By Fr John Flader
The feast of St Joseph the Worker is, as you say, a second and less important feast than the great feast of St Joseph celebrated on March 19. Whereas the feast on March 19 is celebrated with the highest rank of liturgical celebrations, that of a Solemnity, the feast of St Joseph the Worker has the lower rank of Optional Memorial.
It was introduced into the liturgical calendar relatively recently, by Pope Pius XII on May 1, 1955. On that day, Pope Pius received in audience representatives of the Italian Christian Workers Associations, the ACLI, which had been placed under the patronage of St Joseph.
Referring to an earlier address to the Associations in 1945, the Pope urged workers to place themselves under the protection of St Joseph if they wanted to be close to Christ and to live the spirit of the Gospel: “From the beginning we put your organisation under the powerful patronage of St Joseph.
“Indeed, there could be no better protector to help you deepen in your lives the spirit of the Gospel. As we said then, that spirit flows to you and to all men from the heart of the God-Man, the Saviour of the world; but certainly no worker was ever more completely and profoundly penetrated by it than the foster-father of Jesus, who lived with him in closest intimacy and community of family life and work. Thus, if you wish to be close to Christ, we again repeat: Ite ad Joseph, go to Joseph.”
Pope Pius chose the date of May 1 for his address and for the new feast of St Joseph the Worker because that day was traditionally celebrated around the world as the day of the worker.
In some places May 1, or May Day, as it was often called, was promoted by Socialists and Communists as a day of solidarity for workers and of protest against their employers.
In an effort to give this celebration a Christian meaning, Pope Pius introduced the new feast of St Joseph the Worker. In his address he mentioned the efforts of “the enemy of Christ” to spread, especially among workers, “false ideas about man and the world, history, social and economic structures.”
He went on to propose the new feast as a way of recognising the dignity and value of human work. Recalling the role of the Church in guiding and protecting workers and all those suffer, he said: “This duty and obligation we, the Vicar of Christ, desire to declare again clearly here, on this first day of May, which the world of workers has claimed for itself as its own proper feast day. We intend that all may recognise the dignity of work, and that this dignity may be the motive in forming the social order and laws, founded on the equitable distribution of rights of duties.
“Acclaimed in this way by Christian workers, and having received, as it were, Christian baptism, the first of May, far from being an incitement to discord, hatred and violence, is and will be a recurring invitation to modern society to accomplish that which is still lacking for social peace. A Christian feast, therefore, that is a day of rejoicing for the concrete and progressive triumph of Christian ideals in the great family of all who work.”
Pope Pius concluded his address, saying that St Joseph, “the humble workman of Nazareth not only personifies before God and the Church the dignity of the manual worker, but he is also the provident guardian of you and your families.”
So in reality the feast of St Joseph the Worker is very important. It can be considered the celebration of the dignity of the worker and of human work, carried out under the patronage of St Joseph at the service of peace in society.
Pope Benedict XVI summed it up in his Regina Caeli message on May 1, 2005: “Today, we are beginning the month of May with a liturgical memorial very dear to the Christian people: that of St Joseph the Worker; and you know that my name is Joseph.
“Exactly 50 years ago it was established by Pope Pius XII of venerable memory to highlight the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and the Church in the working world.”