The images are as poignant as they are sobering, and they lay bare difficult truths about the United States. The images are photographs of Capitol workers, mostly Black and Brown men and women, in the hallways and along the offices and by the side chambers of the US Capitol, cleaning up just a day after angry gangs of violent insurrectionists set upon the building in uncontained anarchy and criminal mayhem. In the photographs, the men and women are masked and wearing hazmat suits for protection from potential infection amid the debris and unknown moistness that are evident everywhere. Gently, carefully, but with sad dignity, the custodians tend to the desecrated building: sweeping up broken glass and scattered papers, pulling down torn curtains, washing away human waste, covering damaged statuary with protective wrap and discarding piles of garbage and detritus. Their work might seem routine, even anticipated, but the significance of that labor should not be underestimated. If the workers had not performed the requisite cleansing after the terrorist assault on the Capitol and the building had been left in its horribly damaged condition, it is very likely that the persistent presence of such wreckage would have disquieted even more an already traumatized American psyche. The unpretentious dignity of the Capitol workers also offered a restorative—howsoever fleeting—counterpoise to the disgraceful vulgarity of the assailants.
On December 8, 2020, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter “Patris corde” (“With a Father’s Heart”) in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church. The letter explores the meaning of fatherhood as a relational construct and Joseph as a model for accountability and authenticity. It is a laudable effort. The letter is also the instrument with which Pope Francis officially declared 2021 as “the year of Joseph,” a period of time during which the Church is called to remember and men, especially, are encouraged to emulate the “virtues and zeal” of the husband of Mary. Again, a commendable and relevant appeal.
However, at this perilous juncture in national—perhaps global—history, it seems more appropriate to pause and recollect another, certainly familiar, image of Joseph—that of Joseph the worker. As it happens, the promulgation of the Apostolic Letter in December coincided with the 65th anniversary of the institution of the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker by Pius XII, and so it seems incumbent upon the universal Church, and notably upon congregations of the lay faithful, to recognize that representation of Joseph as a call to conscience, as a mandate to honor the fundamental worth of all work and to promote the inherent dignity of every worker. As Pope Francis explained in the letter, the Catholic Social Justice tenets of the dignity of work and the integrity of the worker have particular urgency now because … “employment has once more become a burning social issue, and unemployment at times reaches record levels even in nations that for decades have enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity … and therefore there is a renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which Saint Joseph is an exemplary patron.” What is of especial interest is that Pope Francis identified as “dignified” the work of Joseph the laborer, the skilled craftsman and humble carpenter, although modern capitalist cultures might not agree: in such cultures, those workers are useful, even necessary, but not admirable or respectable. Contemporary college students, including those in Catholic institutions, are rarely encouraged to consider manual labor as commendable work, especially in comparison to the business of the private sector or professional careers. There may be a tacit agreement that all work is good work, but the majority of students in higher education seek to become the managers or supervisors of those manual laborers, not workers themselves.
Yet the current pandemic might offer an occasion for a resetting of such dispositions. It could be argued that before the national lockdown last March, most people walked into grocery stores or drove into gas stations or sat at tables in a restaurant with little regard for the person stocking the shelves or managing the gas pump or working the cash register: such workers were invisible, unseen, assumed and presumed, much like the custodial crew of the US Capitol. However, when the pandemic swept through the US (like a savage mob?) in the spring, leaving chaos and fear in its initial wake, those workers who had been ignored became identified as “essential workers” whose occupations were understood to be vital for the sustenance of the regional and national economies and for the social stability of the local communities. The women and men who had always been at work as nursing aides, cashiers, waitresses, mail carriers, delivery workers or bus drivers were suddenly not only visible but also commendable; not only helpful, but also heroic.
The Columbian poet, Ramon Cote Baraibar, elevates the goodness of labor and the excellence of the worker to a spiritual condition, participatory in the work of God. In his prose-poem “Coal Deliveryman,” he is mindful of work as a holy practice and the worker as a celebrant of its salvific ritual:
Like finding a bar of aluminum wedged in a bull’s jaw. Like discovering in a sea chest a short obsidian head. Like looking through a padlock and seeing an undeserved dawn. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, was it to see the green truck that with the punctuality of a sacrament delivered the coal each month. On the slope its strained heart would announce itself vociferously, at the brink of death, and it would stop in front of the house as if to deliver the agonizing news of the fall of Troy. And then a man, wrapped in sacking, would pitch his cargo, resonant and angular, into an orange-painted crate.
Like opening a Bible and finding three leaves of laurel. Like lifting a stone and remembering someone’s name. Like finding the same snail again a hundred miles away. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, would it be to find, fifteen years later, the same coal deliveryman carrying on his trade, bent from the strain, determined to show the heavens that a man might do that job his entire life, that he scraped in the mines, that he stole thread from his wife to sew his sacking, that he dreamed of infinite excavations, of tunnels, and that they might forgive him for not having done more than that.”
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.