What is work? What meaning does it have in the lives of men and women? What is its profound value? These are not theoretical questions in any way! They have very practical implications for each one of our lives. They help us to shed light upon our relationship with our daily work; they allow us to understand what work is for us on a personal level, how we live it concretely in our lives. Therefore, these are important questions that should not be avoided on the occasion of this seminar.
Unfortunately, in our days, a rather superficial, partial and reductive approach to work is widespread. It is one that runs the risk of falsifying reality. For many, work is only a way for earning money or for enrichment; for others it is a way of achieving success, developing a career, acquiring power: there are people who transform work into a sort of absolute: something for which they are ready to sacrifice everything else, even including their own dignity, their family and their children. This is a sort of idolatry of work. On the other hand, there are people who hate work and consider it a curse. So what is work? And, above all, what does it mean in the eyes of God, the Creator and Redeemer of humanity?
The Bible teaches us that in the life of the human person, created in God’s image and resemblance, work is a true and specific vocation. Through work (any work, be it manual or intellectual), God calls us to participate in his work of creating the world. In the present state of humanity, wounded by sin, in bearing the sweat of one’s brow and the effort of work in union with Christ crucified humanity cooperates in the work of Redemption. This is the beating heart of the “Gospel of work” to which Saint John Paul II so often referred.
The value and dignity of human work is to be found also in the fact that it is done by a person. Saint John Paul II repeated with vigour: “… the primary basis of the value of work is Man himself, who is its subject. This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: however true it may be that Man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is "for man" and not man "for work" ” (Laborem exercens, no. 6). On this point, Vatican Council II indicates another important aspect: “For when Man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered” (Gaudium et spes, no. 35). In this way, in working we not only create and produce something, but above all accomplish our humanity, maturing and growing as persons, our lives acquire meaning.
In this context we can better understand the tragedy of unemployment that afflicts so many men and women today, particularly the young. Pope Francis describes it in striking terms: “As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture..” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 53). This is why the Holy Father hopes for “access to steady employment for everyone” (cf. Laudato si’, no. 127). His concept of integral ecology also includes this (cf. ibidem, n. 124)! Unemployment deeply wounds the dignity of the human person, the dignity of man and woman, and this is why it must be fought against, as one fights against a wound that destroys the lives of persons, families and whole societies. Job creation is, therefore, without doubt a necessary aspect of serving the common good. Pope Francis insists: “Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work” (ibidem, no. 128).
Unfortunately, often, work is used against humanity. How could we forget the Nazi concentration camps with the mocking phrase that greeted prisoners on arrival: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will set you free!) or the Soviet gulag. In both cases, work became a means of extermination. Also, how many forms of exploitation through work exist today: work done in inhuman conditions, starvation wages, so many forms of discrimination in the workplace (and particularly regarding women!). The exploitation of children provokes horror! Often, therefore, the rights of workers are not respected and work is used in order to trample the dignity of the human person.
The value and dignity of human work… If this is the case of every man and every woman, it should be even more-so for every Christian. Christifideles laici presents a sort of ethical code for the lay faithful’s work: “To such an end the lay faithful must accomplish their work with professional competence, with human honesty, and with a Christian spirit, and especially as a way of their own sanctification, according to the explicit invitation of the Council: "By work an individual ordinarily provides for self and family, is joined in fellowship to others, and renders them service; and is enabled to exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Moreover, we know that through work offered to God an individual is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, whose labour with his hands at Nazareth greatly ennobled the dignity of work"(Gaudium et spes, no. 67)” (no. 43). Saint Paul insists: “Whatever you do, do it in good heart as if for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive your inheritance as reward” (Col 3: 23-24).
This is the vast horizon of work in the light of the faith. We cannot and we must not separate our being Christian from the work we do daily. On the contrary, our way of thinking of work is a precise measurement of how we ae Christians. As baptised, we are called to sanctify work, we are invited to live work in its fullness and we are called to discover work as a path and instrument of holiness. The Rule of Saint Benedict - “Ora et labora!” – has not lost any of its relevance. Christ asks us to be salt of the earth and light of the world wherever we are: in our families, in society and in our work. For the Lay faithful, work is a fundamental “primary material” for their sanctification. The “Gospel of work” is not a far-off utopia; rather it is an exciting life programme that challenges each one of us.