This Saturday is the feast of St Joseph the Worker, a special observance established by Pope Pius XII some years ago to coincide with ‘May Day’, associated with the struggle for workers’ rights throughout the world (and the reason why Monday is a bank holiday) – it’s particularly important this year because we’re in the middle of a special Year of St Joseph set up by Pope Francis a few months ago. Because we know Joseph was a carpenter, the Church sees him as a model for our affirmation of the value and dignity of human labour. In the three Catholic dioceses in London (Southwark, Westminster and Brentwood) there is a traditional Mass for Migrants as part of our observance of the feast, normally in one of three cathedrals: this year it has been live-streamed from the church in Forest Hill.
The feast day is important for another reason. One hundred and thirty years ago this month, in May 1891, Pope Leo XIII published the first papal letter explicitly addressing the condition of industrial workers, known by its Latin title Rerum Novarum. This letter began modern papal Catholic Social teaching, shown most recently in Pope Francis’ encyclical from last October, Fratelli Tutti, the focus of our parish Lent course. Pope Leo broke new ground by attacking the exploitation of industrial workers and calling for their rights and dignity to be respected, affirming the importance of Trade Unions and (as a last resort) the right to strike. The Church’s witness for workers – including migrants – continues to be inspired by what Pope Leo did; the heading of this piece is a quote from the film Angela’s Ashes.
As you may have noticed from publicity in the parish St Mary’s University is putting on an international conference this week to mark the anniversary, now sadly completely online, linked to our Master’s programme in Catholic Social Teaching. Speakers include the journalist Will Hutton, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, Professor Tina Beattie, Professor Philip Booth, The Tablet Rome correspondent Christopher Lamb, and many others, including speakers from the Institute Catholique de Paris, the Catholic University of Louvain and universities in the Americas and in Australia. The conference runs from Wednesday to Saturday, comprising ten webinars, and is free of charge and open to all – please email me if you’d like to register (you’re not committed to joining in all the webinars: you can take your pick). I must stress that this is a gathering open to all, not simply academics: it’s essential that all Catholics know about our tradition of Catholic Social teaching in relation to ‘the world of work.’ The conference is not simply about the encyclical – but about wider working conditions and issues relating to them.
The conference is also timely. When we began planning this conference (in December 2019) nobody foresaw the Covid-19 pandemic and the effects this has had and is still having on work and employment, here and all over the world. Many people lost their jobs and face a difficult task to find new ones; many others were furloughed; for young people and many others towards the end of their working lives job opportunities have dried up; this has all been further complicated in this country because of economic uncertainty arising out of Brexit; mental health problems arising from the pandemic have seriously affected people’s ability to work; for many working from home has been very difficult and stressful; the list of issues is very long. Many of you have direct experience of this and are living now with great uncertainty; these anxieties take their toll in terms of family life. Many of you too are aware of worse pressures on employment for family members and friends elsewhere in the world at the moment.
Part of what we bring as a Church to ways in which the world can reflect on these things – and Pope Francis has led the way by challenging so many conventional approaches to international economics – is what we teach about the dignity of work. The beginning of May and this anniversary comes shortly after Vocations Sunday last weekend when we prayed in particular for vocations to particular ministries within the Church: but we also reflect about how each of us has a calling from God; work is part of God’s plan for men and women created in his image. This is why work should be valued, and those who do the work; this is why we reflect in this context the Church’s efforts to support the victims of human trafficking and modern day slavery, but it also conditions our overall response as a Church to employment issues (e.g. zero-hour contracts, whether Uber workers are employees, sick and holiday pay conditions, Sunday working, rights to Union representation, no disclosure agreements and so on). Many years ago St John Paul II said that the issue of ‘work’ is the ‘key to the social question’; these things really are important for all of us. Please pray this week for God’s blessing on the Rerum Novarum conference.