Friday, September 02, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
I was raised in a world of work. I was raised by parents and grandparents who had experienced the Great Depression. I learned to embrace work as an honorable, intimate part of who I am.
In the Ambridge of my younger days, I knew where every one of my classmates’ families earned a living. The value of human work was not in the job being done — whatever it might be — but in the person doing the work. The people who made steel or built bridges, mined coal or farmed the land, delivered dry cleaning or fresh milk, worked in the bank or drove a truck — they were honored and honorable.
Most working families in Ambridge earned enough to provide. So much so, we were not really conscious of economic class. The daughter of a banker or the son whose dad drove a truck didn’t differentiate one from the other. We shared the same values. We shared the same opportunities. We shared the same hopes. We shared the same dreams.
And while I learned these lessons as a kid in a vibrant river town whose security came from seven Catholic churches and seven steel mills, I came to experience the truth and strength of it all when I put in long and hard hours of labor in the summer of 1968. During that summer and as a diocesan seminarian, I worked at Armco Steel Corp. as a member of the “labor gang.” As part of that gang, I wore steel-tipped boots and a protective hard hat. I operated a jackhammer and shoveled pounds of sludge. I learned firsthand by hard work the beauty of what it means to work.
And isn’t that what we need to celebrate again this Labor Day weekend? Let’s take a brief look at the dignity of work and the dignity of the working person.
Wisdom of the popes
The church has long been on the front line, speaking out on behalf of workers and work. I join in that effort as well.
One hundred twenty-five years ago, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical (an authoritative universal letter) entitled “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Labor”). In that groundbreaking document, the pope introduced the “just-wage theory” in reaction to the growing poverty of workers throughout the world.
Virtually every pope since then has taken a public position in support of workers and work, among them Pope Pius XI, Pope St. John XXIII, Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, up to and including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
In an address delivered to workers in September 2013, Pope Francis reminded us:
“A society open to hope is not closed in on itself, in the defense of the interests of the few. Rather it looks ahead from the viewpoint of the common good. And this requires on the part of all a strong sense of responsibility. There is no social hope without dignified employment for all. For this reason we must ‘continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.’”
This takes real concerted effort. And we all need to be a part of that effort.
We need to work to rebuild families and make certain that everything we do — and every aspect of our culture and law — appreciates the centrality of families.
We need involved and growing communities of faith that are strong supports to family life.
We need to understand that our goal must be economic development that ensures work and wages that can sustain a family.
We need an alliance of faith-based institutions, business, unions, government and schools that can create and explore means to address the employment challenges of these times.
We need to recognize the essential dignity of labor and support increased wages that recognize all work at any level is valued.
We need to support organized labor in its efforts to rebuild in a changing economy.
We need to make certain that our schools are providing a challenging education that encourages children to achieve.
The list can go on and on. These are dreams on my part. Aren’t they also the dreams of our most recent popes? Isn’t that the point, after all? What we want to do — what we must do — is to respect the dignity of the worker and the dignity of the work.
“I am deeply grateful to those of you who by your work and witness bring the Lord’s consoling presence to people living on the peripheries of our society,” Pope Francis said in an address to the laity two years ago. “This activity should not be limited to charitable assistance, but must also extend to a practical concern for human growth. â » To assist the poor is good and necessary, but it is not enough. I encourage you to multiply your efforts in the area of human promotion, so that every man and every woman can know the joy which comes from the dignity of earning their daily bread and supporting their family. â » The unemployed, whether men or women, must also sense the dignity which comes from providing for their household, of being breadwinners! I entrust this task to you.”
We need to recommit to this focus. Human dignity is at the heart of our work. The value of all life is the beginning of all human dignity. The dignity of work embraces life. In the end, this is what Labor Day is all about.