Before ordination I held an interesting array of jobs in high school, college and even for spending money during the early part of seminary.
I learned about cars working at a gas station – a real gas station, with full service and auto repair. I learned organizational skills and some of the priorities people have when I coordinated sports teams for a Catholic grade school. I got to drive nice cars at an auto dealership and got my hands dirty and calloused working construction.
Very interesting was my time as a night club disc jockey and a bartender. Add a stint in the Navy Reserves, and you have an interesting journey toward celebrating Mass and praying the Breviary. Aside from jokes about hearing my first confessions when I was a bartender, some of my jobs seem only remotely preparatory for my priesthood.
That being said, every job which I have held has been an important contributor to the priest I am today.
Such is a starting point for a reflection on the value of work. With just a few days before America celebrates Labor Day, I can say that I am who I am, in great measure, because of the jobs I have held and the work I have done. Every pontiff since Pope Leo XIII has written extolling the value of work as a source of human dignity and a cause for nearly every human good.
In one of his earliest encyclicals, Pope St. John Paul II gave us a wonderful definition of work: “Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives.” (Laborem Exercens #1, Sept. 14, 1981) With these as the very first words of the encyclical, the primacy of their message must still ring true for us today.
Notice that this definition, at the core of what might be called a “spirituality of work,” does not have a starting point in transactionalism (how much money do I make) or functionalism (that I make or do something that is viewed as more important than what another person makes or does).
What it does focus on is the transformation of self in work and, by that transformation, positively impacting family, community and elevating society in general. Instead of pay or product, the start and finish points of work are having cultural and moral impact.
In 2011, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace spoke of every person’s “right and duty to flourish in their work.” Whether one looks to the dominion over the earth granted us in the creation narratives of Genesis (Gen 1:27-28), or to the lesson given by the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), Scriptures are filled with examples of the transformation that comes about because of the dignified pursuit of consistent, hard work.
As we approach Labor Day, we should step back and evaluate the spirit of our work, and the spirit which we bring to our daily work. All too often in the world today, more value is placed on the time we are away from work.
Many people feel that hobbies and avocations better define their individuality than does their vocation. For some, this is rooted in a lost sense of the value of their work. It now seems only the purview of country music to raise appreciation of the blue-collar workers in factories, or the dirt-covered boots of farmers. But as St. Thérèse de Lisieux offered: “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.”
Now we can tie things together for a spirituality of work. We have something to reflect upon when we step back from a day of work for a national holiday to celebrate our work. We should ask ourselves: Does our work, no matter how basic or complex, and our dedication to a work ethic, have a positive cultural and moral impact?
Does our work reflect a desire to flourish, and be transformed, in and for the community closest to us? Is our work marked by a spirit of surrender to the good greater than ourselves which it serves, and an outward expression of gratitude for the chance to do the work before us?
Make Labor Day an opportunity to ask these questions about the work you do, or the labors you offered over a lifetime. If you can answer “yes” to each, then you can feel joy that in a world where “slackers” seem to get all the attention, you, a true laborer for the Lord, are a herald of hope!