May 1 is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. The warmer Wisconsin temperatures give us a taste of spring, new enthusiasm to do some gardening and, for the farmers, planning the right time to plant the crops.
My background began on the farm. As kids, we helped Dad as best we could with the chores. As we celebrate this feast of St. Joseph, I can’t help but reflect on the different jobs I had beginning on the farm.
As a seminary student, I had summer jobs and all of them taught me a lot about life, the importance of work and the laborers who performed the work. My experiences also assisted me in discerning what exactly God was calling me to do with the gifts and talents he gave me.
Of course, farm work was the foundation for me. The farm is an important dimension in family life and learning values and the importance of work itself. I also worked as an attendant in a gas station. That was in the days of pumping gas, checking oil and washing windshields. I met some fascinating people.
I spent one summer as a truck driver. Long story. I hauled “night crawlers” — yes, worms — for fishing. The route began in Hubertus, went to Canada and my partner and I delivered this fishing bait around the Midwest. It was interesting but not a lifelong career choice for me. How many “International Night Crawler Haulers” do you know? We are a rare breed.
I worked in the office of Catholic Family Life Insurance, now part of Catholic Financial Life. I was the assistant house manager for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre for a time, and worked as a psychiatric orderly at Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee. (The Lutherans paid part of my seminary training!)
In all these situations, I learned a profound respect for the various occupations and the people that spent their lives in this work. Many were energized by their work and saw the value. Some performed the work because it was a means to do what was really important for them. Their “paying” job gave them what they needed to perform their primary job, which was to raise and support their families.
For some of us older folk, we remember the TV sitcom, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” that aired from 1959 to 1963. Dobie’s good friend was Maynard G. Krebs, a “beatnik” who seemed to be allergic to work. Each time the word was mentioned, he would holler “work” and fall back in fear. It was humorous. All too often, we are tempted to do the same thing.
Work can become a necessary evil as opposed to how God asks us to use work. We are asked to use our God-given gifts as an expression of creativity, self-development and working to build the kingdom of Jesus through our labors.
The feast of St Joseph the Worker was established by Pope Pius XII in 1955 in what would appear to be a response to “May Day” celebrations, e.g., International Workers Day or “Labour Day.” This new “holy day” was initiated to be a spiritual support for laborers and a celebration of the dignity of their work.
This holiday was said to have been promoted by anarchists, socialists and communists as well as by others. In the United States, the celebration was a bit clearer. The day has its origins in the labor union movement, specifically the eight-hour workday movement that promoted eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest. This was an effort to achieve some balance in the life of the laborer.
The Catholic Church has a long history of pleading the cause for workers. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII published “Rerum Novarum,” his encyclical on the “condition of labor.” Numerous popes and dozens of others have promoted the cause of labor and the dignity of laborers, including the emphasis on the importance of labor in building the kingdom of God.
Each of us has a special and unique set of gifts used for building the kingdom. These gifts cannot be underestimated or regarded as unimportant. We all play a part and together the Kingdom is built, the Gospel promoted, and the love of God through his son Jesus Christ is experienced and celebrated.
Our labors are holy indeed and have a profound meaning. We can look to the modeling of St. Joseph as we reexamine the beauty and significance of our work no matter how insignificant we may think it to be.