Laborem Exercens, Chapter V
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V. ELEMENTS FOR A SPIRITUALITY OF WORK
24. A Particular Task for the Church
It is right to devote the last part of these reflections about human work, on the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, to the spirituality of work in the Christian sense. Since work in its subjective aspect is always a personal action, an actus personae, it follows that the whole person, body and spirit, participates in it, whether it is manual or intellectual work. It is also to the whole person that the word of the living God is directed, the evangelical message of salvation, in which we find many points which concern human work and which throw particular light on it. These points need to be properly assimilated: an inner effort on the part of the human spirit, guided by faith, hope and charity, is needed in order that through these points the work of the individual human being may be given the meaning which it has in the eyes of God and by means of which work enters into the salvation process on a par with the other ordinary yet particularly important components of its texture.
The Church considers it her duty to speak out on work from the viewpoint of its human value and of the moral order to which it belongs, and she sees this as one of her important tasks within the service that she renders to the evangelical message as a whole. At the same time she sees it as her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God, the Creator and Redeemer, to participate in his salvific plan for man and the world and to deepen their friendship with Christ in their lives by accepting, through faith, a living participation in his threefold mission as Priest, Prophet and King, as the Second Vatican Council so eloquently teaches.
25. Work as a Sharing in the Activity of the Creator
As the Second Vatican Council says, “throughout the course of the centuries, men have laboured to better the circumstances of their lives through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort. To believers, this point is settled: considered in itself, such human activity accords with God’s will. For man, created to God’s image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth”27.
The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation. We find this truth at the very beginning of Sacred Scripture, in the Book of Genesis, where the creation activity itself is presented in the form of “work” done by God during “six days”28, “resting” on the seventh day29. Besides, the last book of Sacred Scripture echoes the same respect for what God has done through his creative “work” when it proclaims: “Great and wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty”30; this is similar to the Book of Genesis, which concludes the description of each day of creation with the statement: “And God saw that it was good”31.
This description of creation, which we find in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, is also in a sense the first “gospel of work”. For it shows what the dignity of work consists of: it teaches that man ought to imitate God, his Creator, in working, because man alone has the unique characteristic of likeness to God. Man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest. This activity by God in the world always continues, as the words of Christ attest: “My Father is working still …”32: he works with creative power by sustaining in existence the world that he called into being from nothing, and he works with salvific power in the hearts of those whom from the beginning he has destined for “rest”33in union with himself in his “Father’s house”34. Therefore man’s work too not only requires a rest every “seventh day”35), but also cannot consist in the mere exercise of human strength in external action; it must leave room for man to prepare himself, by becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be, for the “rest” that the Lord reserves for his servants and friends36.
Awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate, as the 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 labour they are unfolding the Creator’s work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan”37.
This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all. Especially in the modern age, the spirituality of work should show the maturity called for by the tensions and restlessness of mind and heart. “Far from thinking that works produced by man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of his own mysterious design. For the greater man’s power becomes, the farther his individual and community responsibility extends. … People are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world, or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows. They are, rather, more stringently bound to do these very things”38.
The knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it in various sectors. “The faithful, therefore”, we read in the Constitution Lumen Gentium, “must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, and its orientation to the praise of God. Even by their secular activity they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace… Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labour, technical skill, and civil culture created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his Word”.39
Return to 4.3.9 (commentary on Chapter V)
26. Christ , the Man of Work
The truth that by means of work man participates in the activity of God himself, his Creator, was given particular prominence by Jesus Christ-the Jesus at whom many of his first listeners in Nazareth “were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him?.. Is not this the carpenter?'”40. For Jesus not only proclaimed but first and foremost fulfilled by his deeds the “gospel”, the word of eternal Wisdom, that had been entrusted to him. Therefore this was also “the gospel of work”, because he who proclaimed it was himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth41. And if we do not find in his words a special command to work-but rather on one occasion a prohibition against too much anxiety about work and life42– at the same time the eloquence of the life of Christ is unequivocal: he belongs to the “working world”, he has appreciation and respect for human work. It can indeed be said that he looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father. Is it not he who says: “My Father is the vinedresser”43, and in various ways puts into his teaching the fundamental truth about work which is already expressed in the whole tradition of the Old Testament, beginning with the Book of Genesis?
The books of the Old Testament contain many references to human work and to the individual professions exercised by man: for example, the doctor44, the pharmacist45, the craftsman or artist46, the blacksmith47-we could apply these words to today’s foundry-workers-the potter48, the farmer49, the scholar50, the sailor51, the builder52, the musician53, the shepherd54, and the fisherman55. The words of praise for the work of women are well known56. In his parables on the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ constantly refers to human work: that of the shepherd57, the farmer58, the doctor59, the sower60, the householder61, the servant62, the steward63, the fisherman64, the merchant65, the labourer66. He also speaks of the various form of women’s work67. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters68 or fishermen69. He refers to the work of scholars too70.
This teaching of Christ on work, based on the example of his life during his years in Nazareth, finds a particularly lively echo in the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul boasts of working at his trade (he was probably a tent-maker)71, and thanks to that work he was able even as an Apostle to earn his own bread72. “With toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you”73. Hence his instructions, in the form of exhortation and command, on the subject of work: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living”, he writes to the Thessalonians74. In fact, noting that some “are living in idleness … not doing any work”75, the Apostle does not hesitate to say in the same context: “If any one will not work, let him not eat”76. In another passage he encourages his readers: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward”77.
The teachings of the Apostle of the Gentiles obviously have key importance for the morality and spirituality of human work. They are an important complement to the great though discreet gospel of work that we find in the life and parables of Christ, in what Jesus “did and taught”78.
On the basis of these illuminations emanating from the Source himself, the Church has always proclaimed what we find expressed in modern terms in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: “Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered … Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it”79.
Such a vision of the values of human work, or in other words such a spirituality of work, fully explains what we read in the same section of the Council’s Pastoral Constitution with regard to the right meaning of progress: “A person is more precious for what he is than for what he has. Similarly, all that people do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, and a more humane ordering of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about”80.
This teaching on the question of progress and development-a subject that dominates presentday thought-can be understood only as the fruit of a tested spirituality of human work; and it is only on the basis of such a spirituality that it can be realized and put into practice. This is the teaching, and also the programme, that has its roots in “the gospel of work”.
27. Human Work in the Light of the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ
There is yet another aspect of human work, an essential dimension of it, that is profoundly imbued with the spirituality based on the Gospel. All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil. The Book of Genesis expresses it in a truly penetrating manner: the original blessing of work contained in the very mystery of creation and connected with man’s elevation as the image of God is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”81. This toil connected with work marks the way of human life on earth and constitutes an announcement of death: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken”82. Almost as an echo of these words, the author of one of the Wisdom books says: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it”83. There is no one on earth who could not apply these words to himself.
In a sense, the final word of the Gospel on this matter as on others is found in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. It is here that we must seek an answer to these problems so important for the spirituality of human work. The Paschal Mystery contains the Cross of Christ and his obedience unto death, which the Apostle contrasts with the disobedience which from the beginning has burdened man’s history on earth84. It also contains the elevation of Christ, who by means of death on a Cross returns to his disciples in the Resurrection with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do85. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day86 in the activity that he is called upon to perform.
Christ, “undergoing death itself for all of us sinners, taught us by example that we too must shoulder that cross which the world and the flesh inflict upon those who pursue peace and justice”; but also, at the same time, “appointed Lord by his Resurrection and given all authority in heaven and on earth, Christ is now at work in people’s hearts through the power of his Spirit… He animates, purifies, and strengthens those noble longings too, by which the human family strives to make its life more human and to render the whole earth submissive to this goal”87.
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”88 in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work. Through toil-and never without it. On the one hand this confirms the indispensability of the Cross in the spirituality of human work; on the other hand the Cross which this toil constitutes reveals a new good springing from work itself, from work understood in depth and in all its aspects and never apart from work.
Is this new good-the fruit of human work-already a small part of that “new earth” where justice dwells89? If it is true that the many forms of toil that go with man’s work are a small part of the Cross of Christ, what is the relationship of this new good to the Resurrection of Christ?
The Council seeks to reply to this question also, drawing light from the very sources of the revealed word: “Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world and loses himself (cf. Lk 9: 25), the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. Earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom. Nevertheless, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God”90.
In these present reflections devoted to human work we have tried to emphasize everything that seemed essential to it, since it is through man’s labour that not only “the fruits of our activity” but also “human dignity, brotherhood and freedom” must increase on earth91. Let the Christian who listens to the word of the living God, uniting work with prayer, know the place that his work has not only inearthly progress but also in the development ot the Kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Gospel.
In concluding these reflections, I gladly impart the Apostolic Blessing to all of you, venerable Brothers and beloved sons and daughters.
I prepared this document for publication on 15 May last, on the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, but it is only after my stay in hospital that I have been able to revise it definitively.
Given at Castel Gandolfo, on the fourteenth day of September, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, in the year 1981, the third of the Pontificate.
Return to 4.3.9 (commentary on Chapter V)
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