Catholic News Service
“Spirituality of work” is a phrase that sometimes elicits a bemused reaction. After all, putting together words with such divergent meanings might seem nonsensical, unless we take a closer look:
“Work” — an activity, mental or physical, paid or unpaid, and done in any number of locales, including a formal workplace or at home.
“Spirituality” — in a Christian sense refers to our relationship with God and the ways that we seek to deepen that connection.
Put the two meanings together for a definition of spirituality of work — an understanding that all human activity in one form or another presents us with an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God.
St. John Paul II expressed it similarly in his encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (“On Human Work”): “It follows that the whole person, body and spirit, participates in (work).” An understanding of the spiritual aspects of work “will help all people to come closer, through work, to God” and “deepen their friendship with Christ in their lives.”
We find the entirety of St. John Paul’s theology of work in this 1981 encyclical. It was written to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (on capital and labor), considered to be the first of the Catholic Church’s social teaching documents.
St. John Paul wrote “Laborem Exercens” at a time he expressed to be “the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions (that) … will influence the world of work and production no less than the Industrial Revolution of the last century.” We can only stand in astonishment and awe at the truth of his prediction!
In this document, St. John Paul addressed many issues that have come to the forefront in our present day: increasing technological advances; the rights and dignity of workers; issues of work, society and family; and conflict between labor and capital. To help us find the right path through this minefield of modern work, he offered us some wisdom from the church’s teaching.
St. John Paul’s discourse on work begins at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden: “The church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth.”
Created in God’s image and likeness, man receives a “mandate” to “subdue, to dominate, the earth” and shares by his work in the activity of the Creator.” This “awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate … even ‘the most ordinary everyday activities,'” said the pope.
We know that we are created in God’s image, but have we thought, really deeply, of the consequences and responsibilities of that truth; it is a truth that implies a partnership with God. This partnership is not just a “Sunday thing.”
We are to live out our faith everywhere we find ourselves, and that includes the workplace.
The Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes” decried the “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives (that) deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” This strong statement should make us pause to consider if we live with such a “split” in our own lives.
St. John Paul’s theology elsewhere presented work as blessing, not a hardship: “Work corresponds to God’s design and will. … Work is a primordial blessing from the Creator, an activity permitting people to realize themselves and to offer service to society.”
Again, in “Laborem Exercens,” he helped us realize that work has both an intrinsic and extrinsic value: “Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society.”
Our work forms and shapes us. Through work, we become more who we were meant to be.
St. Francis de Sales said it well: “Be who you are, and be that well.” At the same time, we give glory to the Creator who endowed us with the gifts and talents we employ to make our world a better place.
Work becomes a sacred endeavor when exercised with love, integrity and gratitude, benefiting self, family, co-workers and society.
To workers in Jasna Gorna, Poland, St. John Paul said: “Work must help man to become better, more mature spiritually, more responsible, in order that he may realize his vocation on earth both as an unrepeatable person and in community with others, especially in the fundamental human community constituted by the family.”
It is no surprise that pronouncements on the sanctity of human work come from a pope who knew well the rigors of working. Young Karol Wojtyla was a restaurant delivery boy, a stonecutter in a limestone quarry, a repairman for railroad tracks at a chemical plant.
It was these experiences that prompted him once to say, “Through (my) own experience of work, I (boldly) say that (I) learned the Gospel anew.”
Are we able to say the same?
Burkey is adjunct professor of pastoral theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
Catholic News Service