St. Joseph the Worker

William Bole

He put in long, hard days of work, and still didn't make enough to lift his family out of poverty. Yet, he took pride in the skilled work of his hands. He also knew when it was time to punch out and take the wife and boy to a festival. And despite the fact that he never climbed the corporate ladder -- or because of it -- the Church holds up St. Joseph as the very model of a working person.

May 1 is the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker. It is not nearly as popular as the other St. Joseph's Day, a solemn feast observed March 19. Still, Catholics who attend Mass that day will invoke the carpenter's name in asking God to help them "do the work You have asked," and do it "for the good of others," in the words of the opening prayer. On this May Day, workers of the world may be too tired to unite, but they can perhaps mediate on the meaning of it all at a time when many feel consumed by their work. They can do much worse than kneel down for a prayerful chat with the patron saint of workers, says Oblate Father George Roy, director of St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in downtown Lowell, Mass.

"We sometimes need help from the outside, in the stressful work we do today," says Father Roy, who preaches from an altar flanked by a tall statue of St. Joseph holding a saw in one hand and a carpenter's plane in the other. Inside the 129-year-old church are stained-glass renderings of St. Joseph under his various titles including patron of work, of family, of the Universal Church, and of a happy death. In one window panel, he is depicted at the workbench, teaching the trade to Jesus, with Mary looking on, broom in hand; below are the words of Jesus,

"My father has never ceased working, and I too must work."

Attendance there is not what it was in the 1950s and earlier when hundreds of laborers, many of them French-Canadian immigrants, packed the Church before, during and after shifts in Lowell's now-empty or converted textile mills. But the shrine does get a steady flow of visitors, with its doors unlocked from morning until night. The Mass at noon draws close to 100 worshipers on average. Others come for confession, or simply to sit and pray in the quiet sanctuary. When seeking help "from the outside," as Father Roy puts it, the workers are bound to call on their patron, the carpenter from Nazareth.

"Some people are out of work, looking for work. They're asking St. Joseph to help them out. Others are having problems in the workplace, and so they too look for help from St. Joseph," said the priest, who served as an Oblate missionary in Haiti for twenty years before returning to Lowell, his hometown. "I think we have to emphasize the dignity of work. Work was not above Joseph, or even Jesus. It was honorable for them to do manual work," said Father Roy, anticipating his May 1 homily. "We all collaborate with God in all the work we do. We work not just for ourselves, but for others."

Father Roy is preaching a theology of work, or what Pope John Paul II has called "the sanctification of daily life." The Holy Father sees the Holy Family as starring in this drama of human work and divine action. "Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth," the Pope writes in his 1989 apostolic exhortation, "On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church. If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus' work at the side of Joseph the carpenter," says the Pope.

His letter notes that work -- manual labor especially -- receives special attention in the Gospel. The Pope goes further to suggest that human work -- as exemplified by St. Joseph -- has broad currency in the economy of salvation. "At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus," Pope John Paul writes, "Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of Redemption." All of which explains why Catholics in business or any line of work might engage St. Joseph as the middle man, so to speak, in their transactions with the Maker of All Things.

The intercessory role of Joseph and other saints is fleshed out in a plethora of devotional books and guides. But what can he -- the "silent" saint who utters not a word in the Gospel -- say to the rushed and harried workers of post-industrial society? For one thing, he can vouch for the Catholic idea of labor and leisure. That's the spirit of a prayerful exchange in "Following St. Joseph," a collection of dialogues, prayers, and devotions written by the Rev. Walter Van De Putte (Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York).

In one conversation between saint and follower, Joseph says: "Jesus tried to tell you not to let work consume you. Rather, be a bit light-hearted about it. Leave room for meditation (for God) and for leisure (for yourself). In this way you can serve God better ...Work is a necessity of life, but it is never an end in itself. It is always related to God's plan for us, and it should be carried out with detachment and dependence on God." To which the follower responds, in a burst of realization: "In God's providence, work and play go hand in hand -- but always for the greater glory of God." For the toilers who have little choice in such matters, the Church commends St. Joseph as the patron of social justice as well as everyday work, and affirms their struggle for a decent wage and adequate leisure.

The faithful bring these and other intentions with them to the downtown shrine in Lowell, where the old cotton mills, now preserved as national landmarks, serve as symbols of industrial change and upheaval. In this quiet haven, every Wednesday is St. Joseph's Day. After each of the three Masses, the faithful offer a novena that includes this prayer:

"O glorious patriarch St. Joseph, humble and just workman of Nazareth / Help us in our daily tasks, so that we Catholic workmen may ... sanctify ourselves.

"Obtain for us from our Lord, O beloved Protector, / humility and simplicity of heart, love of work, and benevolence toward those who are our companions in it; / conformity to the divine will in the inevitable sufferings of this life, and joy in bearing them."

The followers of St. Joseph pray further for "a consciousness of our specific social mission and a sense of our responsibility ... Amen."

Since instituting the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 -- as a Catholic response to Communist-inspired May Day celebrations in Europe -- the Church has called on workers to place the carpenter in the vanguard of their prayerful intentions. As the beloved Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston said a year later, while dedicating St. Joseph the Worker Church as a shrine:

"We urge you, the working people of Lowell, to send your petitions to St. Joseph. A greater saint you couldn't have. We don't know a word he ever spoke or wrote yet, next to Mary, Mother of God, he is the greatest saint in heaven. You and I are all working people and from working families, and St. Joseph, a worker himself, will look after our needs, if we only take time to ask him."