St. Joseph the Worker

Saint Joseph the Carpenter, Georges de La Tour

In the chapel of the Catholic Information Center in downtown Washington, a statue depicts Saint Joseph the Worker, cradling the sleeping baby Jesus in his arms, while he himself wears an apron and belt bearing the tools of his trade as a carpenter.

The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, which we celebrate today, offers a time to reflect on the patron saint of workers and on the spirituality of work.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, celebrated his inaugural Mass on March 19, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, and he spoke about the special role of the spouse of Mary, the foster-father of Jesus who is not only the protector of the Holy Family, but the patron of the universal Church.

In his homily, Pope Francis said, “How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church?  By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans and not simply to his own…. Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will.”

Pope Francis also noted, “In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!” Our new Holy Father said that the faithful, loving service of Saint Joseph is a model for the pope, who must serve others, especially the poor.

In 2005 Pope Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, offered his first Sunday blessing on May 1, the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker.  Pope Benedict pointed out that Pope Pius XII established that feast day “to stress the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and the church in the labor world.” Pope Benedict underscored how essential it is in today’s world to witness to the “Gospel of work” described in Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work).

In that encyclical, Blessed John Paul II, who worked in a limestone quarry and in a water purification plant as a young man, emphasized the God-given dignity of human work and of workers themselves, and he also wrote about a spirituality of work.  He said that our daily work should present us with an opportunity to see how we share in the work of Christ, to see our work in light of the cross and resurrection of Christ.  Our daily activity, then, takes on a deeper and fuller meaning when it is seen as part of Christ’s effort to renew the face of the earth.

Saint Joseph was a simple carpenter whose love and faith taught Jesus important lessons about dedicating one’s life and work to the service of God and others.  Whatever our occupation, we have the opportunity to honor God through our work.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Saint Joseph showed us how our work can be holy.  A wood carving at Saint Peter Church in Olney depicts Saint Joseph working at his carpenter’s table, teaching the trade to a young Jesus.  Whether we work at a bench or with a computer, we can follow his example by making Jesus present in our work day and lifting up our work to God’s glory, following the example of Saint Joseph the Worker.