Sunday, September 4, 2016, is a providential date for many reasons. Not only is it a beautiful capstone for the Year of Mercy through the international celebration of the canonization of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but it is also the day that marks Labor Sunday in the United States, a day to honor the spiritual nature of work.
As Pope Francis punctuates the celebration of the canonization with a special Jubilee for Workers of Mercy, Archbishop Rino Fisichella of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization explains that “[i]f we take once again in our hands the works of mercy we can change the world.” Indeed this is true for the Corporal Works of Mercy, just as it is true for all work done in the service to our fellow man.
Understanding the Nature of Work
Writing about 180 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyons in this five volume work entitled Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) teaches us that “by his work and industriousness, man– who has his share in the divine art and wisdom—makes creation, the cosmos already ordered by the Father, more beautiful.” This is why God gave man, in Genesis 2:15, the great commission to work—to be a co-creator and fiduciary of the material world.
We are reminded in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) that we live in the world, and each and every one of the world’s occupations and callings and in the ordinary circumstance of social and family life which, as it were, form the context of our existence. We are called by God to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven, in the spirit of the Gospel, by fulfilling our own particular duties.
The late 19th and early 20th Century German Jesuit economist Heinrich Pesch explained the situation quite simply when he wrote that “work is the systematic application and expenditure of human energy to produce or acquire a good or utility.” As such, we understand that work produces both material and spiritual dividends. This is true whether the work is in a workplace or in support of our families and communities. Indeed, it is service to our fellow man that is ultimately service to God.
In ways like St. Teresa of Calcutta, we can see Jesus and serve him right where we are by simply choosing to serve others with a generous heart. We do this in the work that we do: in all that the work that we do. It is a radical way of thinking, but it makes all the difference, especially in situations that are difficult. Imagine seeing the “face of Jesus” in a difficult co-worker, in a demanding client, or in an impatient patron. It takes great strength of spirit, a deliberate view of life, and a toolbox of virtues—but it is our call.
Work of Mercy Is Work in the World
In her own words, St. Teresa said it best: “We have to learn to pray the work. To do it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus—then we are 24 hours with Him, and that makes us contemplative in the heart of the world.”
In these final days of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are reminded of the great commission of Jesus, himself, who instructs us on the kinds of work that we should do. In Matthew 25:35-36, we are given the seven Corporal Works of Mercy:
- Feed the Hungry
- Give Drink to the Thirsty
- Shelter the Homeless
- Visit the Sick
- Visit the Prisoners
- Bury the Dead
- Give Alms to the Poor
When we think of these works, we are often drawn to them in the context of servicing the poorest among us, and this is good and right. But also consider that Jesus gave this mandate of service to all mankind. When we think about our work in the world in its broadest context, imagine some of the possibilities:
- “Feeding the Hungry” could mean fulfilling our worldly responsibilities with humility, so as to witness to the message of love in secular languages that satisfy the deepest hunger of man’s heart when the only “gospel” someone may read is the witness of our life.
- “Give Drink to the Thirsty” could mean offering the mailman, trash collector or landscaper a cold bottle of water to say “thanks” for the work they do to make our lives better.
- “Shelter the Homeless” could mean being an advocate for just communities where fewer and fewer options are available for affordable workplace housing so that firefighters, teachers, bus drivers, hotel workers, and other service workers can afford to live in the communities that they serve.
- “Visit the Sick” could mean advocating for worker protections that afford all workers the decency to be able to protect their jobs while also caring for their families.
- “Visit the Prisoners” could mean working to shut down the insidious systems of modern slavery that exist in human trafficking for the sex trade, forced labor for migrant debt repayment, and the child labor of forced soldiers.
- “Bury the Dead” could mean continuing throughout life to honor and respect the sanctity of human life, remembering that all work should be in service to man.
- “Give Alms to the Poor” could mean that we exemplify generosity in all that we do. This could mean helping to identify and nurture the capacities of our brothers and sisters so that they will flourish– and through their work help others to do so, as well.
The Creation of Labor Sunday
The genesis of the “modern” understanding of God’s view of man’s work and responsibilities to the world came in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor). Through this document, Pope Leo XIII addressed a world in economic and social transition. Pope Leo’s writings were heavily drawn from the great pioneer of Catholic Social Teaching Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, whose work dates back some 30 years earlier.
Interestingly, although Protestants have no way of making aggregated and authoritative pronouncements, they do have a history in the United States of collaborative work on socio-economic issues. As such, the Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Stelzle wrote an influential book in 1908 entitled The Social Application of Religion. In the following year in collaboration with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Protestant community through the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (which in 1950 became known as the National Council of Churches) crafted what was referred to as the “Social Creed of the Churches.” This work ultimately served as the basis for what would become in 1909—Labor Sunday.
It was fifteen years after the creation of Labor Day, the US Federal holiday that on the first Monday in September celebrates the value and contribution of labor, that the faith community joined in solidarity to sanctify the celebration by giving witness to the spiritual aspects of work and labor. These Sunday sermons, beginning in 1909, focused on the economic issues in the Social Creed and became the basis of what would be known as Labor Sunday.
In its prophetic Labor Sunday sermon in 1929, the Federal Council warned of the social sins of income inequality noting that 33% of all of the wealth in the US in 1921 was owned by 1% of the population. This, of course, was just before Black Friday in 1929. In that same sermon, it was noted that “society treat[s] the needy in these times as if they were dependents, hangers-on, social liabilities.” The solution that was proffered was to “let their rights—health, unemployment insurance, maternity benefits, et al.—be given them. Let ‘the best minds’ reconstruct our life ‘on sound religious principles.’ Let there be a ‘Christian motive of service.’”
Unfortunately, the rich tradition of Labor Sunday has waned as the theft of American’s Labor Movement has tempered. However, Labor Sunday’s spiritual lessons still ring true. So with gratitude, we join our brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ who keep this venerable tradition alive as we celebrate the life and legacy of one of the most treasured workers in God’s Kingdom, St. Theresa of Calcutta.
The Lasting Legacy of St. Teresa of Calcutta
St. Teresa reminds us that “[w]hat I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God.” Father Pesch’s teaching on work makes this mandate clear: “The Law of Work is as all-encompassing as the Law of Death. All persons must work, and work purposefully until they return to the dust from which they came.” So on Labor Sunday and all the days that follow, let us look to Heaven to our beloved St. Teresa as a beacon of hope for the sanctification of all the work that we do. Like St. Theresa, may we be given the grace to see the face of Jesus in all those we serve. St. Theresa, pray for us.