Memorial of St. Pius X
1 Thessalonians 2:2b-8
As we approach the Labor Day celebration for 2013, we do so, mindful of the important role labor plays in our lives. We regret the continuing, large unemployment, or underemployment, rate in our nation, and we thank our fellow citizens on whose labor we rely, as it contributes to our own well-being.
We listen with interest to our biblical readings for this day, since they are so much in step with the Labor Day holiday. We note the defensive stance of St. Paul before the Thessalonian community that he had evangelized, and wonder what has gone on between them to account for Paul’s "apologia pro vita sua", so to speak. Apparently his motivation is impugned by some among the Thessalonians, who criticize some hidden motivation with which he labored among them, as if he did so for his own self-aggrandizement. This resembles the criticism at times leveled against certain labor union leaders, that they are in "it" for their own self-serving motives. And sometimes, of course, this has been the case. But the question always is: how much so? Enough to indict unions themselves? In Paul’s case, of course, it is difficult to accept the truth of such accusations. He seemed to profit very little by the intense labors he underwent on behalf of his converts. Indeed, just the opposite was the case: he paid a heavy price for his work among them, enriching them rather than himself.
Even more to the point is the parable presented in St. Matthew’s gospel for the day about the landowner seeking laborers for his vineyards. He was obviously obsessed with concern that enough workers get into the field to get the picking of the grapes over and done with, so we hear of him going into the marketplace numerous times in the course of the day seeking ever more laborers, even if it be only for an hour. Early on he promises to pay "the usual daily wage", but later on he indicates he will pay them "what is just". The first arrangement refers to an established amount of money. The second depends on his interpretation of what is just. As we hear, at the end of the day the usual squabble develops over "what is just", and we see two standards at play here in computing this: the owner claiming his prerogative to do as he likes ("Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?"). Unfortunately, his defense that he is being generous, at least with some, rings hallow with those expecting more for having worked more. But, as the owner rejoins, they had agreed to the usual daily wage, which is apparently what they received from him.
We hesitate to barge into this argument here since it seems God is very definitely identified with the owner, and we don’t want to be found disagreeing with Him. But we find this dispute all too familiar with labor-management relationships over the years. Money issues are foundational ones, not to be lightly brushed aside. But at times there are work-related issues that do not involve money. They are found even in the realm of papal activity, or "work", such as emerged in the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914). This may not be work in the usual sense of the term, but it is so, by extension. During his pontificate, Pius X made important liturgical decisions centering around the sacrament of the eucharist, urging access to the eucharist for younger children than was the accepted practice of his day and also encouraging adults to approach this sacrament more frequently than they were accustomed to do. And for this, like St. Paul, he was criticized by some. On the other hand, he wrote two blistering encyclical letters against the then current inroads of Modernism which he called "the synthesis of all heresies", and for this he was criticized by others. So even popes encounter problems in their work situations, though usually not with the finances involved (until recently).
This all started in the Garden of Eden when an upset God berated a contrite Adam: "Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life." (Gn 3.17). Should we be surprised it carries over into our day?
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.