: A Labor Day Reflection

“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Mk 13:55).

Christ Himself took up the tools of a carpenter, working with human hands for most of His life on earth. As we recall the image of Christ the worker, I invite you to reflect with me on the implications of this image for the observance of Labor Day. Each Labor Day, I cannot help but recall the blessed memory of my parents. My own father, who emigrated from Sicily at the age of 18, and my mother worked tirelessly to provide for me. They both worked long hours in low-paying factory jobs and sometimes unsafe conditions; they were determined people. They sent money back to Sicily to help relatives in need. Their work made a difference thousands of miles away.

Work is, in the words of John Paul II, “a fundamental dimension of Man’s existence on earth” (“Laborem Exercens,” No. 4). The Church, in reflecting on the dignity and purpose of human work, offers the faithful a rich vein of social teaching. Among the teachings the Church commends for reflection, criteria for judgment and action, I would offer the following taken from our bishops’ conference statement “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life:”

— The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.

— A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.

— All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security).

— All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefit, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.

These seem especially appropriate for our reflection on Labor Day.

Therefore, Church teachings rightly remind us of the value of work: among other things, work enhances our human dignity, it is needed in order to form and maintain a family, and it contributes to the common good of our local, national and global communities. Workers today, like my parents in their time, know the value of what they do in order to provide for themselves and their families and to contribute to the development of society. Yet they also know the difficulties and challenges their work can bring, especially the need to balance time spent at work with time spent at home with their families.

These challenges are similar to those my own parents faced. Yet amidst all of the difficulties, my parents lived with hope. They were not alone. The Lord was with them. They drew near to the Lord every Sunday in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Their Italian culture, like the Latino culture, and like so many other cultures bound up with the saving message of Jesus Christ, prized the importance of the family — the “domestic church” — and of the Church.

They were not alone: the Church was there for them, just as I pray it is in the 68 parishes and six missions of our fast-growing diocesan Church of Arlington, where many of our nation’s communities of immigrants live and work. These men and women work long hours, at times encounter misunderstanding and even hostility in their local neighborhoods and communities, and many experience the loneliness which comes from missing family far away.

This Labor Day, let us reflect on the value of work and on how we recognize and respect the dignity of all workers, including those who have immigrated to our local area. Undoubtedly we can do more. I pray that we are first and foremost a people of charity. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31).

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on Sep 6, 2007 and is courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald. 

image: Nancy Bauer /

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Bp. Paul S. Loverde is the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia.

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