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.
We are going to publish the witness given by Francesco Ferrari, a seminarian of the Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, during the pilgrimage from Macerata to Loreto, which recently took place.
My name is Francesco, and I am preparing for the priesthood with the Fraternity of Saint Charles. I come from Reggio Emilia, where my father and mother restore antique furniture. In the summertime, when I was younger, my three brothers and I used to help them. We would sand and polish, paint and repair, in order to restore those old pieces of wood to their original beauty. It was so satisfying to build something for my dad—to do it for him and to discover that I could be really useful to him.
At home, I learned the Christian faith not through words but through the beauty of the Christian life my parents lived. We often received visits from a group of priests, friends of the family, who were missionaries to Mexico, to Africa, to Russia. When I looked at them I was deeply fascinated, though mainly by the heroic aspect of the mission. I later found out, however, that my feeling was genuine and deeply rooted in my soul.
At 17, I made my first real attempt to confront this fascination—I fell in love with a girl. I started our relationship with great conviction, and wanted it to be permanent. Sometimes I shared with her my desire to have a large family, and to love her always. More precisely, I desired that both she and what I could build with her would last forever, that our relationship would embody that ideal, which was always present. As time passed, however, a certain dissatisfaction crept in silently. I looked at this girl, and despite my love for her, was paradoxically pervaded by a deep and unknown sense of sadness: “This is not it; this is not it. What you are looking for is Something Else.”
In March of my first year at university, I finally decided that I could not wait any longer—I understood what my life had been made for. I wanted to live exactly like those missionaries; I could not conceive anything more noble and desirable than virginity; I had no thought but Christ. Why would I search elsewhere for something only He could give? We had been together for more than two years, when I went to see her and told her I wanted to devote my life to Christ, in virginity. She cried for a long time and then, looking at me she said, “If this is what God wants, I will accept His will.” Nobody had ever loved me more. When I went home I cried, a little bit for what I was losing but mostly for joy because of all I was gaining. On this occasion I made my second crucial discovery: it is possible to love truly—this is what she showed me that evening. It is possible to look through Christ’s eyes, to love with His heart. On the path that has led me to the seminary, I have continued to hope that Christ will fill me and those I love, so that we may love with a new and eternal love. Today this is the certainty that nourishes my desire to bring into the world, through my poor eyes, the loving gaze of Christ.
The Way of the Cross is an experience to be lived and for this reason it is a road to be discovered. Step-by-step, without haste, without giving in to endless distraction, and asking for the grace to be able truly to identify in first person with the cross of Christ, we begin to know God and, therefore, we begin to know man.
God appears to me in the awesome wonder of His love and I cannot avoid anything that God is calling me to accomplish along the way of the cross. God is love and for this reason He is absolute correspondence, immeasureable fullness, and endless mercy (cfr. Psalm 16:11). However, God is only so according to the criteria He determines, and by way of the path He forges. The “road” is God’s freedom united with our own in order to be made like Him. His love is overwhelming for this reason: He loves our freedom so much that he does not interfere in order to keep us from sin. Though He wishes to move us towards ultimate good, He allows us to choose roads that lead us far away from Him, while constantly providing the way for us to start over and be rescued from our nothingness.
This is how God appears to us on the way of the cross: as a lover seeking the beloved, willing to enter the dark pit of our existence. Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death you are with me (cfr. Psalm 23:4).