Church Celebrates Saint Joseph The Worker

The devotion to St Joseph, the husband of Mary, and the foster-father of Jesus, has grown in popularity in recent times.

His is one of the most common names for boys and girls.

Today Joseph is the patron of families and of the universal Church, and is invoked in preparation for a happy death.

On May 1, we also celebrate St Joseph the Worker, a significant feast for the modern world.

In 1889, Pope Leo XIII, sensitive as ever to the growing secularization of the working classes in Europe because of the rise of socialism and atheistic Communism, had proposed St Joseph as a model for the underprivileged proletariat. The socialist movement had already seized on the popularity of the first of May, a day for spring festivals, and had dubbed it Workers’ Day.

In 1955, Pope Pius XII placed the feast of St Joseph the Worker on that very day – “to bring to the attention of all the dignity of labour, so that this dignity may become the basis for a social order founded on a just distribution of rights and duties.”

St Joseph, of course, was not an industrial worker, belonged to no trade union, did not resort to strikes or rallies, never had to negotiate for higher wages, insurance or gratuity. This is part of the world of work today. It is a complex world full of cunning and manipulation, even though the lot of skilled and unskilled workers today is much better than the time when Joseph lived.

For Joseph lived in a brutal feudal era, when exploitation and oppression were the order of the day. He was a “carpenter” by profession, as mentioned in the Gospels. Probably ‘artisan’ would be a better description. Matthew’s Gospel points to him as a “righteous” man and a sensitive one, as the episode of Mary’s unwed pregnancy indicates. Later events surrounding Jesus’s birth also indicate that he was reliable and trustworthy, able to take hard decisions at short notice, and take them successfully.

For the average person, work is a chore and a burden. Very rarely is it creative and exciting. Nevertheless work is our measure of the world. Hands give us a grip on things, and working with our hands, as Joseph did, allows us to grasp reality in a tangible way – life as it is, not as we think it should be.

Joseph the carpenter’s skills of measurement, fabrication, utility and practicality made him the kind of person he was. In the same way, our ways of work often define the kinds of lives we lead, the kinds of reality we create for ourselves.

Joseph the Worker may be our inspiration yet, even though so much in our world of work has changed.

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