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St. Joseph the Worker

Although we just celebrated St. Joseph's main feast day on March 19, he has another one coming up! In 1955, Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker to celebrate the patron saint of laborers and the dignity of human work. 

Though Pope Pius XII didn't institute this feast until 1955, devotion to St. Joseph as the patron of workers had been growing over the previous two centuries. The Industrial Revolution completely changed the nature of work for many ordinary laborers. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, and for most of human history, most people worked the land, often alongside their family members. Some were engaged in the trades, but usually on a small, local scale. Once the Industrial Revolution hit the western world, people were suddenly working in a very different manner, and it often affected their family life. Instead of working at home, men now left to work in factories, working long hours for low wages. With few regulations in place, many faced dangerous conditions, and child labor was rampant. Local artisans and tradesmen were often displaced because of the increased production of goods in factories. Though this system made goods more plentiful and affordable for the average family, it also upended the way people lived and interacted with each other.

In response to this rise of a market economy came the development of socialism and communism. While correctly pointing out some of the shortcomings of the new capitalist system, these economic ideologies suggested a reorganization of society that was completely anathema to the Church and human nature itself. They called for the abolition of private property, the family, and religion. Doing so would leave the state as the primary structure in society; your devotion was to upholding the state, and in turn, the state would be in charge of producing, distributing, and managing goods and services. These ideologies were quite insidious, as they claimed to be the champion of workers during a time when workers felt they were not being valued properly.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Church had firmly addressed and condemned both the excesses of capitalism and the inherent evil of communism, most notably in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. The Church, and especially Pope Leo, encouraged workers to turn to St. Joseph as a model. St. Joseph was a lifelong laborer. He was obedient to God throughout his life, not only when taking Mary as his wife and leading the Holy Family, but also in his daily work as a carpenter. We know that God saw this work as dignified because Joseph trained Jesus to follow in his footsteps, and Jesus Himself worked as a carpenter before starting His public ministry. For the average worker who was hoping to provide for himself and his family in a just manner, St. Joseph was the perfect intercessor. 

In 1889, an international socialist federation instituted May 1st as International Workers' Day (also known as May Day, which had origins in pagan rituals celebrating the beginning of spring). While the day was meant to celebrate the contributions of labor movements and laborers themselves, a benign enough cause, the day clearly had ties to the radicalism of socialism and communism. After its inception in 1917, the Soviet Union held official May Day celebrations, making it a major holiday, one which they hoped would encourage European and American workers to support the overthrow of capitalism in their countries. To affirm the dignity of workers but discourage the radicalism of these movements, Pope Pius XII adopted May 1st as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, hoping to replace the secular holiday among faithful Catholics with a more fitting observance. Since May is the month dedicated to Mary, Joseph's spouse whom he worked to protect, it made the dedication of May 1st to St. Joseph all the more fitting.

On this feast day, let us reflect on our own work. Do we do it humbly and obediently? Does it glorify God? Do we curb our own excesses in laziness or industriousness? Let us pray to St. Joseph for his intercession in our labors!

Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker

Composed by Pope St. Pius X

O Glorious Saint Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work in a spirit of penance for the expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my natural inclinations; to work with thankfulness and joy, considering it an honor to employ and develop by means of labor the gifts received from God; to work with order, peace, moderation, and patience, never shrinking from weariness and trials; to work above all with purity of intention and detachment from self, keeping unceasingly before my eyes death and the account that I must give of time lost, talents unused, good omitted, and vain complacency in success, so fatal to the work of God. 

All for Jesus, all through Mary, all after thy example, O Patriarch, Saint Joseph. Such shall be my watch-word in life and in death. Amen.


By Anna Neal

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