On May 1st, Pope Francis dedicated his General Audience discussion, and his morning fervorino (or minor sermon) at Domus Sanctae Marthae, to the situation of workers, on the occasion of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. As part of this Blog’s reflections on «Romero for the Year of Faith», we offer Óscar Romero’s insights on the same topic.In his remarks, Pope Francis said three things that were reminiscent of Archbishop Romero: (1) he deplored the general exploitation of workers and the economic systems that allow it; (2) he identified particular exploitive practices (slave labor, human trafficking); and (3), most dramatically, he referred to a particular instance that he denounced, specifically (the factory collapse in Bangladesh). Generally, the Pope condemned the “purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice.” He denounced labor arrangements “in which the person is at the service of his or her work, while work should offer a service to people so they may have dignity.” (Compare Romero’s criticism of systems that “make the person an instrument of exploitation; others, like Marxist ideologies, view the person as simply a cog in the wheel; and the National Security vision places the person in a position of servitude to the State, as if the State were the master and the human person, a slave, while in reality the opposite is true, that is, the state exists for the human person not the human person for the state. In order to promote the human dignity of the person, the human person must be in the forefront of every human organization.”—March 23, 1980 homily).
The Pope said, “I would like to add a word about another particular work situation that concerns me: I am referring to what we could define as ‘slave labor:’ work that enslaves.” He added, “I ask my brothers and sisters in faith and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which includes ‘slave labor’.” (Compare Romero’s denunciation of human trafficking in his Fourth Pastoral Letter, in which he deplored the “indecent bargaining with the dignity of another by a variety of means, such as demanding sexual favors in return for providing work, or by setting up lucrative centers for vice, such as cafés, motels, guest houses, and every kind of disguised brothels for the human slave traffic in prostitution and illegal drug-taking.”) Most dramatically, Pope Francis did not stop at describing abuses generically or in the abstract, but cited a specific example: “A headline that impressed me so much the day of the Bangladesh tragedy: 'Living on 38 euros a month'—this was the payment of these people who have died,” said the Pontiff. Then he added, “this is called 'slave labor'!” (Archbishop Romero was routinely criticized for being indiscreet in citing particular abuses in his denunciation, where some would have preferred that he speak in generalities without pointing fingers. The Pope’s remark vindicates Romero’s view that citing specific examples is an appropriate form of denunciation.)We recall Archbishop Romero’s message on his last Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1979. Romero began by citing the Pope’s remarks at a General Audience, as we have done, where John Paul II had urged “that the space between the Church and the Factory may be lessened and the smoke of incense mingle, in its ascent to heaven, with that of industries.” Romero pointed out that the Pope had also said that priests should “take care, in the first place, of those who are still suffering because of the heaviness and unhealthiness of their work, uncertainty about their employment, the insufficiency of their dwellings and of their wages.” Here are some additional excerpts from Romero’s message to the workers.
May 1st is not only a historic date that commemorates heroic deeds of workers. It is, above all, as we wish to frame it, a day of reflection and seeking that should make us all think about the deep implications borne by labor and its relations. The Church wishes to show solidarity with the meaning of this day by being concerned about the condition and fate of workers, and presenting the figure of St. Joseph the Worker as a feast for the same day, to clearly declare its closeness to the working world. After all, Jesus, her founder, was known as a “carpenter's son.”
We address ourselves to the workers to congratulate them on their day but with a greeting that implies, as stated above: concern, interest, a search for solutions, an invitation to them to fulfill their duties within labor relations, that they pursue their rights considering that both they as well as their employers are human beings, children of God, and that sincere and honest dialogue, based on facts, should always be the first order.
I think it very appropriate on this day to address working men and women, in both rural and urban areas, taking into account that the labor movement in our country—the recent strikes have demonstrated it—says something to all of us, above all, about the inter-union solidarity these protests have awakened. Something new is being born among us, and a life that is born should never be cut down, it should be examined and channeled, not suffocated.
Recent events have shown us that workers organizing, and the various unions supporting each other, have strength and power. Remember that this strength and power should be a service to the common good. Never seek to abuse that power. To abuse power is to be lost.
Remember, dear workers: that the serious needs you have should be seen through the Christian understanding of life. That necessary material goods do not fully fill the heart of man—even after they are attained. That there are other values—of dignity, integrity, honesty and endeavor—that must be anxiously pursued. That as Christians, we also have, in addition to all the values of the earth, a destiny that lies beyond life itself. That there are unfulfilled yearnings for happiness in every person that can only be fully met when we can say with Saint Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”Happy Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker, especially to those who work, who need work, or who find themselves aggrieved by unjust situations at work.