This weekend we celebrate Labor Day, a day set aside to celebrate the American worker. Interestingly enough, this year is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day becoming a national holiday.
The dignity of work and workers themselves was articulated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in his groundbreaking encyclical, Rerum et Novarum. The title roughly translates to “On new things.” The subtitle of the encyclical, “The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” provides a greater understanding of the scope and message of the Pope’s encyclical. A papal encyclical is a pastoral letter that is addressed to the whole church.
In this letter, Pope Leo recognized that workers had a right to collectively organize into unions, to work in humane conditions and to a fair wage. In the same encyclical, the Pope affirmed the right to own private property. Almost 100 years later, Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul II) wrote another encyclical, Laborum Exercens (“Through work”) in which he makes a powerful connection between God’s creative activity in the Book of Genesis and the reality that workers are co-creators as well:
“By their work people share in God’s creating activity. ... Awareness that our work is a sharing in God’s work ought to permeate even the most ordinary daily activities. By our labor we are unfolding the Creator’s work and contributing to the realization of God’s plan on earth. The Christian message does not stop us from building the world or make us neglect our fellow human beings. On the contrary it binds us more firmly to do just that.”
Viewed from this perspective, all forms of work make us co-creators with the almighty. Sadly, for many people, their labor amounts to drudgery with little room for creativity. Some people find that work, and concomitantly the making of money, is the only thing that matters.
Pope Benedict addressed this very issue in one of his essays: “It is indispensable that people not allow themselves to be enslaved by work or to idolize it, claiming to find in it the ultimate and definitive meaning of life. It is on the day consecrated to God that men and women come to understand the meaning of their lives and also of their work.”
The renewing power of the Sabbath and Sabbath-time are values that sadly we have lost in recent years. Everyone needs downtime, time by themselves, time with family and friends. Everyone needs a bit of encouragement, a word of thanks or praise, a word or two that acknowledges him or her as a person and not a function.
Perhaps this holiday can remind all of us of our dignity and the dignity and value of our brothers and sisters who sometimes hold down two or more jobs to provide for their families. Perhaps all of us can hold our heads a bit higher, stand a bit taller and emanate a bit of joy in the realization that we share in that same creative power as our loving God.