The century of work
Posted by on 16 July 2009 ·
The 20th Century should have been the century of work. And in a certain sense, this has been the case. Work has been the object of studies, the reason for social battles, the cause of war, and has given rise to parties and associations. A number of movements active throughout the century were motivated by the promotion of workers: the communist, the socialist, and catholic movements. The past century has also witnessed the killing of millions of workers who did not fit into the revolutionary plan. Only consider that the Nazis sarcastically wrote “Work brings freedom” over the entrance gates of Auschwitz. The Church has also addressed the issue of work with workers themselves. In particular, after Pope Leo XIII, this topic was given a central part in the Church’s social doctrine which was developed and spread thanks to the contribution of the great encyclical letters of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI.
But in general, the 20th Century had seen—especially in its second half—a general confusion regarding the meaning and joy of work. I personally think that this is one of the most serious illnesses that affect our society. No matter what people are called to do, work is crucial to our lives. Without work man is unable to express himself, he loses touch with reality, he does not feel loved, and he is unable to love. Surely, one of the many merits of the teaching of John Paul II—who was himself a worker when he was young—has been to bring work’s reality and it’s falsification back to the center of attention.
Without a doubt there is also a profound resemblance between the position of John Paul and the teaching of Father Giussani on the theme of work, the latter collected in the book L’io, il potere, le opere (The I, the Power, and the Works). We have decided to dedicate this issue of Fraternità e Missione to work, so that this month of July—a summer month and time for holidays—will be an opportunity to start thinking about the meaning of the time we spend working.
I. A creative relationship
Man’s work, no matter what kind, involves a primary aspect of his personality. Man can grow through his work. Through it he apprehends both himself and reality, that he is dependent, but also that he can change and transform. It is therefore self-evident that work coincides with vocation.
When someone has not been educated to work, or if they cannot work, they are unable to understand life and the promise of the Infinite, the hope that it contains. On the other hand, through work, man comes in contact with people and things. It has always been like this; man always needs a creative relationship with reality; his awareness of himself and of the world go hand in hand.
When Adam and Eve were banned from the earthly paradise, God—who put man in the Garden of Eden to work and cultivate it (Gen 2:15)—spoke significant but terrible words to them. God said that since they had disobeyed His commandment, the ground would be cursed—that it would bear fruit, but only through hard work and that bread would be made by the sweat of man’s brow (Gen 3:17 -19). These words show the close relationship that exists among man, work, and God. Not only do we have the chance, through work, to know ourselves and take part in God’s creation; but, from a deeper perspective, we are also purified and therefore closer to God. Through work, God calls us to fulfil His design.
Work is therefore not only a punishment. It is not only an effort or a burden. All these are integral aspects but not its essence. Unfortunately, today, many people only see work in one way. They can only conceive of it as effort and they try to avoid it. In this way, they avoid personal growth. For man does not have a one-way relationship with reality—either intellectual or recreational. He does not exclusively meditate about it or play with it; he also wants to create and change it. For this reason God made the world incomplete and has entrusted to man his completion.
III. To enter into the work of God
For those who believe and have been baptized, work is the primary way to contribute in building the Body of Christ. When work is carried out in memory of Christ, things slowly start to fit into place, people re-discover the meaning of their lives, and creation recovers the unity which was lost through the original sin. It is not an accident that St. Benedict linked prayer and work, since he did not conceive them as two discrete parts of the day, but as two expressions of our life, balancing and intertwining with each other. It is actually impossible to live only for work or to sacrifice everything for work. Work is not the absolute good; it is an instrument which allows man to collaborate in God’s design, to enter into His work, and to take part in the building of His Kingdom. For this reason starting the day with a few moments of silence is crucial and is even more important than the evening silence. The desire for work, together with the desire for well-earned rest, is the expression of a healthy Christian life. There is no Christian life without the desire for work. For me it is terrible to see people whose ideal in life is to work less or not to work at all; people who are terrified by the effort, that do not feel a burning passion for the incompleteness of the world.
IV. To serve Christ
Work is the fundamental way in which we build the Body of Christ. This is actually the exhaustive meaning of our existence: to serve Christ. The way to learn how to love is by beginning to serve. It is precisely daily service that gets us into the rhythm of love. The rhythm of true love, of mature love, is faithfulness. And the only way to get into this rhythm is to serve. Slowly, slowly you will forget that you are serving; the only thing you will notice is that you are loving.
Following this path of daily work the greatest thing on earth can be realized: learning how to love Christ.