Saint John Paul II and the Gospel of Work, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, April 23, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Third Annual Celebration of the Canonization of St. John Paul II
Sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Manhattan
April 23, 2017


The Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York has had the tradition of sponsoring a Mass each year at St. Patrick’s around the occasion of the death of St. John Paul II. A few years back, after the canonization of St. Karol Wojtyla, they changed it to a celebration of his canonization around the anniversary at the of April, in which there would be a Mass and then a talk afterward. This year the Consul General asked me to give a talk on St. John Paul II and the importance of work and asked me to include a reference to three other Polish heroes, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko. 


To listen to a recording of the talk, please click below: 


The written remarks that guided the talk are below: 

  • Introduction
    • Your Excellency Bishop Witold Mroziewski, Your Excellency Consul General Maciej Golubiewski, Distinguished Guests and Dear Brothers and Sisters,
    • It is such a joy for me to share with you this celebration of the upcoming third anniversary of the canonization of St. John Paul II. It’s a personal celebration for me, because St. John Paul was not just a personal hero whose life and writings deeply influenced my life and priestly vocation, but because he was someone I had the privilege to get to know. I met him and had the chance to chat with him briefly 11 times during my days as a seminarian in Rome and after.
    • I knew him well enough to be recognized by him and earn a nickname — “gemello americano,” “American twin,” from the fact that the first time I met him I was with my identical twin brother, who was also a seminarian with me. It was 1995 and we were both dressed in full length black cassocks, with identical glass frames, and identical hair cuts. When he greeted the two of us in his study after we attended his daily Mass, he said to us, “Siete veramente gemelli!” . “You guys are really twins.” And he asked us a question, “Giocate con il vostro rettore?” “Do you play games on your rector?” Our rector at the time was Monsignor Timothy Dolan who now occupies the cathedra in this sanctuary. Because the Holy Father was constantly looking back between us, neither Scot nor I knew to whom he had directed the question. But since it was coming from the successor of St. Peter, we felt especially obliged to tell the truth. So the two of us blurted out, with the same terrible Italian accent, with the same pitch of voice, in total stereo, “Sempre!” “We’re always playing tricks on Msgr. Dolan!” The answer itself, plus the way it came from both of us at exactly the same time, got him and Msgr. Stansilaw Dziwisz and everyone else present in the library to burst out in laughter. The Holy Father was bent over in a full scale guffaw. He got up still laughing, slapped us both on the cheeks, and said, “Bravi, Americani!” “You, Americans, are great!” And with his extraordinary capacity to remember the people he met, he referred to me from that point forward as “the American twin.”
    • I had a chance thereafter to serve his Mass at St. Peter’s, to read during the Easter vigil, to proclaim the Gospel to him in his private chapel, to get his advice about the apostolate I would return to Massachusetts to carry out with young people, to have him grasp my hands and say a sincere “grazie!” when I told him that I was hoping to spend the rest of my life popularizing he teachings on human love in the divine plan, to have him bless my parents on their 30th wedding anniversary and then turn to me mischievously and say, after my priestly ordination, “and now a blessing for the other father of the family!”, and finally, in a mysterious gesture, to have him place his hands on me in St. Peter’s Square 7 months before God would call him home.
    • I was leading a pilgrimage and he permitted us to meet him after a general audience. As we were taking a photo with him, I had knelt down a little bit away from the chair where he was seated. As the cameras were snapping photos, the Holy Father, now seriously impaired by Parkinson’s disease, nevertheless stretched out his right arm as far as he could to place his hand on my head. At first, I thought it was a member of my group being mischievous during a photo with the Pope. But when I turned around, I noticed it was the Holy Father. Without even thinking, I simply asked, “Cosa ha significato quello, Santità?” “What did that mean, Holiness?” I didn’t know if he was joking himself or meaning to do something, especially since the imposition of hands is a pretty big gesture in Catholicism. And he simply said, “Un giorno lo saprai!” “One day you’ll know!” I thought it might have been an attempt at a miracle, to raise my dead hair follicles to life again. But whatever it meant, whether playful or meaningful, I treasure it, and I like to think that from heaven he continues to stretch out his hand to bless not only me but all of us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.
    • And he has continued to play a major role not just in my thinking, but also in my priestly work. I’ll share just one example. In 2008, while I was pastor of a parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of my parishioners who had not walked for 28 years, prayed to St. John Paul II to be healed and was healed, something that was among the more than 250 miracles submitted prior to his beatification.
  • Work
    • I’ve been asked to reflect with you upon one of the great contributions of John Paul II to the Church and the world, which is about the dignity and meaning of human work.
    • The theme of work is a very important one for us as human beings. Most of us will spend at least twenty-five percent of our week—from the time we’re teens or young adults through when we’re sixty-five or older—doing some form of work. Cumulatively the only activity to which we will dedicate more time over the course of our life on earth is sleeping.
    • For many work is toilsome, a hardship, a means not so much of fulfillment but of survival, the means by which one seeks to provide for himself and those those who depend on him in the present and in the future. In western societies today, many treat work, especially when it’s tedious or monotonous, as something we have to endure work until we arrive at the magical age when we can enjoy a second childhood, relaxing at a pool, playing golf, or volunteering.
    • In the communist context in which St. Karol Wojtyla labored as a young priest and bishop, the meaning of work was being conceptually distorted. This erroneous understanding of work flowed from a faulty anthropology in communism. And so he dedicated himself to trying to live and impart to his contemporaries, during those troubling times, an appropriate approach to work.
    • This was not a new effort. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the primate of Poland from the time of John Paul II’s priestly ordination in 1945 through a week after Mehmet Ali Agca’s 1981 assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, had long tried to form the Polish people in the proper understanding of work, describing in homilies as well as in a book “All You Who Labor: Work and the Sanctification of Daily Life,” how work — from the work of housewives, to taxi-drivers, to manual laborers, to professors and doctors — were all important to society, to the Church, to God. He taught that human work is a collaboration, a co-operation, a working together with the “First Worker,” God himself, an activity that brings one closer to God’s work of creation. It’s also something that is meant to increase our love, because when we work for God and for others, work and love meet. “Work is not simply a part of one’s life,” he stressed, “but is rather an integrating key for it. Work makes us go out of ourselves.” He said when work is difficult, it is an opportunity for us to share in the redeeming work that Jesus carried out on Calvary, for ourselves and for others. “The toil of daily work is not hopeless,” he taught, because “it can become the medicine of corrupted nature” and the “sweat of our face” can become the “atonement for our revolt” and the sins of others. These are thoughts that eventually Pope John Paul II himself would develop at length.
    • From Cardinal Wyszynski, the future Pope also learned about the importance of accompanying people pastorally in their work. Cardinal Wyszynski’s support of the Solidarity Movement is well known, perhaps most famously in the appointment of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko to accompany the striking workers of Warsaw. In the homilies that would eventually be broadcast far and wide and lead to his being kidnapped, savagely beaten and drowned in a reservoir, he likewise accentuated the meaning of human work. “No matter what job you have,” Blessed Jerzy said, “Retain your dignity because you are a human being. Because work is for man and not man for work, just as the full truth about man demands that man not be for the system, but the system for man.”
    • These were lessons the future Saint Karol Wojtyla would not just study and write about but live. For four years during the Nazi occupation of Krakow, when he was a clandestine seminarian, he had to work for the Solvay Chemical Factory, the first year mining limestone in a sub-zero quarry in Zakrzowek and stacking it in miniature railway cars — truly back-breaking work — and then for three years in the Solvay plant in Borek Falecki where, during the nighttime shift, he would carry buckets of lime over his shoulders, while trying to squeeze in time to pray and study philosophy and theology. It was a work that could have crushed him, but, through the virtue of many of his coworkers and his own integration of the lengthy night in prayer, it opened him to the transcendent that Cardinal Wyszynski had been describing. Fifteen years after the experience, writing poetry under the pseudonym of Andrzej Jawien, he would comment: “Listen: the even knocking of hammers, so much their own, I project on to the people to test the strength of each blow. Listen now: electric current cuts through a river of rock. And a thought grows in me day after day: the greatness of work is inside man.”
  • Philosophical and Theological Work
    • The greatness of work is man inside. That inside is the key to St. John Paul II’s philosophical and theological writings on the importance of human work.
    • His major project thoughout his academic and pastoral life was, he said, to provide an “adequate anthropology” for the crises and questions of the day. The chief problem, he thought, of Nazism and Communism, of so many other ideologies, of so many philosophies and theologies, was that they had a flawed conception of who the human person is. If this fundamental premise is off, every conclusion based on it will likewise err.
    • In the pinnacle of his philosophical work, Person and Act, he sought to overcome the anthropological confusions that flowed from the nominalists, through Descartes, Kant, the skeptics, positivists, and phenomenologists up to his own day. He sought, through phenomenological personalism, to create an adequate bridge from human subjectivity to the objective work in which man is both a subject and an object. The way we come to know ourselves, he said, the way we unite anthropology, epistemological and ethics, is through our free actions and our reflection upon them. We get to know the person by means of his or her free and deliberate actions. Our work, therefore, both individually and in participation with the work of others, is the means by which we grow as persons and grow to know ourselves. It is the means by which we not only make something but make ourselves better or worse. It not only flows from who we are, but helps us to discover more deeply who we are and to forge through the use of freedom our particular character. Person and work is therefore a crucial part of Osoba i czym, Person and Act.
    • He continued that work of finding an adequate anthropology when he was elected the 264th Peter on October 16, 1978. He now was in a position to substitute theological categories for philosophical ones, but the project was still the same. The means he chose was to provide a continuous commentary and application, in many different ways, on two passages from Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, that he had helped to write. Two central insights toward a sufficient understanding of the human person were, first, Jesus Christ fully reveals the human person to himself and makes his supreme calling clear (GS 22), and, second, the human person can only find himself through the unselfish gift of himself to others (GS 22). To understand who the human person is, he says, we need to turn to Jesus, who was fully human, and took on our humanity to purify it and share with us his divinity; and the way we find fulfillment is not primarily through self-affirmation but self-sacrificing; it’s by imitating Jesus in loving others as he has loved us, giving of ourselves according to the example we see in the one who loved us with the greatest love and laid down his life to give us life.
    • This was the chief insight he sought to develop throughout his 26 years and 7 months as Pope. In a 1994 book length interview called Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he sketched out what his papacy was all about. He said he wrote his first major teaching document, Christ the Redeemer of Man, written only a few months have his election, summarized his pastoral and pedagogical program. “I was actually carrying its contents within me,” he said. “I had only to ‘copy’ from memory and experience what I had already been living on the threshold of the papacy.” He described the contents he was copying in that encyclical letter: “The person who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into Him with all his own self, he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself (RH 10). The way of the Church, he said, was to draw close to man and help man draw close to Christ, for Jesus, John Paul II asserts, is and has the answer to the deepest questions the human person asks.
    • John Paul II’s ideas about human work flow from his ideas about the human person, and his methodology is the same: To turn to Jesus as a worker, because it is Jesus who fully reveals the person to himself; to put into practice what he learned about what work from what God has revealed; and to help others to learn how to find similar fulfillment in their work.
  • The theme of work
    • In his 1981 encyclical letter On Human Work (called in Latin, Laborem Exercens), John Paul sought to place the work men and women do within the context of God’s creation and redemption. You’ll hear strong echoes of Cardinal Wyszynski. “From the beginning,” John Paul II said, the human person is “called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures… Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark … in a sense constitutes its very nature.”
    • John Paul II describes what we read in the Book of Genesis: Before the Fall, God commanded the human person to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” over all living creatures (Gen 1:28). After Original Sin, this three-fold work became arduous: there were pangs in childbirth, work in the fields was toilsome and sweaty, and humans’ dominion over the earth became arduous and sometimes dangerous. Nevertheless, he says, the vocation to work remains a means of our redemption because by laboring for others we overcome our selfishness.
    • God gave us the vocation or calling to work so that we might become more like him who worked in creating the world and, as Jesus would later say, “is still working” (Jn 5:17). Work not only produces something but it perfects us, by bringing out our potential. We see this, for example, in the study that forms our brain, in the physical labor that forms our muscles, in the caring for children and others that forms our heart. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once said that through our work we become in a certain way our own “parents.” In other words, work forms our character for better or worse; we “father” or “mother” ourselves well by working hard, or poorly by slacking off. In John Paul II’s terminology, he describes the “transitive” and “intransitive” impact of our work. Through the transitive we transform the “earth.” Through the intransitive, we transform our personality and forge our humanity. We exercise dominion not only over the earth or over animals but over ourselves, that this is what gives work its deepest dignity and value. Work, John Paul II stresses, is “for man,” not man “for work.” “In the final analysis,” he says, “it is always man who is the purpose of the work,” not the objective results of the work man does. The working person can never, therefore, be treated just as a tool, or piece of merchandise, either in communist or capitalist systems. He must always be regarded as a person with dignity and creativity.
    • To ground his theology of human work, John Paul II turns to Jesus Christ, according to the principles of theological anthropology we discussed earlier. Jesus spent most of his time on earth, not preaching, but working as a craftsman (tekton in Greek, see Mk 6:3). He built houses, made tables and wheels, and produced other needed items. Jesus did not enter the world of human work as a cover until the “real work” of preaching, teaching, healing, dying and rising, would begin. Rather, Jesus worked in order to redeem human work in the process of redeeming the entire human person.
    • So great was Jesus’ appreciation for the role of human work in the divine plan that he often used it as an analogy for his work of establishing the kingdom of God. He mentions favorably shepherds, farmers, doctors, sowers, householders, servants, stewards, merchants, laborers, soldiers, cooks, tax collectors, and scholars. Jesus compares the work of evangelization to the manual work of harvesters and fishermen. He calls his disciples to be “laborers” in his vineyard (Mt 9:38). He says he hopes at the end of our life to be able to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
    • John Paul II outlines in Laborem Exercens a spirituality of the workplace, a Gospel of Work, showing that work is not only about earning a paycheck, but serving and loving God and others. One’s desk, sewing machine, keyboard, kitchen, classroom, workbench, operating room, field, or boat becomes an altar on which we can offer ourselves, together with the work we do, to God and for others. It is a collaboration with the continuing work of God. St. John Paul II wrote, quoting Vatican II, “Awareness that a person’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate…  even the most ordinary everyday activities.For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way that appropriately benefits society. They can justly consider that by their labor they are unfolding the Creator’s work, serving the good of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan.”
    • And that realization requires not just some work, but good work, and even hard work, because it’s through hard work out of love, he said, that we overcome some of the disorder that remains in us after the Fall. “Sweat and toil,” he wrote, “…present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, the human person in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity.” This is the deepest meaning of all our work.
  • Conclusion
    • A saint to whom John Paul II had a great devotion and whom he had the joy of beatifying and canonizing was St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe. He understood and lived this Gospel of Work, as a student, young Franciscan Friar, newspaper publisher, founder of what was the largest monastery in the world in Niepokolanow, a missionary to Japan and other countries, and finally, after his public opposition to the Nazis, a laborer in Auschwitz, which showed in the extreme not only his character but also an illustration of the full meaning of how human work is meant to participate in God’s. How ironic, as he entered through the gates, he saw the message the Nazi’s wanted mockingly to convey: “Arbeit macht frei!,” “Work makes free!” Of course the work of those sent to Auschwitz wouldn’t result in their earthly liberation from the Nazis, but in a deeper sense, our work, when united to love and done in truth, is indeed meant to liberate us. And that’s what we saw in the work of St. Maximilian. He was assigned to hard labor, carrying heavy stones, cutting and carrying tree trunks and corpses. The sadistic SS guards would force them to work all day without a stop and to run as they were reporting. Despite having only 20 percent lung capacity, having lost the rest to tuberculosis, the 47 year old Maximilian Mary did the work for the glory of God and the redemption of those in the camp. He would say to those who asked him about how he could do it, even taking the beatings of the guards when physically he collapsed, “Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds each one of us in his great love,” and, “Mary gives me strength All will be well.” He was conscious of working for God and for a purpose. He was a living illustration of the saying from the 19th century Polish Poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid whose thought deeply influenced John Paul II’s thought, “Work accepted with love [is] the highest manifestation of human freedom.” His arbeit, accepted with love, was making him free even tattooed 16690. We know how his work of redemption culminated. On July 31, after one prisoner had seemingly escaped, and ten were being selected to die in the starvation bunker in retaliation, Franciszek Gajowniczek, a 31 year old husband and father, was selected and he blurted out, “my wife, my children.” That’s when Kolbe stepped forward, introduced himself as a Polish priest and said, “I want to die for that man,” an offer the stunned German guard accepted. And he kept working until the end, preparing the other nine for death, and getting himself likewise ready, for when, after two weeks of starvation, he hadn’t yet died, he was injected with carbolic acid. For St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe had looked to Christ who fully revealed the Franciscan’s supreme vocation and Kolbe found himself through the totally unselfish gift of himself for Franciszek and others, entering into Christ’s greatest love and greatest work.
    • John Paul II himself continued to work until the end. When people, seeing the ravages Parkinson’s was doing on this formerly vigorous athlete, actor and pastor, asked him whether he would consider resigning, he heroically said, “Christ did not come down from the Cross.” He was going to entrust his whole work, like he did his life, to the Father who would know his time and call him when his work was done. And while his transitive works and travels diminished off his previously record-setting pace, the intransitive work within seemed to intensify until the end.
    • Please permit me to finish with two brief thoughts. In the 1956 book of Poetry from which I already quoted, “The Place Within,” he compared that intransitive work to the building of a Cathedral, that as we’re making something on the outside, with God’s help we’re building something great on the inside. “No,” he wrote, “not just hands drooping with the hammer’s weight, not the taut torso, muscles shaping their own style, but thought informing his work, deep, knotted in wrinkles on his brow, and over his head, joined in a sharp arc, shoulders and veins vaulted. So for a moment he is a Gothic building cut by a vertical thought born in the eyes. No, not a profile alone, not a mere figure between God and the stone, sentenced to grandeur and error.” That interior work will never be perfect in this life, it is sentenced to error, but it is nevertheless called to grandeur still.
    • And when Saint John Paul II came to this Cathedral of St. Patrick for the first time as Pope, on October 2, 1979, he called us to look around at the beauty of this Cathedral and imitate and embody in our work what inspiringly we see here in this “glorious edifice.” He said, “May the spires of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral always reflect the thrust with which the Church fulfills her fundamental function in every age: to direct man’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help all men and women to be familiar with the profundity of the Redemption taking place in Christ Jesus. This too is included in the symbolism of Saint Patrick’s; … the expression of her vital and distinctive service to humanity: to direct hearts to God, to keep alive hope in the world. And so we repeat with Saint Paul [in his first letter to St. Timothy]: “This explains why we work and struggle as we do; our hopes are fixed on the living God” (1 Tim4 :10).
    • This explains why he worked he did and how he hopes we will work so that we will all come to meet him in the place to which the spires of this Cathedral point.


The poster for the event is found below: