About fifteen years ago I worked with a group of boys and girls on a fresco at their middle school in Juneau. For two weeks the students and I (along with my collaborator Kathy Sievers, an iconographer from Portland, Oregon) worked together. It was a true fresco, that is, we painted on wet plaster applied to the wall. The students worked hard: they dryed and cleaned sand, mixed troughs of lime plaster and applied in layers to the wall and ground and mixed colors and applied paint to the fresh plaster. It was a wonderful project and together we created a beautiful mural. We invited parents to come by and visit while we were working and observe the progress we made each day. We attracted a lot of fathers who worked in the building trades. They came in their work clothes and boots to watch their sons and daughters do in a school setting the kinds of tasks they did every day. One father, who hung drywall for a living, picked up a float and patiently showed the students (and his son) how to get the final painting coat perfectly smooth on the section we were preparing to paint that day. He stepped back to watch the students work and said to me that this week working on the fresco had been the first time he thought his son really understood and appreciated the work he did every day.
It’s no secret that the feast of St. Joseph the Worker was originally proposed by the Church in the middle years of the 20th century as an alternative to MayDay out of concern that Catholic workers in Europe were joining militant socialist (and later, communist) trade unions. Yet, this feast has also helped to underscore the dignity of work and of working people in an economic system that too often brazenly exploits manual workers and seeks everyway possible to cut costs (and boost profits) by outsourcing, automating or eliminating their jobs. Catholic social teaching proposes that every form of work has dignity, not only because work is necessary to human survival and flourishing but because work is one of the key ways we participate in society and is an intrinsic part of what it means to be fully human.