Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Childhood of Christ, ca. 1620
Note: The following article appeared in the Winter-Spring 2020 issue of The Latin Mass magazine, the second in a series of articles on the cultus of Saint Joseph in honor of the Year proclaimed in his honor by Pope Francis. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its republication here.

Devotion to Saint Joseph can be an interesting “sign of the times,” a barometer of the crises that the Western believer faces. It is said that one of the reasons why Catholics in the late Middle Ages began praying to the Holy Family (which develops alongside Josephite piety) is that their own families were being confronted with new challenges. And devotion to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph became popular in the New World in part because it counterbalanced damage to the family caused by colonization. We also speculate that Joseph was a beloved saint in twentieth-century America because he was the kind of man most Catholic men at the time aspired to be: a quiet, strong patriarch who kept his head down but provided for his family and never failed to protect them.

The Popes and the Worker
And so it is not surprising that the last century and a half, which have witnessed massive social and economic upheavals, have brought into ever greater focus the importance of Joseph as a worker. Just as Pope Pius IX declared Joseph the universal patron of the Church in the mid-nineteenth century after the Papal States had been lost, Pope Leo XIII extolled Joseph as a model laborer in the late nineteenth century after the working class had been transformed by industrialization. One on hand, the Holy Father worried that capitalist employers might ignore the good of the working man’s soul and encourage his neglect of home and family. [1]  On the other, Leo saw that socialists “act against natural justice and destroy the structure of the home” when they replace family with State. [2]
Pope Leo XIII
Joseph was the solution to both extremes. Although the universal patron has something for everyone, he belongs by special right to “workmen, artisans, and persons of lesser degree,” for this royal son of David deigned to pass “his life in labour, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family.” [3]  Joseph’s example is a powerful reminder of the dignity of work: “The work of the labourer is not only not dishonouring,” Leo writes, “but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled.” [4] 
On the other hand, Joseph’s longsuffering acceptance of poverty cautions against an idolatrizing of work or profit and teaches us that the goods of the soul are far greater than those of the body. Above all, the just man Joseph is a model of magnanimity and law-abiding patience in the face of misfortune and mistreatment. The poor should look to his example and patronage rather than the mad and violent “promises of seditious men.” [5]
One of Leo’s favorite words to describe Joseph is opifex, the Latin for worker or laborer. In the original Greek, the Gospels describe Our Lord’s foster father as a tektōn or craftsman (faber in Latin), [6]  while tradition, private revelation, and later biblical translations further designate his trade as that of a carpenter. By referring to Joseph chiefly as a worker, Leo is casting the net as wide as possible to include not only skilled artisans but anyone who must work by the sweat of his brow. Joseph truly is everyman’s saint for daily toil.
Leo XIII’s successors built on this appreciation of the saint. In 1920, Benedict XV wrote that workers should follow Joseph as their patron instead of socialism, for “nothing is more inimical to Christian wisdom” than socialist ideology. [7] On March 19, 1937 (the Feast of Saint Joseph), Pius XI placed “the vast campaign of the Church against world Communism under the standard of Saint Joseph, her mighty protector.” [8] Joseph “belongs to the working-class,” the Pope explains, “and he bore the burdens of poverty for himself and the Holy Family, whose tender and vigilant head he was.” But Joseph was no Bolshevik. On the contrary, he was “a living model of that Christian justice which should reign in social life.” [9]
Pius XII shared the concerns of the pontiffs before him about the plight of the modern worker, who was crushed by a capitalist “machinery which is not only not in accordance with nature, but is at variance with God's plan and with the purpose He had in creating the goods of the earth.” [10] The main enemy, however, remained communism. When he was an apostolic nuncio in Munich in 1919, the future Pope got a taste of these “seditious men” when they stormed his quarters brandishing revolvers. Pius XII detested the agreement that Roosevelt and Churchill made with Stalin at Yalta to surrender Eastern Europe to Soviet totalitarianism, and he supported the Italian Christian Democratic Party and the lay movement Catholic Action in their anticommunist political efforts. In 1949, the Pope decreed that Christians who profess, defend, or promote materialistic communist doctrine incur the penalty of excommunication as apostates from the Christian faith, with the penalty reserved so that it may only be lifted by the Holy See. [11]
Feast of the Worker
Pius XII likewise considered Saint Joseph crucial to the Church’s defense of the working class and opposition to global communism, but instead of issuing an encyclical on the subject, he converted his conviction into liturgical worship. [12] In 1955, Pius XII established the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1. The Pope explained that he was instituting the new feast “so that the dignity of human labor…might sink more deeply into souls,” [13] yet clearly another goal was to supplant the communist celebration of May Day. The American and Canadian bishops understood this motive and petitioned Rome (unsuccessfully) to celebrate the feast in their countries on Labor Day. Italians jokingly call the feast San Giuseppe Comunista, but some conspiracy theorists have accused Pius XII of instituting it in deference to communism, an astonishing claim given the Pontiff’s track record against the Reds. If there is any controversy to the new feast, it is what it replaced. The Sacred Congregation for Rites was not pleased with the Pope’s decision because it displaced the ancient Feast of Saints Philip and James (which was subsequently moved to the first free day, May 11), [14] while the beautiful Solemnity of Joseph Patron of the Universal Church was abrogated. [15]
International Workers' Day in London
The feast’s propers for the Mass and Breviary are also not above criticism. The Psalm verses for the Gradual, Tract, Alleluia, and Offertory are taken from the so-called Bea Psalter, a Latin translation of the Psalms that was completed in 1944 under the supervision of Fr. Augustine Bea (president of the Pontifical Biblical Institute) at the behest of Pope Pius XII. Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, deplored the translation’s “German pedantry,” but the chief defect was its preference for the classical Latin of Cicero and Horace over the ecclesiastical Latin forged by the Church Fathers. As the old saying has it, Accessit latinitas, recessit pietas: Latinity comes near, and piety goes away. [16]
That said, the defects of these verses in the feast’s propers are not glaring, and in translation they are practically invisible. And their use creates a trivia question that only the nerdiest of traditionalists can answer: “How many different Latin translations of the Bible are in the 1962 Roman Missal?” Three: the Vulgate, the Bea Psalter, and the “Old Itala,” the predecessor of the Vulgate that is preserved in most of the Introits and Graduals because the lay faithful had grown fond of chanting them and could not be bothered to learn Saint Jerome’s new renderings. [17] “Nothing is so conservative as liturgical instinct,” writes Fr. Adrian Fortescue, and this early example of congregational stubbornness is proof of it. [18]
Further, just as the feast’s translations have been criticized for not using “churchy” language, so too has its music been accused of a similar failing. According to Dr. William Mahrt, president of the Church Music Association of America, the Gregorian chant for the feast is not Gregorian enough. When I asked him to explain what he meant in layman’s terms, he replied, “It’s too choppy; it jumps from one note to another.” [19] Real Gregorian chant has gradual transitions, giving it its sinewy, mellifluous, and ethereal quality.
Despite these problems, the feast’s propers nicely illustrate the theological significance of Saint Joseph as a worker, weaving together biblical passages from Wisdom, the Psalms, Colossians 3, 17 (“All whatsoever you do in word or work, do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”), and Matthew 13, 55 (“Is not this the carpenter’s son?”). The effect of these texts is first and foremost a deeper appreciation of how Saint Joseph preserved and increased his sanctity in the midst of his labors. But the feast also reveals a theology of work that is applicable to all of us today, no matter what our occupation. We shall return to this point later.
John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1850
Novus Ordo
In 1969, the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker was demoted from the highest possible rank (first class) to the lowest (optional memorial). The official reason given in Pope Paul VI’s Calendarium Romanum is that while the feast may have been celebrated with gusto by “associations of Christians workers,” it was celebrated with less enthusiasm by others. [20] It is a curious logic. Pius XII had wanted the feast to inculcate in everyone a proper respect for work and the worker, but because the feast was more popular with trade unions, this lesson was no longer to be mandatory.
It is also noteworthy that the feast was being demoted because it was liked only by blue collar slobs. One would think that the Church would want to do everything in her power to foster folk piety, but the 1969 calendar betrays a fairly consistent disdain for popular saints such as Valentine, Nicholas, Christopher, and Catherine of Alexandria. One detects a whiff of elitism in the decisions of the calendar’s creators about which saints they considered worthy of continued universal liturgical veneration.
The architects of the new calendar may have also demoted the feast because it was only fourteen years old. Despite Pope Pius XII’s warning against an archeologist mentality that privileges the old over the new and ignores authentic development, [21] the committee responsible for the 1969 General Calendar abolished the eighteenth-century Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (later restored), the nineteenth-century Feast of the Most Precious Blood, and the twentieth-century Feast of Christ the King. [22] Ironically, a calendar that abounds in novelties betrays an odd allergy to the relatively recent.
But there may have been an additional and more determinative consideration. Just as Pope Pius XII never explicitly mentioned the feast’s opposition to communism, Paul VI may have refrained from mentioning his ulterior motive for demoting the feast: his adoption of Ostpolitik, the policy of appeasing the Soviet bloc.
John XXIII and Paul VI saw communism differently than their predecessors. Historical sources now reveal that John XXIII badly wanted to have representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church present at the Second Vatican Council, even though their hierarchy had been infiltrated by the KGB. He therefore struck a deal with the Soviet Union: Russian Orthodox observers could attend, and the Council in turn would not utter a word against communism or Soviet tyranny. [23] John XXIII’s final encyclical, his 1963 Pacem in Terris, also gives the impression that it is overturning the Church’s condemnation of communism. 
Paul VI, who received Soviet authorities in 1966 and 1967 in the Vatican, wanted to help Christians behind the Iron Curtain, and indeed the plight of “the Silent Church” improved somewhat during his pontificate. But it came at the cost of betraying living martyrs. To appease the Hungarian government, Paul VI ordered József Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been tortured by the communists, to leave Budapest, solemnly promising him that he would remain primate of Hungary as long as he lived. The Pope relocated the Cardinal in Vienna and then reneged on his promise, appointing someone else as primate who was more acceptable to the communist leaders. Mindszenty died a broken man.
József Cardinal Mindszenty in 1956
My aim is not to condemn Vatican Ostpolitik, which had its successes: for example, it secured the 1963 release of Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainians who spent eighteen years in a Soviet gulag. I simply point out that a feast designed to oppose communism is surely out of place in an era of détente; it is a “sign of contradiction.” What is surprising about the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in the 1969 Missal is not that it was demoted but that it was retained at all.
Going Forward
The 1955 Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker is not perfect. It displaced or eliminated other feasts, uses a lame Psalter, and has clunky chant. Perhaps someday these shortcomings will be worked out by a process of organic development under wise and pious shepherds. In the meantime, there are compelling reasons to cherish this feast, warts and all.
First, communism is still alive and well, and because it is, it is appropriate to have a feast that defies it. Pope John Paul II rejected Paul VI’s Ostpolitik and joined forces with President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to confine Soviet communism to the ash heap of history. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI offered a brief but brilliant post-mortem of a century of “appalling destruction” wrought by communism. [24]
But history is filled with ironies. The Roman military conquest of ancient Greece led to the Greek cultural conquest of Rome, and the Allies’ victory over the Axis powers during World War II has been followed by an increasing triumph of Nazi doctrines in Allied countries, starting with Nietzschean nihilism and the legalized killing of the unwanted. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain may have left only a handful of communist nations worldwide, but as socially acceptable ideologies, communism and socialism have gained new footholds in most Western nations—the glaring exception being the Eastern European countries that actually experienced communist rule.
More disturbingly, amnesia about the evils of communism appears to have affected the highest echelons of the Church. According to some, Pope Francis’s recent agreement with the People’s Republic of China makes Paul VI’s betrayal of Mindszenty look mild by comparison. Retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen describes the deal as “suicide” and a “shameless surrender” [25] that could result in the “annihilation” of the Church in China, [26] and he cites the resurgence of the “double game” of Ostpolitik as the culprit behind this disastrous decision. [27] It is safe to say that every quadrant of Western society, both secular and sacred, could use a refresher course from Joseph the Worker.
Joseph Cardinal Zen
Second, the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker offers an important corrective to capitalism, or rather the “greed is good” doctrine that all too often animates it. For the Catholic, free enterprise and work are for the sake not of wealth but of exercising generosity; they are not an engine for comfort but an occasion for holiness. According to a mystical vision by Mary of Agreda, after Joseph and Mary were espoused, Joseph asked his young bride if he should continue his trade as a carpenter in order “to serve her and to gain something for distribution among the poor.” [28] Note the two reasons: Joseph wished to make money not in order to hoard it or to spend it on that bass boat with the new sonar he’d had his eye on but in order to provide for his family and the poor. Imagine if every wage-earner in the world thought and acted the same way!
Third and most importantly, the Feast of Joseph the Worker teaches us how to be holy in our work. As Peter Kwasniewski points out, the feast is not “a glorification of work” but a reveling in the contemplation of the Beatific Vision. [29] One of Our Lord’s commands is “Labour not for the food which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the Son of man will give you” (John 6, 27)—the everlasting food, of course, being the Eucharist. And the man whose life best exemplifies the idea of laboring for the Eucharist (even though he died before its institution!) is Saint Joseph. [30] For Joseph was the perfect “contemplative worker;” his daily chores were subordinated to and infused by a loving contemplation of his wife, the new Ark of the Covenant, and his foster son, the Bread of Life.
The feast hints at this contemplative dimension through what we might call the Adamic priesthood. The opening antiphon for Vespers is: “God, Maker of the world, put man to dress and keep the earth.” The Bible uses the terms for dressing and keeping (abad and shemar) to describe Adam’s work in Eden (Gen. 2, 15) as well as the Levites’ work in the Tabernacle (Numbers 8, 26). Just as Adam was the “High Priest” of Eden, Joseph is the priestly High Caretaker of the Holy Family. And since all who are baptized share in a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2, 9), we lowly laborers also participate to some extent in this sacerdotal dignity.
The same antiphon also makes an intriguing connection between divine and human work. Opifex Mundi or Maker of the World is an uncommon title for God lifted from Patristic literature, [31] and it invites a comparison with Joseph as an opifex. Work, even dirty work, has a nobility to it because God is a Worker too. As Gerard Manley Hopkins once preached in a sermon:
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall… sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in His grace you do it as your duty… A man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give Him glory too. He is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean they should. [32]
The May 1 feast rightly proclaims that God has given us a “brilliant and marvelous role model” and a “faithful protector of our labours” in the person of Saint Joseph. [33] While contemporary ideas about the nature and purpose of work remain as disordered as ever, let us heed the voice of the Church and go to Joseph until his title of Worker.

[1] Rerum Novarum 20.
[2] Rerum Novarum 14.
[3] Quamquam Pluries 4.
[4] Quamquam Pluries 4.
[5] Quamquam Pluries 5.
[6] See Matthew 13, 55.
[7] Bonum sane: AAS 12 (1920), 315, trans. mine.
[8] Divini Redemptoris, 81.
[9] Divini Redemptoris, 81, emphasis added.
[10] Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, 52.
[11] See the “Decree against Communism.” On April 4, 1959, the Holy Office stipulated that the 1949 decree implied a prohibition on voting for parties that were helping Communists, even if such parties themselves had inoffensive doctrines or called themselves Christian.
[12] That said, he also spoke on the subject. See Pius XII, Discourse (March 11, 1945), 4: AAS 37 (1945), p. 72: Discourse (May 1, 1955): AAS 47 (1955), p. 406.
[13] See the Matin readings.
[14] See Gregory DiPippo, “Some Liturgical Notes on St Joseph the Worker (and a Few Dominican Saints),” May 1, 2014,
[15] Michael P. Foley, “Patron par Excellence,” TLM 28:2 (Summer 2019), pp. 50-54.
[16] See Yves Chiron, Annibale Bugnini (Angelico Press, 2018), 38-39.
[17] Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Longmans, 1914), 223.
[18] Fortescue, 53. 
[19] Conversation at the Society for Catholic Liturgy conference in Providence, Rhode Island, September 2019.
[20] See Calendarium Romanum, 66-67.
[21] Mediator Dei, 59.
[22] Contrary to popular opinion, the Feast of Christ the King was not transferred from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year: it was replaced. See Foley, “Reflecting on the Fate of the Feast of Christ the King,” TLM 26:3 (Fall 2017), pp. 38-42.
[23] Edward Pentin, “Why Did Vatican II Ignore Communism?,” December 10, 2012,
[24] See Spe Salvi, 20-21.
[25] Elise Harris, “Cardinal Zen Calls China Deal 'Suicide,'” Catholic News Agency, February 28, 2018,
[26] “Cardinal Zen: The Vatican is Badly Mishandling China Situation,” Catholic News Agency, October 26, 2018,
[27] Harris, “Cardinal Zen Calls China Deal.”
[28] Mystical City of God, trans. Geo. J. Blatter (W.B. Conkey, 1914), I.XXII.765.
[29] Peter Kwasniewski, “The Danger of Activism,” May 1, 2017,
[30] The Mystery of Joseph (Zaccheus Press, 2009), 49.
[31] Ambrosiaster, Commentarius in Paul epistuluam ad Romanos (recensio gamma) 8.7; Quaestiones veteris et novi testamenti (Quaestiones numero CXXVII) qu. 3; Augustine, Contra adversarium legis et prophetarum 1.1.14; Prudentius, Amartigenia 116.
[32] “The Principle or Foundation,” pp. 523-527 in Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, vol. 5, eds. Jude V. Nixon and Noel Barber, S.J. (Oxford, 2018), 526.
[33] Antiphon 3 and Second Vespers versicle, resp.

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