Long live May Day, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker

Ortigia, on the harbor-side of Syracuse’s old town – as evidenced by its narrow courtyards and small-apartment buildings – was still a working quarter at the end of the 19th century. On one corner, we find this statue:

In the niche, St. Joseph holds the hand of his foster son Jesus. Below the niche, we read the following inscription:

“A te, o Beato Giuseppe, stretti dalle tribulazioni, ricorriamo, e fiduciosi invochiamo il tuo patrocinio. Invocazione di PP Leone XIII.” – “Depressed by our severe torments, we turn to you with confidence, and ask for your patronage, oh St. Joseph. Prayer of Pope Leo XIII.”

To make a long story short, Leo XIII (1878-1903) was the first pope at the end of the 19th century to seriously face the changed world, including the vulnerable position of workers in the new capitalist labor relations. To this end, he wrote, in 1891, his circular Rerum novarum (“In the midst of revolutionary changes…”), subtitled “On working conditions”, which states, inter alia, that every worker has the right to a job which gives him dignity and which allows him to support himself and his family and also gives them free time to educate themselves. And that it is the employer’s duty to ensure this. This was the beginning of the series of social resolutions of the Catholic Church. The same was also emphasized by Pope Francis today, in the feast Mass:

“Today, on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and the day dedicated to workers, let us pray for all workers, so that no one might be without work and all might be paid a just wage. May they benefit from the dignity of work and the beauty of rest.”

Leo XIII appointed St. Joseph as the patron saint of social justice, whose life, as far as we know, was spent supporting his family through his everyday work as a carpenter, and raising his son, who happened to be not even his own. Joseph was long neglected in the Christian tradition. In the images of Jesus’s birth he appears as a pensive bystander, while in those of the Escape to Egypt, as leading the donkey. It was not until the late Middle Ages, with the slow rise and visibility of the working bourgeoisie, that he became visible, as in Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece (1425-1428). In addition to the main act, the Annunciation, he also appears as a manufacturer of mousetraps in his workshop (on the symbolic meaning of which I have written here).

Thus, he could be considered, from the 18th century onwards, as worthy of giving his name to rulers.

St. Joseph’s traditional holiday is on 19 March. However, Leo XIII considered him so important as the representative of the working class, that he declared the most mundane day, Wednesday of the second week after Easter, to be his second holiday. And in 1955, Pope Pius XII fixed this moving holiday on May 1, thereby declaring that International Worker’s Day was an important holiday not only for Socialists and Communists, but also for Christians.

And indeed, today, when thousands lose their jobs and thousands more will lose them, and whoever has not yet been formally laid off, also sees his or her main goal to be mere survival, who dares to assert that “every worker has the right to a job which gives him dignity and which allows him to support himself and his family and also gives them free time to educate themselves”?

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