Much has been made of the fact that Pope John Paul II is being beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday. The Pope who canonized fellow Pole St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and established the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday died, as Providence would have it, on the vigil of that feast in 2005.
Divine Mercy Sunday, of course, happens to fall on May 1 this year. If it weren’t a Sunday, it would be celebrated as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Pope Pius XII instituted the feast day in 1955 to counter the socialist/communist co-opting of International Workers’ Day.
The earthly father of Jesus labored quietly throughout his life, providing for Mary and Jesus and offering an example for all who work.
Pope John Paul II had much to say about work, not just in speeches and writings, but also in the way he lived and the battles he fought on behalf of others. Young Karol Wojtyla was a worker: To support himself as a student, he held jobs in a stone quarry and a chemical plant.
He never stopped working, even after he became a priest. He can truly be said to have spent his entire adult life as a laborer in the Lord’s vineyard.
And when he became Bishop of Rome, he looked back to his native land, where workers such as Lech Walesa sought much more than the “workers’ paradise” they’d been promised. John Paul knew there was something fundamental missing in the lives his countrymen lived under a communist regime. His moral encouragement of them reminded them of their God-given dignity and ultimately changed the face of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
“Through work, man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family,” the Pope wrote in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). Christ sanctified work because he himself, the God-Man, took up tools and worked, under the tutelage of St. Joseph.
We know, too, that John Paul was a man who spent much time in prayer. We can assume that before he took any action, before he performed any kind of work, he would pray over the decisions he had to make. Thus, we can say that he cooperated with the Lord — he was a co-worker with God. He saw his work as an extension of God’s continuing work of creation and redemption.
Most men and women spend the major portion of their day at some kind of work. It is here that we have a great opportunity to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Do we see our work as merely advancing our own goals? Or do we see ourselves as cooperating with God’s will for the world? How can we offer up our daily labor to God if it is done selfishly? Instead, can we try, imitating Blessed John Paul II, to be in conversation with God as we go about our daily tasks?