A question of dignity and justice
Pope Francis continued his series of catecheses on Saint Joseph on Wednesday morning, 12 January , reflecting on the aspect of the Saint as a worker, and using this as a springboard to denounce the lack of dignity shown to many workers today. He highlighted the plight of those who do grueling jobs, those who are exploited as undocumented workers, victims of accidents in factories and on building sites, children reduced to living in slavery and those who committed suicide because they have lost their jobs. The following is a translation of the Holy Father’s words which he shared in Italian with the faithful gathered in the Paul VI Hall.
Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!
The evangelists Matthew and Mark refer to Joseph as a “carpenter” or “joiner”. We heard earlier that the people of Nazareth, hearing Jesus speak, asked themselves: “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (13:55; cf. Mk 6:3). Jesus practised his father’s trade.
The Greek term tekton, used to specify Joseph’s work, has been translated in various ways. The Latin Fathers of the Church rendered it as “carpenter”. But let us bear in mind that in the Palestine of Jesus’ time, wood was used not only to make ploughs and various pieces of furniture, but also to build houses, which had wooden frames and terraced roofs made of beams connected with branches and earth.
Therefore, “carpenter” or “joiner” was a generic qualification, indicating both woodworkers and craftsmen engaged in activities related to construction. It was quite a hard job, having to work with heavy materials such as wood, stone, and iron. From an economic point of view, it did not ensure great earnings, as can be deduced from the fact that when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, they offered only a couple of turtledoves or pigeons (cf. Lk 2:24), as the Law prescribed for the poor (cf. Lv 12:8).
The young Jesus thus learned this trade from his father. Therefore, when he began to preach as an adult, his astonished neighbours asked: “But where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” (Mt 13:54), and were scandalized by him (cf. v. 57), because he was the son of the carpenter, but he spoke like a doctor of the law, and they were scandalized by this.
This biographical fact about Joseph and Jesus makes me think of all the workers in the world, especially those who do gruelling work in mines and in some factories; those who are exploited through undocumented work; the victims of labour: we have seen a lot of this in Italy recently; children who are forced to work and those who rummage among the trash in search of something useful to trade....
Let me repeat what I said: the hidden workers, the workers who do hard labour in mines and in some factories: let’s think of them: about those who are exploited with undocumented work, those who are paid in contraband, on the sly, without a pension, without anything. And if you do not work, you have no security. And today there is a lot of undocumented work. Let us think of the victims of work, of work accidents, of the children who are forced to work: this is terrible! A child at the age of play should be playing. Instead, they are forced to work like adults! Let us think about those poor children who rummage in the dumps to look for something useful to trade. All these are our brothers and sisters, who earn their living this way: with jobs that do not give them dignity! Let us think about this. And this is happening today, in the world. This is happening today.
But I think too of those who are out of work. How many people go knocking on the doors of factories, of businesses [asking]: “Is there anything to do?” — “No, there isn’t, there isn’t. Lack of work! [I think] of those who feel wounded in their dignity because they cannot find this work. They return home: “Have you found something?” — “No, nothing… I went to Caritas and I brought bread”. What gives dignity is not bringing bread home. You can get it from Caritas — no, this does not give you dignity. What gives you dignity is earning bread — and if we do not give our people, our men and women, the ability to earn bread, there is a social injustice in that place, in that nation, in that continent. Leaders must give everyone the possibility of earning bread, because this ability to earn gives them dignity. Work is an anointing of dignity. And this is important.
Many young people, many fathers and mothers experience the ordeal of not having a job that allows them to live serenely. They live day to day. And how often the search for work becomes so desperate that it drives them to the point of losing all hope and the desire to live. In these times of pandemic, many people have lost their jobs — we know this — and some, crushed by an unbearable burden, reached the point of taking their own lives. I would like to remember each of them and their families today. Let us take a moment of silence, remembering these men, these women, who are desperate because they cannot find work.
Not enough consideration is given to the fact that work is an essential component of human life, and even a path of holiness. Work is not only a means of earning a living: it is also a place where we express ourselves, feel useful, and learn the great lesson of concreteness, which helps keep spiritual life from becoming spiritualism. Unfortunately, however, labour is often a hostage to social injustice and, rather than being a means of humanization, it becomes an existential periphery. I often ask myself: With what spirit do we do our daily work? How do we deal with fatigue? Do we see our activity as linked only to our own destiny or also to the destiny of others? In fact, work is a way of expressing our personality, which is relational by its nature. And, work is also a way to express our creativity: each one of us works in their own way, with their own style: the same work but with different styles.
It is good to think about the fact that Jesus himself worked and had learned this craft from Saint Joseph. Today, we should ask ourselves what we can do to recover the value of work; and what contribution we can make, as Church, [to ensure] that work can be redeemed from the logic of mere profit and can be experienced as a fundamental right and duty of the person, which expresses and increases his or her dignity.
Dear brothers and sisters, for all these [reasons], I would like to recite with you today the prayer that Saint Paul VI lifted up to Saint Joseph on 1 May 1969:
O Saint Joseph,
Patron of the Church!
you, who side by side with the Word made flesh,
worked each day to earn your bread,
drawing from Him the strength to live and to toil;
you who experienced the anxiety for the morrow,
the bitterness of poverty, the uncertainty of work:
you who today give the shining example,
humble in the eyes of men
but most exalted in the sight of God:
protect workers in their hard daily lives,
defending them from discouragement,
from negative revolt,
and from pleasure loving temptations;
and keep peace in the world,
that peace which alone can ensure the development of peoples
14 January 2022, page 11