Africa, May 2019, Vol. 84 No. 4

St Joseph the Worker
Feast of the Month, May 1st
Frank Conlisk

The quiet man. To those of us of a certain age, memories of John Ford’s 1951 movie of the same name, may come to mind. Once you’ve seen it, the image of that quintessential Irish colleen dashing barefoot over a small, stone bridge in Connemara – skirts flying, red hair wild and windswept – is not easily forgotten. Maureen O’Hara and her quiet man, John Wayne, made a big impression in their day and they still draw tourists by the busload to the beautiful village of Cong in the west of Ireland, where the movie was shot.


Joseph, the quiet man of the scriptures, draws our attention for different reasons – though his life was certainly not without drama. In a sense, there are two Josephs. There is the historical Joseph – the man himself – and then there is all that the character of Joseph has come to represent and symbolize. 


Of the man himself, we know little. He is given no lines in the great drama of the coming of Jesus among us. He is silent throughout. We know that he was the husband of Mary – the marriage contract was already drawn up, according to Jewish custom, before the Annunciation. We know that he was a carpenter, that he was not wealthy and that he was of the royal lineage of King David. We also get the sense that he was a compassionate man – that he loved Mary and wished to protect her from disgrace. Most notable of all perhaps, is that he was a man of extraordinary faith. 


The fact that he does not appear in Jesus’ public life, or at his death or resurrection, has led many historians to speculate that he probably died before Jesus began his public ministry. This has also led to the impression that he was an elderly man – a fatherly figure, much older than Mary – which, of course, may not be true at all. 


This in itself, gives us plenty to think about. We might consider the importance of loyalty and commitment to the promises we have made, the value of perseverance and openness to the will of God and so on. Yet it is the second Joseph – what he has come to symbolize – that inspires the feast we celebrate on the first of this month. 


In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St Joseph to be the patron saint of the universal church. This silent saint, who was given the task of caring for and watching over Mary and Jesus, would now care for and watch over the whole Church. In doing so, he would serve as a model for the dignity of human work. This idea of the dignity of human labour had a long history in religious thought. It stretched all the way back to the Book of Genesis, when God commanded humankind to care for the earth and to be productive – to participate in God’s own creative work. The seed may have been planted back then, but it took a very long time for it to germinate. 


However, after 1870, there began to develop, in the social teaching of the Church, a new awareness of the value and dignity of human work and its role in the development of the human person. We find it especially in a series of papal encyclicals, beginning in 1891 with Rerum novarum by Pope Leo XIII. In these documents, the Church protested against the harsh conditions which industrial workers had to endure, against their exploitation and against the causes of injustice and poverty in society in general.   


In 1955, Pope Pius XII replaced the 1870 feast with the Feast of St Joseph the Worker to be celebrated on May 1st, coinciding with “May Day” and “International Workers’ Day” festivities. You’d wonder why he found it necessary to do this. 


Some say it was to underscore the importance of those ideas on the dignity of human labour that had been developing in the Church’s documents. Others suggest that it was to counterbalance the communist doctrine – gaining ground at the time – that labour is just another commodity to be bought and sold at market prices…prices determined by the law of supply and demand. In Church thinking, human labour could never be reduced to this. As recently as 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it, is a person. (Laborem exercens 6).  


On May 1st, at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work…makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works…it gives one the ability to maintain oneself and one’s family and to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.   


For sure, these are uplifting, inspiring and important ideas. But what if you haven’t work…or can’t work…or can’t find work? What if you are a refugee fleeing from a terror state or war or abject poverty? What if you’re being demonized by populist politicians because “they want our jobs, our benefits, our livelihoods” while you’re being held in a camp – for who knows how long – waiting to be “processed”?


Joseph the Worker is the patron saint of all these people too. He is the fleeing worker, the uprooted worker, the exploited worker, the trafficked worker. 


Surely we mustn’t see him only as “the quiet man” of the scriptures…the calm, patient, dutiful figure making do with his lot – included in the crib, yes, but a little off to the side. We need to remind ourselves that the flight into Egypt was no walk in the park. He too was once an impoverished refugee with a young family to protect and support – just as so many are in our time. It’s tempting to wonder what might Joseph the Worker say to us today… if he were to break his silence.

Panel depicting the Holy Family at work, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.  Window of St Joseph in St Carthage RC Church, Lismore, Co Waterford. (Photos: T. Redmond)

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