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Theology and spirituality behind work

This May, the Sacred Heart RC Church and Holy Rosary RC Church in Port of Spain are holding special midday Masses every day to celebrate and honour workers.

As Fr Matthew d’Hereaux, the parish priest at Holy Rosary, explained on Altos, “Sometimes workers can be forgotten, forgotten in all areas of society.”

The motivation behind these ‘Workers: A Blessing for the City’ Masses is to highlight the Catholic Church’s rich teachings on the dignity of work and workers. “The Church has a whole body of teaching on work and workers, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891,” said Fr d’Hereaux .


Catholic Social Teaching on Labour

Rerum Novarum, an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, upheld the rights of workers to form unions, receive fair wages, and have safety regulations in the workplace. It criticised both unbridled capitalism that exploits labour as well as atheistic visions of socialism.

Subsequent popes like Pope John Paul II further developed Catholic Social Teaching on labour in works like his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. As Fr d’Hereaux quoted, Pope John Paul II wrote that “a worker is first a human being” whose dignity must be respected. “If we look at a worker only in economic terms, we end up objectifying them,” Fr d’Hereaux said.

To “redefine the place of the worker, not only in the economy, but in society,” Fr d’Hereaux decided to dedicate the month of May to liturgically celebrating workers across different categories, blessing, and praying for them each week. The homilies apply Gospel teachings directly to workplace issues like work-life balance, earning a living wage, treating colleagues with dignity, and the importance of rest.


The role and dignity of workers

He emphasised that for Catholic employers, the maxim should be “people before profits, not profits before people”. While reinvesting profits is necessary, “investment is not only in plant and machinery, investment in the human person, investment in social capital…plowing back profits into the development of the human person is a moral duty.”

He pointed out that “God loves the human person” and “Christ died for the human person.” Therefore, Catholic employers have an opportunity to raise the standard of living for their workers by paying a living wage, in line with Church teaching upholding the dignity of workers and rejecting their “pauperisation” through unjust wages.

However, Fr d’Hereaux added there is “also the role of the worker” to be productive, noting “work is not a curse for sin” according to a careful reading of Genesis. Rather, “we were given work, the gift of work, before the fall.”

He reiterated that for the Church, there is “a theology and spirituality behind work” where “employees and employers work with God for a better society, for the betterment of creation.”

He hopes this holistic “understanding of work will be laid out in a Catholic space and in a national space” to overcome the tendency toward “antagonism between employers and employees.”


Ethical workplace relations

The aim is to promote a balanced, ethical approach to labour that upholds the rights of workers while acknowledging the legitimate needs of businesses as well. Fr d’Hereaux affirmed that “people have a right to a union” according to Church teaching, as trade unions give workers a voice in negotiating fair treatment. “When people are not unionised, you can have the exploitation of labour, the exploitation of the human person,” he said.

The Church envisions work as a way of cooperating with God and continuing the work of creation for a better world. “Through work, you continue creation, you continue God’s creating work for a better society. We work with God,” Fr d’Hereaux explained.

With a social media campaign and flyers distributed to local businesses, the parish hopes to attract workers, employers, and unions to these special Masses. As Pope Francis said on the May 1, 2020, Feast of St Joseph the Worker, “May no one be without employment and may all be fairly paid and that they might earn both the dignity of their work and the beauty of rest.”