In 1981, St. John Paul II issued an encyclical letter called Laborem Exercens, it is a sustained reflection on human labor and work and how work, which takes up a tremendous amount of our time and energy over the course of our lives, is tied in to our faith, both in the dignity that we find as workers, as well as the need for just labor practices and a reminder that we are made for more than work. On this Labor Day weekend, then, I wanted to include a part of this encyclical letter for our own reflection:
“Remaining within the context of man as the subject of work, it is now appropriate to touch upon, at least in a summary way, certain problems that more closely define the dignity of human work, in that they make it possible to characterize more fully its specific moral value. In doing this we must always keep in mind the biblical calling to ‘subdue the earth’, in which is expressed the will of the Creator that work should enable man to achieve that ‘dominion’ in the visible world that is proper to him.
God's fundamental and original intention with regard to man, whom he created in his image and after his likeness, was not withdrawn or cancelled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God, heard the words: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onwards has accompanied human work; but they do not alter the fact that work is the means whereby man achieves that ‘dominion’ which is proper to him over the visible world, by ‘subjecting’ the earth. Toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. It is familiar to those doing physical work under sometimes exceptionally laborious conditions. It is familiar not only to agricultural workers, who spend long days working the land, which sometimes ‘bears thorns and thistles’, but also to those who work in mines and quarries, to steel-workers at their blast-furnaces, to those who work in builders' yards and in construction work, often in danger of injury or death. It is likewise familiar to those at an intellectual workbench; to scientists; to those who bear the burden of grave responsibility for decisions that will have a vast impact on society. It is familiar to doctors and nurses, who spend days and nights at their patients' bedside. It is familiar to women, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of their own families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children. It is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone.
And yet, in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.”
If you would be interested in reading the encyclical letter in its entirety, it along with many papal and Church documents can be found at www.vatican.va. A joyful and restful Labor Day weekend to all of you!