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One night, a man had a dream of an angel of the Lord taking him on a tour of Heaven and Hell. Approaching Hell, voices of anger, rage, agony, blasphemy and cries of desperation emerged from inside.
Inside, the man witnessed a long banquet table and on the table was every kind of elegant food, gourmet prepared meats and vegetables of every variety. The souls in Hell were seated in high back chairs with arms. Everyone's forearms were tied securely to the arm of the chair, and in each hand they grasped long forks. Each fork was long enough to reach the food, but because their forearms were tied, they could not reach the fork back to their own mouth.
They worked feverishly to get the fork back to their mouth, but failed each and every time.They often fought over the same piece of food, stabbing each other's hands with the forks or pulling at the same choice cut of meat, even though neither could get the food into their own mouth. They spend eternity staring at the elegant banquet, fighting over what they insist to be theirs, desperate for even a morsel, but forever frustrated, resentful and bitter.
As the man approached heaven, he heard sounds of laughter, joy, pleasant conversation and words of love. Once inside Heaven, he noticed the conditions were exactly the same as Hell. The souls all sat along an identical long banquet table with gourmet foods. Their forearms were all securely tied to the arms of the chair, with a long fork able to reach the food, and also unable to get the food back to their own mouth. Unlike Hell, the souls in Heaven used their forks to reach across the table, feeding one other with the food of the heavenly banquet.
In the Gospel, the Lord tells the crowds "Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." The souls in Hell certainly were working hard and with great determination, but as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, their attitude was "corrupted through deceitful desires" emerging from a "futility in their minds." The souls in Heaven worked hard as well, but their labors were fulfilling and joyful.
We might all find ourselves at times feeling like we are tied to our chairs with long forks in our hands. We might all be tempted to degenerate into a "dog eat dog" mentality, where the strong survive. But being strong and surviving does not necessarily bring salvation. In fact, the contrary may indeed be true. Choices we make with tied arms and how we see the purpose of our work might determine where we spend eternity.
There are different attitudes toward how we approach work. For many, the only purpose to work is to make a lot of money, and then a lot more money, and then more money still. There is nothing wrong with making money, even a lot of money. But when work's only goal is to make more and more money to possess more and more things, our soul can get lost. We can resemble the souls in Hell always wanting more and seeing everyone else at the table as a competitor for resources. We can live life with insecurity, our actions motivated by fear. We amass more and more, but without satisfaction or peace.
The Catholic Church offers us "a spirituality of work" and "vision of workplace sanctity". First and foremost, the Church teaches that "our work" is not limited to "our job" or how we earn a living. Rather, our "work" encompasses all our human relationships and activities throughout the day, everyday. In these relationships and activities, we are called to shape God's gift of creation with love and justice to serve the common good of all humanity. We also recognize our work calls us to be co-redeemers with Christ for the ongoing sanctification of the world.
This spirituality and vision prepare our hearts for the attitudes needed to sit at the Heavenly banquet. Our common vocation is made clear throughout the Eucharist. In the offertory, the priest prays on behalf of all of us, "Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness, we have received this bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands. May it become for us the bread of life". We make a similar prayer offering the wine.
In both prayers, we recognize God's creation of wheat and grapes are now shaped by human work into bread and wine. These prayers recognize that these offerings are only possible with both divine and human work.The bread and wine represent our call and our response to be "co-creators" with God and "co-redeemers" with Christ.
St. Augustine once taught the newly baptized, "It is your mystery that lays on the altar." We place all works of our daily life on the altar in the form of bread and wine. These family commitments, human relationships, career and civic responsibilities are among the "work" that we offer God from our hearts of love. Our work of daily life, drawn into the Eucharistic sacrifice, begins to be shaped and resemble the work of Christ.
If you are a financial advisor moving large amounts of money, or operating a small convenience store, developing computer programs or working in a factory, preparing a meal for your family, caring for a sick relative, playing with your children, or changing a diaper, all faithful and loving work is caught up in communion with Christ's ongoing work of salvation.
While we are called to this "spirituality of work" in all daily labors, the Church teaches us to focus on the workplace in a special way as a place of sanctification. Many describe their workplace as impersonal, trading collaboration for stressful competition. Workplace relationships lacking trust seem like spaces absent of grace. But the Church teaches that our presence at our job and profession is meant to be a source of grace for others. Our interactions with employers, employees, supervisors, customers, and others must be marked by respect, integrity, honesty, and trust. Our care and concern for everyone we work with, employers and employees, must be generous and sincere.
A just and sanctified workplace contributes to the human flourishing of all, and this human flourishing contributes greatly to the common good. The Catholic Church has been in forefront of defending and securing better working conditions from her inception. For example, Holy Days of Obligation have lost their importance with many Catholics today. Many fail to see a benefit from attending Mass during the week.
However, for many centuries, Holy Days of Obligation were liberating for the peasants in the fields. A Holy Day of Obligation not only meant attending Mass, but also being free from work for that day as well. Feudal landlords were obliged to release their peasant tenants from work on those days.
For these peasants working extremely long hours six days with only Sunday off, no vacations, and little to show for it, this extra day was a welcomed and valued relief. Up until recent centuries, there were over thirty Holy Days of Obligation! Therefore, for a majority of weeks in a year, peasants had an extra day off. They did not experience this as an "obligation" to attend Mass. Rather, they were grateful that God gave them a Church that cared about them.
In the 19th Century, the Catholic Church was admittedly late responding to the harsh and dehumanizing work conditions of the Industrial Revolution. But when Pope Leo XIII responded with a strong encyclical "On The Condition of Labor", the Church was foursquare on the side of workers' rights to just wages, benefits, and safe working conditions.
Pope Leo wrote these words in 1891, "It has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition… To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. " This advocacy extended down throughout the 20th Century to our own time. The Church's Magisterium continues demanding just working conditions including the importance of labor unions.
Pope Benedict XVI included these themes in his major encyclical on Catholic Social Teaching in 2009 (Charity in Truth), "What is meant by the word 'decent' in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living. While reflecting on the theme of work, it is appropriate to recall how important it is that labour unions — which have always been encouraged and supported by the Church — should be open to the new perspectives that are emerging in the world of work." (#63)
The rights of workers cannot be left to the marketplace or the whims of employers. These are rights to which workers are entitled. A spirituality of work and sanctification of workplaces can transform dehumanizing and impersonal spaces into spaces where humanity flourishes. Called to see our daily work as a service to "others", in the full sense of other people as "neighbors" and "brothers and sisters", we can avoid seeing work as a self-serving opportunity to grasp more. Our choices will help determine which banquet table we will be seated for eternity.
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