This Monday is Labor Day. The holiday’s original purpose was to celebrate the progress that labor unions had won for workers in America. Increasingly, the focus has been on all work and its contribution to our society. And for many, there is no consideration of these meanings. It is just a day off.
For the past 200 years the Church has expressed its support for labor unions and the rights of workers to organize. In 1891 Pope Leo XII wrote an encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor). In it he argued that workers had a right to a just wage that would allow workers to support themselves and their families, reasonable hours, rest periods, health safeguards, and a decent work environment.
Support for workers was re-enforced in Quadragesimo Anno, written by Pope Pius XII, on the 50th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, and in Mater it Magister (Mother and Teacher) written by Pope Saint John XXIII in 1961. Perhaps the strongest statement of support for labor, and for the rights of workers, was in Pope Saint John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, in which he spoke of the priority of “labor over capital.”
He said, “There is a need for ever new movements of the solidarity of the workers and with workers. The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for it considers it to be its mission, its service, a proof of its fidelity in Christ.”
The popes and various bishops and bishops conferences throughout the world have also written about the dignity of work itself. Work is our co-creating with God. He has given us the raw stuff of creation, but human beings use that raw stuff to build civilizations, including businesses, schools, hospitals, bridges, and works of art.
A story I have shared before is about the young boy who had a wonderful flower garden in the front lawn of his house. A minister passing by, stopped to admire it, and said, “What a beautiful garden God has given to us.” The boy looked at him and said, “Well, you should have seen what it looked like when he had it all by himself.” The boy was right. Together, he and God had created something beautiful.
On this Labor Day, we remember the great contributions made by organized labor and the great dignity given to each of us, in our own way, to be co-creators with God of this world. We celebrate without large gatherings and without fireworks on the river, but we still celebrate and give thanks to God for the gift that work is, especially when it provides a just wage, safe conditions, and creative expression.
–Fr. Mike Comer