Work and Saint Joseph


24 Apr 2024

Given the importance of work to our lives, it’s not surprising there’s a great deal of Catholic thought dedicated to ensuring justice in relationships between employers and workers.

Pope Francis describes St Joseph as a father who worked to support his family. The importance of work in our lives is emphasised in the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, celebrated on 1 May. Work is a central part of life, and workers are to be valued in themselves and not simply for their use to their employers. Pope Francis also spoke eloquently of the importance that work plays in a human life.

Saint Joseph was a carpenter who earned an honest living to provide for his family. From him, Jesus learned the value, the dignity and the joy of what it means to eat bread that is the fruit of one’s own labour.

In our own day, when employment has once more become a burning social issue, and unemployment at times reaches record levels even in nations that for decades have enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity, there is a renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which Saint Joseph is an exemplary patron.

For Joseph work was both a gift and a privilege. We can imagine that as a carpenter he was close to the earth, working with various materials with their different strengths and textures and with tools to shape them in all the challenges that each piece of work entailed. He learned a skill which he continued to develop through his life, enjoying the challenge and the opportunity that each job provided. Through it he was able to support his family and become known and respected in his village. The work was hard and, like all self-employed people, he depended on his next job. But his skills were a gift and so was his work. That is how we imagine him.

St Joseph worked in a society that consisted mainly of rural workers. In our developed and largely urban nation fewer people work at making things for people to buy.

Women and men are more likely to work at computers in large organisations, and see only a tiny part of the finished mass-produced product. Agriculture, mines and factories require far fewer manual workers, and artificial intelligence will replace many other jobs in transport, law and other industries. Women are consequently less reliant on men for support but are often expected to contribute to family income. Many are single parents.

Because manufacturing is so often mechanised and computerised, requiring few workers and privileging people with a higher level of education, work for manual workers is precarious. Many can find only part-time work without security. People who are unemployed live on the edge of poverty and homelessness.

The Feast of St Joseph imagines him working in a harmonious village community. Harmonious villages, were most likely as rare in his day as they are today.

Indeed, the date of the feast of St Joseph the Worker was chosen to compete with May Day, which represented work as a battleground between greedy employers and oppressed workers. The Feast commended an ideal, cooperative world in which workers and employers respected one another. Workers would have secure jobs and be paid well enough to ensure a decent life for themselves and their families. 

Modern Catholic thought about work responded to the 19th century revolution in working patterns when agricultural employment slumped in Europe. People flooded into cities to seek work in industries revolutionised by steam technology. The protection that workers had found in local communities, guilds and estates disappeared. They were forced to work long hours in dangerous and dirty workplaces for little pay. They were treated simply as disposable machines. This led to protest, to the formation of unions and eventually to laws that protected workers.

Catholic teaching on work holds that each human being is precious and has a dignity that must be respected. As with St Joseph we are not individuals who can be numbered and be given a money price, but persons who depend on one another for life and for shaping a society in which we can grow and live. Work stands at the crossing of the complex networks of relationships that shape us as human beings.

In the first place it is central in our relationship to others in society. Ideally, our work gives us satisfaction at joining other people in doing something that is worthwhile. We work, too, in an environment where we are treated justly and can contribute to society. Our work brings us into contact with very different people in our workplace, helps us to find companions and to make friends with people who are different from us. Our work is a gift we give to other people, especially to our families whom we help support, but also to our workmates and to our society.

Our work is also a gift that we ourselves receive. It helps us to grow as persons. We develop our skills, take responsibility for our lives, learn to work cooperatively with other people to plan and to solve problems, and to expand the horizons of our lives. As we accept more responsibility, we may be in a position to encourage other people in building something worthwhile. Work can be both challenging and rewarding.  It helps us to find purpose in our lives, and to grow in our respect for ourselves while also finding ourselves respected by others.

That, of course, is how work should be – involving respectful relationships, encouraging participation, being secure and safe, remunerating people justly, developing skills and responsibility, and helping shape a better world. That is work in God’s plan. Not something we fear, hate and seems pointless, but part of our lives that comes from God and brings us closer to God. That is how we imagine St Joseph found it.

For many people, however, that is not how they experience work. For them it is insecure, disrespectful, exploits workers and its customers or clients, and offers no scope for initiative or for developing skills. Many of these abuses of work arise when we see only one aspect of work: the financial contract by which a workers are held to work for their bosses.

Understandably many conflicts about work have to do with pay. Work usually involves an agreement of some kind between a worker and an employer. The agreement, however, is not just between two individuals. It also affects many other relationships – the families of employer and worker, other workers and society as a whole.

The agreement should respect the dignity of both employers and employees and benefit all parties. Workers and their dependents should be able to live decently on the contribution of the employer and have security in their work. Employers should be able to live decently and build their business on the profit to which workers contribute. Governments should defend the interests of the whole society by regulating minimum wages and taxing large profits. Underpaying workers and awarding employers and managers a salary grossly disproportionate to what the most poorly paid of their workers earn are a wound in society.

Traditionally people thought of work as something they left their homes to do. Activities such as washing, buying, child-minding, cleaning and account-keeping which take place at home have not been classed or paid as work.

In St Joseph’s time these activities would have been considered women’s business. That is still largely the case. Work at home is often seen as physically less demanding. Yet in developing nations work at home still involves walking for miles, sometimes pushing children in prams, in order to collect firewood, to buy food and to carry home heavy containers of water.

In developed societies today both women and men work outside the home. Indeed in families both often need to work in order to live decently. As a result more men are becoming involved in caring for the home. But why that work should be unsupported remains a mystery. 

As these last examples show, work is full of conflict and inconsistencies. The reason for this is that it involves so many relationships between people, institutions and the world around us.

The Christian approach to work of which St Joseph might have approved is not a magic solution to all life’s problems. It says that in all working relationships workers and bosses must see and respect each other as persons who are precious in themselves. They must then talk together to find just solutions to problems that arise, and have a special care for those who are doing it hard.

This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in Australian Catholics, which is also published by Jesuit Communications.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
Email this Print This Page