September 07, 2016

Proud of employment, willingly I go

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

We have just celebrated the last civic holiday of the summer. On Labor Day, we reflect on our role as co-workers in God’s vineyard and, with our talents, continue the activity of God our Creator.   Work deepens the truth that we are all made in God’s image and likeness.  Mr. Shakespeare has a word to send us off:  “Proud of employment, willingly I go.”  

The Church’s special care and concern of the worker began in earnest with Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891) when it treated the theme of work. Included in the encyclical was the defense of workers and, in particular, their exploitation.  Since then, every pontiff has integrated Catholic social thought concerning workers as part of the Church’s teaching.  Politicians of all religious stripes have quoted from their writings as part of their own social platforms. According to Ronald Reagan, “the best social program is a job.”

Bearing Fruit

Work is one way men and women discover their dignity because the building up of the culture is the fruit of labor.

The Psalmist uses the image of a garden to describe the just ones who labor in it.  They are fruitful in all they do because they remain rooted in the Lord.  These men and women “will flourish like a palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just (Ps 92:12-15). . . . The just are like trees planted near streams; they bear fruit in season and their leaves never wither.  All they do prospers” (Ps 1:3-4).
 
How many cultures have handed down to us the fruits of their labor and the fruits of their creativity!  The Jews through their worship, for example, have given us the weekend as well as the 150 psalms permeated with beauty. Among other benefits, the Greeks gave us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who laid the foundations for medieval and modern philosophy. The Romans were master builders, especially of roads, waterworks, and bridges. Had it not been for the medieval European monks, who would have preserved ancient and Christian culture for future generations?  

Unemployment

In virtually every instance, John Paul II considered unemployment an evil and a social calamity.  He placed this responsibility at the feet of the vast enterprise of employers.

For our current pontiff, Pope Francis, “work is not a gift kindly conceded to a recommended few.  It is a right of all . . . and in particular, the young must be able to cultivate the promise of their efforts and their enthusiasm, so that the investment of their energies and their resources will not be useless” (Dec. 2015).

Men and women are our primary natural resource, and the Church has grave concerns about the unemployed and those who are under employed, the working poor.  From these two groups can come other evils; the first among them is hunger.  Social unrest, like disease, crime, and violence are bound to follow.

Indignities of Unemployment

As an evil of the social fabric and against individuals, unemployment robs persons in good health, ready and willing to work, from supporting themselves and their families. What happens to the family when parents lose their jobs through no fault of their own?  The individual members in the family suffer in psychological as well as financial ways. Loss of the weekly paycheck weighs on the family unlike any other burden.

Losing One’s Job

Unemployment comes in different ugly shapes and sizes. It affects Blue Collar workers, Wall Street traders, educators, and other professionals. Even CEOs can be ousted from their high places.

How many are those who have gone from standing tall in satisfying and lucrative jobs to the humiliation of sleeping in nooks and crannies of store fronts, huddled up and penniless? How many men and women have experienced the indignity, the embarrassment, and the emotional heartburn of losing one’s job?  The worker is summoned to the supervisor’s office only to be told his or her services are no longer needed.  A cold speech is delivered in staccato fashion:  ‘I’m sorry, we have to let you go, but it has to be this way. Thank you for your service.’  Often, severance pay does not accompany the loss of employment.  How many have been dismissed without even being told?  The names of college adjunct teachers are routinely deleted from the roster without any explanation, personal or otherwise.      

And what of those new college graduates? John Paul II has written of the particularly painful problem “when the young, after preparing themselves with an appropriate cultural, technical, and professional formation, can’t find a job and see their sincere will to work frustrated, as well as their willingness to take up their responsibility for the economy and social development of the community” (Laborem Exercens:18). The indignities of unemployment!

Statistics on Employment     

The August unemployment figures have been estimated at a low 4.8%, though this impressive figure feels like a lie to so many” (Sarah Kendzior: Quartz, April 20, 2016).

62.6% is the figure given for those who are not participating in the work place. This means that approximately 37% is the unemployment rate.  According to the Wall Street Journal, 4.8% hides the devastating lie for millions of Americans. The jobless rate is low because more and more people are no longer participating in the work place.  This low percent fails to include discouraged workers and those in part-time jobs who seek full-time employment.
Another consideration has to do with sporadic work.  A person who works one hour a week earning $20.00 for that hour is considered employed.

How can breadwinners support a family on the minimum wage? They can’t, these working poor.

While Labor Day focuses on the value of work, loss of employment and financial crisis can provoke despair. Surely there is a limit to how many rejections unemployed persons can sustain before they throw up their hands and succumb to hopelessness, including temptations to end it all through suicide. During times of unemployment the individual can make matters worse by rubbing it in: ‘I’m a loser; I’m a failure.  Everyone knows it’  ‘Why has God permitted put me in this situation when I’ve done my best?  

The Open Wound

What can the unemployed do during the trial of unemployment?  To begin with, it is important to live in the present moment and structure one’s time. While coping with this extreme hardship, energies can be given over to constructive activities that otherwise might not have been possible.  Unemployed men and women have discovered their true vocation quite by accident during the so-called lost time of unemployment.

During this time, it is also important to sharpen one’s professional capabilities, for example, public speaking, retooling one’s writing skills, reading well and memorizing fine poetry.  Numerous agencies need volunteers, especially in tutoring school children.  Finally, there is no better advocate to plead one’s cause than St. Joseph the Worker.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is jroccasalvo@optonline.net.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.