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home : our faith : faith alive August 16, 2017

FAITH ALIVE: A spirituality of work
St. John Paul II holds the Book of the Gospels as he enters the Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this Dec. 24, 1999, photo. St. John Paul II once said,
St. John Paul II holds the Book of the Gospels as he enters the Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this Dec. 24, 1999, photo. St. John Paul II once said, "Work must help man to become better, more mature spiritually, more responsible, in order that he may realize his vocation on earth." \(CNS photo/Andrew Medichini, Reuters pool

By Julie Burkey |Catholic News Service

"Spirituality of work" is a phrase that sometimes elicits a bemused reaction. After all, putting together words with such divergent meanings might seem nonsensical, unless we take a closer look:

"Work" -- an activity, mental or physical, paid or unpaid, and done in any number of locales, including a formal workplace or at home.

"Spirituality" -- in a Christian sense refers to our relationship with God and the ways that we seek to deepen that connection.

Put the two meanings together for a definition of spirituality of work -- an understanding that all human activity in one form or another presents us with an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God.

St. John Paul II expressed it similarly in his encyclical "Laborem Exercens" ("On Human Work"): "It follows that the whole person, body and spirit, participates in (work)." An understanding of the spiritual aspects of work "will help all people to come closer, through work, to God" and "deepen their friendship with Christ in their lives."

We find the entirety of St. John Paul's theology of work in this 1981 encyclical. It was written to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), considered to be the first of the Catholic Church's social teaching documents.

St. John Paul wrote "Laborem Exercens" at a time he expressed to be "the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions (that) … will influence the world of work and production no less than the Industrial Revolution of the last century." We can only stand in astonishment and awe at the truth of his prediction!

In this document, St. John Paul addressed many issues that have come to the forefront in our present day: increasing technological advances; the rights and dignity of workers; issues of work, society and family; and conflict between labor and capital. To help us find the right path through this minefield of modern work, he offered us some wisdom from the church's teaching.

St. John Paul's discourse on work begins at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden: "The church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth."

Created in God's image and likeness, man receives a "mandate" to "subdue, to dominate, the earth" and shares by his work in the activity of the Creator." This "awareness that man's work is a participation in God's activity ought to permeate … even 'the most ordinary everyday activities,'" said the pope.

We know that we are created in God's image, but have we thought, really deeply, of the consequences and responsibilities of that truth; it is a truth that implies a partnership with God. This partnership is not just a "Sunday thing."

We are to live out our faith everywhere we find ourselves, and that includes the workplace.

The Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes" decried the "split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives (that) deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age." This strong statement should make us pause to consider if we live with such a "split" in our own lives.

St. John Paul's theology elsewhere presented work as blessing, not a hardship: "Work corresponds to God's design and will. … Work is a primordial blessing from the Creator, an activity permitting people to realize themselves and to offer service to society."

Again, in "Laborem Exercens," he helped us realize that work has both an intrinsic and extrinsic value: "Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society."

Our work forms and shapes us. Through work, we become more who we were meant to be.

St. Francis de Sales said it well: "Be who you are, and be that well." At the same time, we give glory to the Creator who endowed us with the gifts and talents we employ to make our world a better place.

Work becomes a sacred endeavor when exercised with love, integrity and gratitude, benefiting self, family, co-workers and society.

To workers in Jasna Gorna, Poland, St. John Paul said: "Work must help man to become better, more mature spiritually, more responsible, in order that he may realize his vocation on earth both as an unrepeatable person and in community with others, especially in the fundamental human community constituted by the family."

It is no surprise that pronouncements on the sanctity of human work come from a pope who knew well the rigors of working. Young Karol Wojtyla was a restaurant delivery boy, a stonecutter in a limestone quarry, a repairman for railroad tracks at a chemical plant.

It was these experiences that prompted him once to say, "Through (my) own experience of work, I (boldly) say that (I) learned the Gospel anew."

Are we able to say the same?

Burkey is adjunct professor of pastoral theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

Work is a means of sanctification, say Opus Dei members

By Kurt Jensen |Catholic News Service

As an audio coordinator for "Sesame Street," Katie Robinson knew she had a job others might envy.

She liked her work, enjoyed the people she worked with and, as a bonus, she could say she knew Big Bird personally (She does, actually).

But she wanted her work to mean something more, so, in 2014, she became a supernumerary member of Opus Dei, ( the personal prelature founded in Spain in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva, who was canonized in 2002 as "the saint of ordinary life." The group has more than 90,000 members worldwide -- slightly more women than men -- and about 3,000 in the United States.

Supernumeraries, most of whom are married, form the greatest number. Numeraries are celibate and usually live in Opus Dei centers, and associates also practice celibacy but live in their own homes. Less than 2 percent of the membership are priests.

Controversies and myths about Opus Dei, usually contained in fictional works, abound, but the daily experience of members is considerably different and drama-free.

A central goal is work as a means of sanctification. "That sounds like a big fancy word," Robinson acknowledges. "What it means is, instead of work being an end in itself, it's a means to an end. It's a big change from just being successful. You can use your work as a way to get to heaven."

And it's fairly simple: "Just changing the intention of what I'm doing, integrating my work life and prayer life. I wasn't as strong in my faith as I thought I should be. I wanted to become more serious in my faith, and I knew I couldn't do it on my own."

Membership in the prelature is renewed annually. There are no vows. The stated goal, Robinson says, is "spiritual formation" to help people "carry out their mission in the world. It also offers this formation to anyone else wanting to engage their faith at a deeper level." There are classes, retreats, days of recollection and field trips among the activities.

Opus Dei stresses the message that laypeople -- not just priests -- can live holy lives.

A deeper relationship with faith sometimes also requires commuting trials. Robinson, who lives in Brooklyn, had to be at the TV studios in Queens at 7 a.m. So she wanted to find a 6 a.m. Mass to start her day, but found that the only one of those was in Manhattan. Attending required on-time subway connections, "but it really did provide a foundation. It was easier to overcome the challenges of the day."

Elizabeth Bergin, a homemaker in Bethesda, Maryland, had been going on Opus Dei service projects and retreats since elementary school and joined during her senior year of college. "I knew it was going to be part of my life forever."

Projects included a stay in a Mexican village to provide food and hygiene classes where sanitation was poor. "I remember there were nine children and their mother in one room with a dirt floor. And they were super joyful. I came back changed, and I think that was very formative -- and very wise of my mother, I might add."

She's stopped working full time as an arts administrator, including at the Vatican Museum, to raise her three children. But she found that membership applied wonderfully to domestic life.

"It gives me a lot of support. When you have small children (hers are 5, 3 and 8 months), it's harder to get out and make friends and meet new people. But my work is different now. It's weekly meal plans and shopping. Virtue forms in the home, just like any work outside the home."

She says Opus Dei provides "the virtue of the well-ordered life."

Sanctification of work has three parts to it, Bergin says. "First, it means whatever you're doing, you're doing it to the best of your abilities -- which is hard. It's easy to get distracted.

"Second, you're sanctifying yourself through your work. You become a saint through whatever work you are doing.

"Third, you are sanctifying others -- getting others close to God through your work."

Jensen is a freelance writer.

Jesus, model and man of work

By Jem Sullivan | Catholic News Service

Work is an essential dimension of human existence. From our waking moments to the rest we enjoy at the day's end, work occupies daily life. So, what does the Bible say about work?

In Genesis, the meaning of human work emerges within God's original creative activity as "God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it" (Gn 1:28).

After Adam and Eve fell, work became paradoxical. Labor is experienced as harsh, burdensome toil, now part of fallen humanity. Yet, work bears within it the immense gift and responsibility of partaking in God's ongoing creative activity in the world.

This paradox of work is given definitive Christian meaning in the life and example of Jesus, a man of work. The witness that Jesus gives to the dignity and value of work offers a profound biblical spirituality of work.

Jesus worked for most of his earthly life at a carpenter's bench in his home at Nazareth. Those who encountered him asked, "Is he not the carpenter?" (Mk 6:3). The little known from Scripture about the hidden life of Jesus indicates nothing outstanding or glamorous about his work.

From a young age, Jesus engaged in ordinary, manual work with humble materials of wood, nails, dust and carpenters' tools. He learned skilled craftsmanship from Joseph. The work of their hands provided for the practical, everyday needs of the Holy Family, showing that daily work can genuinely express self-sacrificing love for others in family and in community.

Jesus' example of humble, manual labor is an eloquent "gospel of work," said St. John Paul II in "Laborem Exercens," indicating that the value of human work is based not on the kind of work done but the fact that the one working is a person.

Jesus showed that work is meant to sanctify daily life, bringing God's presence into the activities and moments of each day.

During his public ministry, Jesus valued the dignity of various kinds of work. In his parables, Jesus evoked imagery from labor and trades common in his day, highlighting the work of a shepherd, farmer, doctor, steward, fisherman, householder and merchant.

And he compared the mission of his disciples to the work of harvesters and fishermen when he said, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mt 4:19).

With Mary, Joseph was the one to whom God entrusted his only divine Son. Joseph fulfilled his unique task of guarding and raising Jesus, known as the "carpenter's son," with humility and quiet contemplation, making him a model of humble, fruitful work (Mt 13:55).

It was precisely in the ordinariness of daily, silent labor that the Son of God prepared himself for his saving work of redeeming the world and reconciling us to friendship with God.

By engaging in work, Jesus takes up all work into the mystery of his incarnation, death and resurrection, giving true redemptive meaning to work that builds up and flourishes the kingdom of God on earth.

Sullivan, professor and writer, is the author of "The Beauty of Faith: Using Art to Spread the Good News."

Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker

Joseph, by the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow, you supported Jesus and Mary, and had the Son of God as your fellow worker.

Teach me to work as you did, with patience and perseverance, for God and for those whom God has given me to support. Teach me to see in my fellow workers the Christ who desires to be in them, that I may always be charitable and forbearing towards all.

Grant me to look upon work with the eyes of faith, so that I shall recognize in it my share in God's own creative activity and in Christ's work of our redemption, and so take pride in it.

When it is pleasant and productive, remind me to give thanks to God for it. And when it is burdensome, teach me to offer it to God, in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world.

Prayer from the booklet "Devotions to St. Joseph" by Brian Moore, SJ.

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