May Day – Labor Day

Most of the world, except for the US, celebrates May 1 as Labor Day. Interestingly, the date was chosen because of labor struggles in Chicago.

The Catholic Church established today as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, emphasizing the sacred character of work. As the US bishops wrote in their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All:

All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principal way that people exercise their distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for one’s self. It is for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the entire human family.

Perhaps by providence, Msgr. George Higgins, died ten years ago at the age of 86 on May 1. He was a priest who devoted most of his life to the cause of the worker and to labor unions. He saw in work a real ministry. As he once said:

…The overwhelming majority of lay people… will exercise their ministry, their calling or vocation, not behind the altar rail or within the sanctuary but in and through their respective occupations, be they workers, employers, bankers, professionals, or what have you.

Some may think this is much ado about nothing. I do not agree. At a time when the church puts so much emphasis on the work of catechetical, liturgical, and other ministries within the church–and rightly so–we must pay attention also to those who work as Christians in what are sometimes denigrated as purely ‘secular’ tasks….

May 1 also marks the beginning of the Catholic Worker. On May Day, 1933, the first issue of the Catholic Worker monthly was distributed at the Union Square labor rally in New York City. Dorothy Day edited that issue, as she did many issues.

In that issue she wrote:

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program—to let them know that there are men of God who are seeking not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.

Sad to say, the social teaching of the Catholic Church is still, as one author calls it, “our best kept secret,” and it still does not always guide the lives of Catholics, including some “Catholic” politicians and even some church leaders.

In the first issue of the Catholic Worker,  Dorothy Day included this haunting “Easy Essay” of the Peter Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker, noting the need for conversion of institutions, including the church:

Christ drove the money changers
out of the Temple.
But nobody today dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple.
And nobody dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple
because the money lenders
have taken a mortgage
on the Temple.

Sharp words, that should touch our hearts, especially those of us who are followers of Christ and members of the Church.

Let us pray that all people may grow in their respect for work and for the honest efforts of unions to work for the rights of workers everywhere.

That’s the least we can do.

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