May 1, the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, is Labor Day in Italy. On this occasion this year, Pope Francis observed how the coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to re-center work on the dignity of each person. Speaking of the exploitation of many migrant farm workers in Italy, the Pope stated, “It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected. That is why I add my voice to the appeal of these workers and of all exploited workers. May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern.”
This is not the first time, by any means, that Pope Francis has emphasized the dignity of human labor. In his Encyclical, Laudato Si, he reflected, “We were created with the vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.” Pope Francis elaborated how we need to take the labor to which God has called us seriously and to respect the right of every human person to labor as part of human dignity and value.
As we celebrate Labor Day this year, it is especially important for us to appreciate the value of the labor in which we are involved. That labor has come under different restrictions due to the effects of the coronavirus such as abstaining from our work or carrying it out in a different manner. Pope Francis’ observation that the coronavirus can be an opportunity to re-center work on the dignity of every person certainly holds true for all of us. As the school year begins and as we are involved in different forms of labor within our lives and families, it is important to recognize that our work is important for us, not only in terms of income, but also in terms of our identity as made in the image and likeness of God.
In his Encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens, Saint John Paul II set forth a “Gospel of Work,” reminding us that since we are created in the image and likeness of God, we are called at the very beginning of creation to share with God the work of building up His creation. He stated, “Determining the value of work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.” The words of Pope Francis and those of Saint John Paul II help us to appreciate what we do, and that labor is a reflection of our dignity as human persons.
There is a common error that work is the result of original sin. We think that if it were not for original sin, there would be no need for work or labor. Nothing is further from the truth. Labor is an original gift from God which, like many other things in creation, was adversely affected by original sin. This is why, after original sin God said, “By the sweat of your face, shall you get bread to eat,” (Gn 3:19). It is not work that is the result of original sin but sometimes its arduous difficulty and the waste that can occur through it. Work that is not based in God, not respectful of the nature of the human person, not carried out in love, or simply carried out for the sole purpose of profit, is indeed a reflection of original sin. Work that reflects the dignity of the human person always embraces its purpose in God.
The Book of Genesis introduces us to God through His work which is the creation of the world. It describes how God carried out His creation until He concluded it with its culmination in man and woman to whom he entrusted His work. Genesis tells us, “Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, He rested on the seventh day from all the work here undertaken” (Gen 2:2). Labor is an imitation of the very life of God Himself which is love itself. This is essential to our dignity as persons.
As we celebrate Labor Day this year, especially during the challenges of the pandemic, let us do so with a greater appreciation of our personal dignity as well as that of every person made in the image and likeness of God. May we appreciate our work and labor, no matter how it has been affected by the virus, as our participation in the work of God and in building His creation. The coronavirus has shown us the taint of original sin. However, the Resurrection of Christ overcomes sin and raises us to life despite the limitations we face. As Pope Francis urged, “May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern.”
A Blessed Labor Day to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
September 4, 2020