Archbishop Wuerl’s Homily at Mass for the Blessing of Human Labor

September 01, 2007

Following is the homily Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl delivered September 1, 2007 at the Archdiocesan Mass for the Blessing of Human Labor, held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

Archbishop Wuerl’s Homily

It is a particular pleasure for me to join all of you today at this Mass for the Blessing of Human Labor as we come together to recognize the contribution of working men and women throughout our country, the importance of the labor movement at the service of working people and to ask God’s continued blessings on all who are involved in the work that is the focus of our national attention each Labor Day.

Each year on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee issues a Labor Day statement. This year, Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Brooklyn and Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee, continued that practice. In his statement he reminds us that “Labor Day is a holiday with an important, but sometimes forgotten purpose. It was established in New York in 1882 as a day to honor work and workers and also a time to celebrate the contributions of the American Labor Movement.”

The statement continues, “just as we need to remind ourselves as Americans that Labor Day is about workers and their unions, it is also important to remember as Catholics that the dignity of work and the rights of workers are central elements of Church teaching that continue to challenge all Catholics. For more than a century, the Church has insisted that ‘human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question’ (Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 3). Our tradition has defended the right of workers to join together to secure decent work, wages and a voice in economic life.”

Across town in the small park in front of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart church is a statue of Cardinal James Gibbons. Seventy-five years ago, at the unveiling of the statue, the President of the United States, then Herbert Hoover, highlighted the significance of Cardinal Gibbons’ contribution to our country, including championing “the cause of labor in moments of crisis.” While the ceremony took place before the Great Depression, it followed on decades of the successful application, not without much struggle, of Catholic social teaching to the world of economics, business, labor and management.

At the heart of Catholic social teaching are the respect due to each person, precisely because each of us is created in the likeness of God, and the call to be attentive to the needs of one another.

As in the Gospel today, where Jesus invites us to turn our attention to those in need, so the Church constantly calls us to the awareness of our relationship with each other. We are reminded that basically our respect for each person must be because of who they are and not because of what they have.

President Hoover, in speaking of Cardinal Gibbons, highlighted that the Cardinal “succeeded in carrying into the minds of other people the feeling that the truths of religion are really their primary aids in solving the perplexities of everyday living.”

The history of the labor movement in our country has been intertwined with the articulation and application of the Church’s basic social teaching on the dignity of each person and the value and worth of human labor.

In fact, there are those who make a very strong case, and arguably a decisive one, that the moral and philosophical framework that energized and sustained the struggles of working women and men in the early days of organized labor are found in Catholic teaching.

As the United States Bishops Conference Labor Day statement reminds us, the “message of solidarity and the pursuit of the global common good builds on the tradition begun by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum in 1891 and extends through the twentieth century in a powerful series of papal encyclicals. It was embraced and expanded by the prophetic words and witness of Pope John Paul II, an apostle of solidarity, who constantly stood with workers and the poor.”

With the promulgation of Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church sought to confront the terrible exploitation and poverty of European and American workers at the end of the nineteenth century. With this document the Church applied the principles of her social teaching to the conditions and issues emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

The focus of the encyclical includes the dignity of work, the right to private property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means of social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the wealthy, the perfecting of justice through change and the right to form professional or labor associations.

The roots of the Church’s social teaching are found in the revelation of the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the Christian vision of the human person as the image of God. As God created us, man and woman are meant to be transforming agents of society. Human labor takes on a value and worth in itself because it represents a participation in the very creative action of God. There is a sense in which we see ourselves as mirrors of that power of God that brought everything into being from nothing. While obviously our powers are far more limited, we still see in our work a reflection of the awesome deeds in the Book of Genesis.

Christ also calls on us to recognize that not only do we have the power to bring into being good things through our energy, industry and labor, but we also share in the power of God’s Spirit to bring about a whole new level of creation – the new creation in Christ’s grace.

A sign of the Spirit at work within us should be a work environment that witnesses the primacy of people over things as Pope John Paul II so beautifully expressed in his encyclical On Human Work.

The same principles that call for the recognition of the dignity of work and workers also call for addressing working people concerns, such as health care, adequate and affordable housing, adequate medical leave and of course the promotion of fair wages.

Catholic social teaching calls on everyone in leadership positions to demonstrate in our increasingly materialistic world principled moral leadership.

In Luke’s Gospel account of the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, we find Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth quoting the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19).

Christ came to proclaim a kingdom that is not yet fully with us, but at the same time, is already unfolding in our midst. He validated his vision by revealing that he was sent by God to tell us of God’s plan and will. For the follower of Jesus, revelation of God’s plan, the reality of the kingdom of God and the daily struggle to realize something of the kingdom in this life are all foundational beliefs. Catholic social teaching is grounded in these truths and the tensions they create. It also rests on the firm conviction that what we do in this life, what justice we realize in this world, endures as a sign of God’s presence and the beginnings of God’s kingdom (cf. Mt 25:31-46).

For Catholics, Labor Day 2007 is an opportunity to recommit in our own small ways to our own work, to treat others justly and to defend the lives, dignity and rights of workers, especially the most vulnerable. This is a requirement of our faith and a way to advance the promise of our nation.

May this annual tradition of celebrating workers and their unions bring us to a renewed awareness of our solidarity in the effort to build a truly good and just society and our firm conviction that what we do now can be the beginnings here in our world of that realm of truth, justice, compassion, kindness, love and peace that we know is the Kingdom of God.

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Susan Gibbs
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