My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we celebrate Labor Day this year on Sept. 2, this is a good time for us to reflect on the meaning of work, why we work, and what we hope to gain from our work. At its most basic level, people work to earn a living to pay the bills. But if that is all that it means, our work quickly becomes nothing more than boring tasks that we must do if we want to collect our paycheck.
Work takes on a deeper meaning when it is done for a higher purpose and not just narrow self-interest. For example, work becomes more meaningful when it is done to support one’s spouse and family. Knowing that our work will benefit others gives it a sense of purpose that transcends our own selfish concerns.
Work also becomes more satisfying when our tasks involving doing things that we enjoy, either because we have the talents to do them well or they simply give us a sense of satisfaction at their accomplishment, like being a carpenter, a writer, an accountant, an artist, a teacher, a farmer, or a pharmacist.
Although our culture often places primacy on generating wealth, the reality is that money in itself does not make people happy. A certain amount of money is needed to avoid physical misery due to hunger, thirst, poor health, or lack of shelter. But an excess of wealth does not guarantee more happiness if the deeper sense of inner satisfaction is missing.
On the other hand, people who have low-paying jobs with menial tasks can find meaning in their work by being mindful of the people who are being served by their labors, such as a housekeeping worker who cleans hotel rooms, keeping in mind the hotel guests who will be using the facilities and wanting to make them as clean and pleasant as possible for the guests’ benefit. This is a very concrete expression of loving one’s neighbor.
Ultimately, the deepest sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that one’s life and efforts are an authentic expression of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind and soul. Vocations such as being a priest, a nun, a religious brother or sister, or a lay ecclesial minister are ideal ways to dedicate one’s life and labors to serving God and neighbor. But every profession or occupation can be seen as a way of serving God and neighbor in the unique way that our Lord calls each of us to lead our lives.
St. Josemaría Escrivá understood this well when he founded Opus Dei in 1928. The name Opus Dei is Latin for “the work of God.” While monks and nuns have their own unique charisms, the spirituality of Opus Dei is specifically intended for lay people to find holiness in their everyday lives through the sanctification of their work and daily activities. Work, family life, and the ordinary events of each day are opportunities for drawing close to Christ, and making him known to others. St. Josemaría encouraged people to connect prayer with their work, saying, “I will never tire of repeating that we have to be contemplative souls in the midst of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer.”
Pope St. John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter in 1981 called, “Laborem exercens,” “On the Dignity of Human Work.” In it, he described a spirituality of work that is based on its relationship to the creative work of God, the redemptive work of the cross, and the salvific hope of the resurrection.
With regard to sharing the God’s creative activity, he wrote, “Awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate, as the [Second Vatican] Council teaches, even ‘the most ordinary everyday activities. For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society. They can justly consider that by their labor they are unfolding the Creator’s work.’”
With regard to the cross and resurrection, Pope St. Paul II wrote, “The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.