China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Apr

International Workers’ Day, May 1 and St. Joseph

In the 19th century, the coming of the Industrial Revolution brought excessively long hours of toil for manual workers. On 1 May 1886, workers in the United States of America (US) went on strike for shorter hours. Union organisers demanded an eight-hour day, six days a week.

They marched in several cities, and the police arrested demonstrators. That led to another rally in Chicago on May 4. The police drew their revolvers, someone threw a bomb, and Haymarket Square was filled with smoke and gunshots.

Who started the bloodshed? After people fled in chaos and a dozen bodies lay in the street, that question could never be answered. Within a few years, workers around the world were marching in solidarity on May 1, International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day in most countries. One early focus was the abolition of child labour.

During the 20th century, May 1 became identified as a communist holiday. In addition to speeches and the distribution of literature, party-sponsored gatherings were also social events. For example, during the 1930s, a hall rented by the communists was the only place in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, where whites and blacks danced together – quite daring in the days of racial segregation!

In that era, the Catholic Church in the southern US almost never challenged the wider society, but maintained separate schools and Church services according to race.

A Catholic response to a communist holiday

In 1955, Pope Pius XII designated a new feast in honour of St. Joseph the Worker, to be observed on May 1.

The foster father of Our Lord already had a solemnity on March 19. The preface calls him, “that just man, that wise and loyal servant, whom you placed at the head of your family” and the proper prayers mention “care” and “serve” a couple of times.

The prayers on May 1 focus on human labour in the light of faith: “With St. Joseph as our example and guide, help us to do the work you have asked and come to the rewards you have promised” and “…may our lives manifest your love; may we rejoice forever in your peace.” Since millions of Catholic workers had a free day on May 1, why not invite them to Mass that morning in honour of a fellow worker? Better to have them listen to a sermon on patient toil than to a fiery speech on the struggles of the working class.

Rather than watch workers gravitate to a socialist or even to a communist event, which often belittled religion, it was better to organise some activities in the parish hall.

More than a century of Catholic social teaching

Workers were undeniably exploited during the Industrial Revolution. England came close to revolution during the summer of 1842 and short-lived uprisings across urban Europe in 1848 inspired Marx to compose The Communist Manifesto.

Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891. He analysed the antagonism between labour and management, and urged both sides to live in harmony. Many non-Catholics dismissed the encyclical as mere nostalgia for the guilds of the Middle Ages. Yet some “good Catholics” found Rerum Novarum threatening. They tried – and sometimes succeeded – in preventing it from being read from the pulpit.

At the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, made a number of points on work.

When China was turning increasingly inward, the encyclical took a global viewpoint on one human family “In a world that is becoming more and more unified day by day.” (n. 24) God created the world for all people, not just for a few, and so “we must never lose sight of this universal destination of earthly goods” (n. 69). Private ownership is good and necessary, but the right to own property has never been an absolute right in Catholic social teaching, since, “by its nature, private property has a social dimension” (n. 71). For the common good, the state can place restrictions on the ownership or the use of vital resources.

Pope John Paul II further developed this teaching with encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), issued on 1 May 1991, the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. People are more than producers and consumers. Yes! Excessive focus on making and spending money distracts people not only from eternal values, but also from family, friends and a balanced social life.

Modern economies are addicted to economic growth and rely upon ever-increasing consumer spending. Someone defined the ethos of a consumer society as “buying things we do not need, with money we do not have, in order to impress people we do not like.” By that definition, none of the people described in the New Testament would feel at home in today’s affluent society.

Work and leisure in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)

The current Chinese constitution dates from 1982. It has several articles on work and recreation:

Art. 42 “Citizens of the PRC have the right as well as the duty to work… Work is the glorious duty of every able-bodied citizen. All working people … should perform their tasks with an attitude consonant with their status as masters of the country.” Most people try to avoid dangerous, sweaty or monotonous jobs, but glorious or not, those jobs are still essential.

Art. 43 “Working people in the PRC have the right to rest.” Yes! That is why the finding of boys and men working like slaves in a brick kiln last year aroused great public indignation. Some of the employers, or rather the kidnappers, were sentenced to prison.

Art. 44 “The livelihood of retired personnel is ensured by the state and society.” Over the next 20 years, this will become harder to guarantee in many nations as the percentage of seniors increases. In China, the social welfare net is better for permanent urban residents than for farmers.

Art. 45 “Citizens of the PRC have the right to material assistance from the state and society when they are old, ill or disabled. The state develops the social insurance, social relief and medical and health services that are required to enable citizens to enjoy this right… The state and society help make arrangements for the work, livelihood and education of the blind, deaf-mutes and other disadvantaged citizens.”

The retirement age, currently 60 in China, will have to be gradually increased. Sixty is not elderly today, since average life expectancy in China is now 72.88 years; 71.13 for men and 74.82 for women.

St. Joseph in mainland China

Catholics in China consistently refer to the senior carpenter from Nazareth as “great St. Joseph.” They do not put “great” before St. Peter, St. Paul, or any other saint.

When Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955, China’s Catholics were already isolated from the rest of the world. Perhaps early missionaries stressed the greatness of St. Joseph as protector of the Holy Family. Yet Chinese Catholics were mostly country people with little education, unlike the smaller number of pre-1949 Protestants who were mostly urban. Maybe the working Catholics of China were well positioned to see the nobility of honest, low-key labour and to value St. Joseph accordingly.

Looking at a tourist guide to Catholic churches in China, we see that Immaculate Conception and Immaculate Heart are the most common names, but of 10 major cities, at least four (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Wuhan) have a St. Joseph church.

The total may actually be higher, since many churches are popularly called either “the cathedral” or named after a certain neighbourhood. A church named for St. Ignatius or St. Francis reveals which congregation worked in that diocese before 1949.

St. Joseph in Hong Kong

St. Joseph rates three churches in the territory. The first, on Hong Kong island, was opened in 1872. The present church is the third one on that site. Parishes in Kowloon Bay and Fanling are also dedicated to him.

St. Joseph’s church on Garden Road, Hong Kong, is the best known of the three because of the thousands of Filipino domestic workers who congregate there every Sunday. This is fitting, considering how hard they work.

Like St. Joseph, they are neither highly paid nor prominent in high society. What Sirach said about the skilled craftspeople of ancient Israel also applies to the women who are raising the next generation of Hong Kong people. “Without them no city could be lived in… They do not occupy the judge’s bench, nor are they prominent in the assembly; They set forth no decisions or judgments, nor are they found among the rulers; Yet they maintain God’s ancient handiwork…” (Sir. 38:32-34)

Workers who are organised can give comfort, rest and encouragement to each other. Our diocese sponsors the Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs.

A role for St. Joseph the Worker even today

The five-day workweek did not become common in the US until the 1930s. In the 1960s, computers were becoming smaller, faster and cheaper. Experts predicted that one day, every office would have one computer. Then productivity would increase. People would be able to finish their work more quickly. As a result of automation, by the year 2000, everyone would work from Monday through Thursday only and enjoy three days off every weekend. How wonderful life would be in the 21st century!

However, many white-collar workers today are working longer hours than their parents did in 1968. Some people spend more time in the office in 2008 than their grandparents did in 1938. What went wrong? Whatever happened to leisure time?

Jesus the carpenter still has pity on us, just as he felt compassion for the crowds 2,000 years ago. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Great St. Joseph, pray for us!