Pope Francis has dedicated this year to St Joseph. He did so after he saw how much pressure coronavirus put on many families through anxiety, unemployment and fractured relationships. He emphasises St Joseph’s role as father of his family.
When introducing the year Pope Francis described St Joseph as a father who worked to support his family and found himself in doing so. The importance of work in our lives is picked up in the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, celebrated on 1 May. The feast is relatively new. Its date was chosen to compete with May Day which represented work as a battleground between greedy employers and oppressed workers. The Feast commended a cooperative world in which work is a central part of human life and workers are honoured for themselves and not simply for their use to their employers.
Pope Francis also speaks eloquently of the importance that work plays in any human life:
‘Saint Joseph was a carpenter who earned an honest living to provide for his family. From him, Jesus learned the value, the dignity and the joy of what it means to eat bread that is the fruit of one’s own labour.
‘In our own day, when employment has once more become a burning social issue, and unemployment at times reaches record levels even in nations that for decades have enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity, there is a renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which Saint Joseph is an exemplary patron.’
The world of work in St Joseph’s time differs from our own. He was self-employed as a carpenter, was skilled, saw his work through from beginning to end, and supported Mary and Jesus through his work. In his work he was relatively privileged – for many others work depended on being hired each day and could be back-breaking and dangerous, was back breaking. Supporting a family was always precarious.
In our developed nation fewer people work at making things for people to buy. Women and men are more likely to work at computers in large organisations and to see only a tiny part of what the finished product. Women are consequently less reliant on men for support but are often expected to contribute to family income. Because manufacturing is so often mechanised and computerised, requiring few workers and privileging people with a higher level of education, work for manual workers is precarious, and many can find only part-time work. People who are unemployed live on the edge of poverty and homelessness.
For both women and men work is an expression of their dignity as human beings. Respect for their dignity demands that they be seen and be able to grow as persons through their work. They ae not simply cogs in a machine nor costs on a balance sheet to be hired or fired at will as profits dictate. Respect also demands that people have security of employment and participate in shaping the conditions under which they work.
Because work is so intertwined with what is most deeply human in us and connects us so strongly to our society, it is important that young people be encouraged to make connections. Because of disadvantage in their early years many of the young people whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services struggle for connection. The stigma and punitive conditions attached to unemployment benefits intensify this difficulty.
For St Joseph work was both a gift and a struggle. It remains so today. Because individual workers are weak in relation to employers, and so are at risk of being treated as no more than a cost on their balance sheet or as a tool to be used and discarded, the relationship between them will always need to be negotiated. The Feast of St Joseph the Worker reminds us that this negotiation must be based on respect and its fairness be enforced by governments, which must also be fair to people who are unemployed.