September 2, 2004
About 100 years ago, a man from Paterson had an idea. As a result, on September 5, 1882 as many as 25,000 workers paraded down Broadway in New York City. They carried banners like the one that read “Labor Creates Wealth,” and then they celebrated—fireworks, picnics and now we have a national holiday. Recent research names Matthew Maguire, a machinist who then became the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, as the person who has given us Labor Day. We can take pride that a Paterson man is the Father of Labor Day. And we can take even greater pride in the meaning of the holiday and in the dignity of all the work we do.
While those workers were paying the first public tribute to the value of work, the machines of the industrial revolution were devouring the labor of the workers who had to toil in factories for sometimes 12 to 14 hours, six days a week. People had come to our cities with the hope of a better way of life. They had fled the farms. They were attracted by the promise of a secure job and a steady income. Gradually they woke up to the harsh reality of the industrial revolution. With time, they made a major difference in creating better working conditions for the laborer.
Just one year before the first Labor Day Parade, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII released his encyclical
Rerum Novarum (
On the Condition of Labor). This startling encyclical was a watershed in the life of the modern Church. It was a time of immense social change and deep social transformation. And the Pope responded. Leo XIII spoke about the recognition of human dignity, the protection of basic economic and political rights, including the right to a just wage and to organize associations or unions to defend just claims of workers and the right to private property as well. He had engaged the questions of his day in a dialogue with the teaching of the Church. The Church now entered the economic, social and political ferment of the late nineteenth century.
During the decades that have followed, the Church has not shrunk from her role in helping shape the social order for the common good.
Novarum was the first of the great social encyclicals; others have followed. If we were to take a quick glance at the Church’s involvement with labor, we would notice that from the time of Leo XII to Pius XI, the Church’s teaching centered on the labor question and justice within individual nations. But the issue is much broader than that. Some countries have economically developed much more rapidly than others. Some countries possess more wealth; others remain poor despite their natural resources. And so with Blessed John XXIII’s
Mater et Magister, the Church widened her view to international relations, racism, development aid and the conditions for world peace, including the arms race. Vatican II's
Gaudium et Spes, Paul VI’s
Populorum Progressio and our present Holy Father’s
Laborem Exercens look to the individual person and look beyond the industrial revolution, beyond the technological revolution, beyond national boundaries to the world community. The Church’s vision sees beyond the transitory nature of work to its essential value for the human person and the creation of a just and peaceful world.
There is always a tendency to categorize and to place different forms of human achievements on a scale of worth. In ancient times, manual labor was so poorly esteemed that it was judged unfit for free individuals and suited only for slaves. Certainly human work can be valued on an objective basis. Sweeping a floor is of a different order than performing a heart transplant. It is not so much the specific kind of work that is done that gives any work its value. Rather, it is the person who engages in the work that makes the work valuable. In his 1981 encyclical
Laborem Exercens, our Holy Father says, “Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work (1).”
The Church understands the dignity of labor from the revealed Word of God. The opening pages of Genesis situate all human work in its proper context. It is a fundamental dimension of life in this world. The sacred writer makes a major break with the great thinkers of his day. He refuses to see men and woman as mere servants, slaves of the gods. Rather, the inspired writer unmasks for us man and woman called to share in the divine work of creation itself. Immediately after creating man and woman, God shares with them His creative power over the world. He commands them to subdue the earth and have dominion. Man and woman are made in His image and likeness. Men and women image God in roles that are not identical, but complimentary, in ways that are unique and find fulfillment in the other. From the very beginning, man and woman are not idle spectators in the unfolding of God’s design for creation. They are gifted collaborators with the divine artist in the continuing tasking of fashioning a world where truth and justice lead us to the enjoyment of beauty and peace.
The Gospel has offered a deeper understanding of the very nature of all work. Jesus, the Son of God, spent most of his days on earth as a laborer. The gospels refer to him
ho tektōn (Mk 6:3). Most often this is translated as the carpenter; but it means much more. A man who bore this title could build a table or a house; he could repair a fence and even construct a bridge. He was a true craftsman. With simple tools, he made the world more livable and more beautiful. What a great dignity Jesus has conferred on every human endeavor. He truly embraced our human condition in every aspect and made our human life as we live it a way to worship God. Now the sound of the construction worker’s jackhammer along with the dentist’s drill, the gentle strokes of the artist’s brush along with the surgeon’s scalpel, the scurried steps of the first grader together with the strenuous efforts of the manual laborer alternate in a litany of praise of God that mingles with our hymns and prayers.
I recently met with three of our deacons and the Vicar for Deacons. They explained to me the Work-Life Ministry they have initiated. In 1997, Bishop Rodimer wisely gave his blessing to their endeavor. I was happy to hear about the great service they are providing for people who do all types of work. They have already been able to open others to the dignity and purpose of work by their seminars in parishes in the dioceses of Paterson, Newark, Trenton and New York. Once again something good is starting in Paterson.