Pope Francis and the culture of hard work, May 03, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
May 03, 2013

Wednesday was the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, instituted by Pope Pius XII to give a Christian response to the communist May Day celebrations. Every year it focuses the attention of the Church and the world on the true meaning of human work, seen in the diligent labor of St. Joseph.

It’s a theme that remains crucial even after the collapse of Soviet communism.

Since we spend so much of our time on earth working, work is central to human life. It is also a crucial part of our vocation to holiness because it is through work that we not only serve others but form our character.

Few, however, look at work in this way: most view it as a necessary evil that they would love to escape altogether, rather than something central to God’s plans for our flourishing.

So this week’s feast provides an opportunity to focus on the true meaning of work.

This is one of the central themes in the thought of the man who became Pope Francis. In “El Jesuita”— the 2010 book-length interview released in English earlier this week under the title “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words”— he said that one of the greatest gifts his father ever gave him was to tell him at 13 to get a job.

The young Jorge Bergoglio recognized at the time that the reason was not because the family needed the money, but because he needed the experience of hard work for his human and Christian growth.

His father, an accountant, arranged for him to work at a hosiery factory that belonged to one of his clients. For the first couple of summers, Jorge swept the floors and did other types of janitorial services. In the third year, after the factory owners saw his precocious intellectual talents, he began to help out with administrative work. Once he had enrolled as a chemistry student in college, he began to work in the company’s laboratory.

Throughout his university studies, he would work in the lab from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., return home for lunch, and then take classes from 2 to 8 p.m. It was a tough schedule for a young man, but looking back at it many years later, he was so grateful for having learned at a young age the value of hard work.

“I am very grateful to my father who sent me to work,” he said in “El Jesuita.” “Work was one of the things that most formed me in life. Particularly in the laboratory, I learned the good and evil of every human task.”

Referring to that moral formation, he told a story about a chemical analysis he had done. He was proud of how fast he had completed it. His Paraguayan boss asked him whether he had done a particular test as part of the analysis. He replied that he hadn’t, but that it probably was unnecessary because of the other tests he had done. “No, it’s necessary to do things well,” she gently reprimanded him. The lesson, he said, “taught me the seriousness of work,” and he never stopped being grateful for the advice.

Work done well is crucial for our dignity.

Speaking about the unemployed, with whom he has spent much of his life ministering, he said, “They are people who don’t feel that they’re persons. Instead of getting assistance from families and friends, they want to work. They want to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. It’s ultimately work that anoints a person with dignity. This unction of dignity doesn’t come from one’s family name, or home formation or education. Dignity as such comes only through work. We eat what we earn. We provide for our family with what we earn. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a little or a lot. We can have a fortune, but if we are not working, our dignity suffers.”

Our dignity comes from God and we obviously retain human dignity even when we’re incapacitated, but it does suffer when we’re not working. God gave us work to strengthen our dignity. “Work,” Cardinal Bergoglio said, “corresponds to a clear command of God, ‘Increase, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.’” God, in other words, was commanding, “Be stewards of the earth: work!”

After the Fall, man’s work became toilsome but remained fundamentally good and in fact redemptive. That’s because the most important part of work is not the work itself but the way it transforms the worker. Honest work done well gives the human person the opportunity to cultivate all the various physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual potentials God has implanted in him while providing a service to others.

One of the greatest spiritual cancers that can afflict someone, the future pope said, is therefore laziness, when a person either loses the will to work hard or never learns it. Hard-working parents need to be careful lest, after battling so hard to provide for themselves and for their families, they spoil their children and grandchildren by not teaching them how to work hard. Rather than advance in dignity, the next generations will grow in “decadence,” he said.

He told a story of a father from Buenos Aires who was having problems with a son who didn’t want to work but who instead had become a full-time social protestor while living off his parents. This is a phenomenon we saw last year in the United States with the Occupy movement.

A wise old priest met with the two of them to help them resolve their conflict. He told them that their biggest problem is that they had forgotten the “aches and pains.” Neither of them knew what he was talking about.

He told them that they had forgotten the daily soreness of their respective father and grandfather who had to get up in the early hours of the morning every day in order to milk the cows. “Both had forgotten the importance of work,” Cardinal Bergoglio said, and their relationship was suffering the consequences: they were leisurely focusing more on fixing each other or society than starting with fixing themselves through work.

It’s also crucial for societies to remember how crucial a work ethic is. Governments have the duty to foster “a culture of work, not of debt,” and to promote “sources of work” because, he insisted, “work confers dignity.”

If unemployment legislation incentivizes staying home and collecting checks funded by other people’s work, recipients may end up being more harmed spiritually than helped materially. It’s important for their good and the good of society that people are given the opportunity, not to mention the moral and financial incentive, to be contributors rather than consumers of what others have earned. Otherwise all of society will suffer from the corruption of laziness, as people get used to looking for handouts, looking to others to provide, and creating a culture of debt that cannot be sustained long-term.

This culture of work must keep the worker, not profit or capital, at the center, otherwise the work that is meant to confer dignity can become “dehumanizing” for all involved. This dehumanization happens when, for example, workers are forced to work so much because of competition that they have no time with their families. It also happens when there’s no time for a “healthy leisure,” something that used to occur on Sundays. This allowed a “restorative rest” that the future pope said produced not just good spiritual fruits but economic and human ones as well.

“The Church has always underlined that the key to the social question is work. The worker is in the center. Today, in many cases, he’s not,” Cardinal Bergoglio stated. “The worker becomes a thing if he is not treated as a person. The person isn’t for work, but work for the person.”

Work is for the person as a means to sanctify himself, to sanctify others, and to offer to God a sacrifice like that of Abel.

This is a Gospel Pope Francis has learned through a life of hard work — and one that he is now proclaiming to others.