Is your work to die for?

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and this post examines Pope Francis’ beautiful Apostolic Letter “With A Father’s Heart” to explore the practical ways in which we can see work as a context for self-gift through which we fulfill the meaning of our lives.

I have organized the themes of the letter into the following eight categories. Each category begins with a excerpt from the letter and then includes a question or two for our contemplation of some possible practical applications.

1. Names and Relationships:

Joseph had the courage to become the legal father of Jesus, to whom he gave the name revealed by the angel: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). As we know, for ancient peoples, to give a name to a person or to a thing, as Adam did in the account in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:19-20), was to establish a relationship.

Do we use one another’s names at work, mindful that addressing one another by name is a sign of relationship that deepens the connection we have to one another?

2. Foreignness and Hiddenness: 

To protect Jesus from Herod, Joseph dwelt as a foreigner in Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-18). After returning to his own country, he led a hidden life in the tiny and obscure village of Nazareth in Galilee, far from Bethlehem, his ancestral town, and from Jerusalem and the Temple. Of Nazareth it was said, “No prophet is to rise” (cf. Jn 7:52) and indeed, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (cf. Jn 1:46).

Are we willing to uproot ourselves or to work in obscurity out of love and responsibility?

3. Formation and Accompaniment: 

Joseph saw Jesus grow daily “in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favour” (Lk 2:52). As the Lord had done with Israel, so Joseph did with Jesus: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand; he was for him like a father who raises an infant to his cheeks, bending down to him and feeding him (cf. Hos 11:3-4).

Do we see work as a context to give formation and accompaniment to others by word and example? Do we relish each task as an opportunity to give witness to loving service done with a cheerful and sincere heart?

4. Tenderness and Mercy: 

Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work. Joseph, then, teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses. He also teaches us that amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times, we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture.

Are we sensitive to the fears and frailties of those with whom we work? Are we mindful of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities? Do we try to conceal and overcome every weakness or do we admit our weaknesses to one another, mindful that this is the means to encountering one another in sincerity and truth?

5. Obedience through Suffering:

During the hidden years in Nazareth, Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father. That will was to be his daily food (cf. Jn 4:34). Even at the most difficult moment of his life, in Gethsemane, Jesus chose to do the Father’s will rather than his own,[16] becoming “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews thus concludes that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8).

Do we earnestly desire to grow in obedience, or does the word still repel us and fill us with suspicion? Have we ever pondered the way in which it is often precisely suffering and struggle that lead us to our greatest growth in virtue?

6. Acceptance and Welcome:

Joseph’s attitude encourages us to accept and welcome others as they are, without exception, and to show special concern for the weak, for God chooses what is weak (cf. 1 Cor 1:27). He is the “Father of orphans and protector of widows” (Ps 68:6), who commands us to love the stranger in our midst.[20] I like to think that it was from Saint Joseph that Jesus drew inspiration for the parable of the prodigal son and the merciful father (cf. Lk 15:11-32).

Do we exercise any sort of preferential option for the poor through our work? Have we experienced the joy of authentic encounter with those we might consider weak, poor, less educated, and even less moral?

7. Cooperating and Creating: 

Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion. It becomes an opportunity for the fulfilment not only of oneself, but also of that primary cell of society which is the family. […] Working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us.

Is my work the result of my education and experience only, or do I decipher God’s providence and grace in the course of both my daily activities and my lifelong trajectory? In what ways am I actively trying to cooperate with God through my work?

8. Freedom and Responsibility:

Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a “most chaste” father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus. […] When fathers refuse to live the lives of their children for them, new and unexpected vistas open up. Every child is the bearer of a unique mystery that can only be brought to light with the help of a father who respects that child’s freedom.

Do I conduct my own work in a spirit of great personal freedom and personal responsibility? Do I work with integrity? How do I affirm the personal freedom and personal responsibility of every person I serve and of every person with whom I cooperate?

I had no idea what direction this post why going to go, but I think I can see why St. Joseph is both the Patron of Workers and the Patron of a happy death.

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