A Lesson Not to Be Ignored on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

Two popes show us how St. Joseph the Worker, a simple carpenter, shows us the immeasurable worth of the simplest work

Workshop of Robert Campin (1375/1379-1444), Mérode Altarpiece (detail)
Workshop of Robert Campin (1375/1379-1444), Mérode Altarpiece (detail) (photo: Screenshot)

This year marks the 31st anniversary of St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos — Guardian of the Redeemer. It also marks the 131st anniversary of Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries (On Devotion to St. Joseph).

Being the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, we can take a brief look at what some great popes had to say about St. Joseph and work and how it relates to us.

St. Joseph “had the important task of ‘raising’ Jesus, that is, feeding, clothing and educating him in the Law and in a trade, in keeping with the duties of a father,” writes St. John Paul II.

Leo XIII noted that for Jesus and Mary, “regularly by his work he earned what was necessary for the one and the other for nourishment and clothing.”

John Paul II draws another connection to Joseph’s work. “In the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Church venerates the memory of Mary the ever Virgin Mother of God and the memory of St. Joseph, because ‘he fed him whom the faithful must eat as the bread of eternal life.’”

Then recalling the finding in the Temple where we learn that Jesus was obedient to them “respectfully returning the affection of his ‘parents.’ In this way he wished to sanctify the obligations of the family and of work, which he performed at the side of Joseph.”

Isn’t that a beautiful picture of Jesus and Joseph sanctifying work together?

In fact, John Paul II goes on, “Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth. The Gospel specifies the kind of work Joseph did in order to support his family: he was a carpenter. This simple word sums up Joseph's entire life.”

Furthermore, the saintly pope tells us, that obedience to his parents after the finding in the temple “should be understood as a sharing in the work of Joseph. Having learned the work of his presumed father, he was known as ‘the carpenter's son.’ 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.”

He noted “the Church has emphasized this by instituting the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1.”

And watch this extremely important insight and lesson for everyone, no matter who they are: “Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption.”

See that? The work we do is tied into Joseph, Jesus and redemption too. Unless, of course, we’re doing something bad or illegal or immoral.

Then John Paul II adds this next thought. “In the human growth of Jesus ‘in wisdom, age and grace,’ the virtue of industriousness played a notable role, since ‘work is a human good’ which ‘transforms nature’ and makes man ‘in a sense, more human.’” — quoting from his Laborem exercens (On Human Work).

John Paul II continues, “What is crucially important here is the sanctification of daily life, a sanctification which each person must acquire according to his or her own state, and one which can be promoted according to a model accessible to all people:

St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies;... he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things — it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.

Read that last statement again. And again. And once more for good measure. It’s that important and essential. Remember, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, his wife, St. Joseph is the greatest saint in heaven, far and above all others.


Another Look at the Same Thought

Leo XII put that same summary in an expansive way in his Quamquam Pluries. He said the rich will learn from St. Joseph what are “the goods most to be desired and won at the price of their labor. As to workmen, artisans, and persons of lesser degree, their recourse to Joseph is a special right, and his example is for their particular imitation. For Joseph, of royal blood, united by marriage to the greatest and holiest of women, reputed the father of the Son of God, passed his life in labor, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family. It is, then, true that the condition of the lowly has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the laborer is not only not dishonoring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled.”

Again, ponder that.

Then Leo XIII added:

Joseph, content with his slight possessions, bore the trials consequent on a fortune so slender, with greatness of soul, in imitation of his Son, who having put on the form of a slave, being the Lord of life, subjected himself of his own free-will to the spoliation and loss of everything.

Through these considerations, the poor and those who live by the labor of their hands should be of good heart and learn to be just. If they win the right of emerging from poverty and obtaining a better rank by lawful means, reason and justice uphold them in changing the order established, in the first instance, for them by the Providence of God. But recourse to force and struggles by seditious paths to obtain such ends are madnesses which only aggravate the evil which they aim to suppress. Let the poor, then, if they would be wise, trust… to the example and patronage of the Blessed Joseph, and to the maternal charity of the Church, which each day takes an increasing compassion on their lot.


The Summary From a Saint

St. John Paul II concludes his insights and teaching with this:

May St. Joseph become for all of us an exceptional teacher in the service of Christ's saving mission, a mission which is the responsibility of each and every member of the Church: husbands and wives, parents, those who live by the work of their hands or by any other kind of work, those called to the contemplative life and those called to the apostolate. May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen. Ite ad, Joseph — Go to Joseph for you work example.

A version of this article originally appeared May 1, 2019, at the Register.