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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cusimano

What is the Purpose of Work?

Notes from a recent reflection I did at a recent Men of St. Joseph meeting. I hope you enjoy...

Today I want to reflect on work as a calling from God.

I thought about referring to my reflection today as one on the “Theology of Work” as that is a popular subject lately.  But I realized I am woefully ill-equipped to give any presentation with the word “Theology” in the title. 

If I make a mistake in dogma, I assure you it is one of ignorance, rather than a heretical attempt.  Please give let me know so that I can improve.

I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who does a lot of work and thus is trying to figure it all out. 

Also, the things I speak about today are heavily borrowed from others and not all my own. Particular inspiration for parts of this has come from work by Dr. Scott Rae.   For the most part, I’m just the messenger.

I want to explore today a couple of questions:

1) What is the proper connection between Sunday and Monday?

2) Whose responsibility is it to carry out God’s plan in our world?

I’m comfortable positing that about 99.9% of Catholics are lay people and not ordained religious.  Is God’s expectation that the responsibility of saving souls and building his Church on earth lies solely on the professional shoulders of 0.1% of us?

While that question may sound facetious in this setting, judging from attitudes of both lay people and religious I’ve spoken with over the years, I actually think that many of them would answer, “yes.”  I’ve spoken with more than one priest who seemed to think that the intrinsic value in the work life of lay people was only in creating surplus money beyond what families need so that money can be given to the Church.

While it is true that the activities of the Church are not in and of themselves revenue generating, and that the responsibility of financially supporting the Church’s work does fall on us lay people, surely this is incomplete.  Surely God has called us to more with the actual hours we spend working.

Most practicing Catholics spend only one hour per week on religious activities: namely the Mass. Of those of us involved in various parish ministries, most spend maybe five hours a week on religious based activities.  Is it feasible to expect that all of the work that God wants to do in us, and all of the work he wants us to do for him is going to happen in one to five hours a week?  It seems that our lay calling must extend into the other hours of our lives for us to allow all God wants to do with us.

Before diving further, perhaps first we should ask ourselves what the origin of work is.  Is it intrinsically a good thing?  Or is it a necessary evil, brought on by humanity’s fallen nature that we must make the most of to support our families and our Church?

A sample of some popular views may help to get our discussion going:

Some of us may have the view that, “I need to work as hard as I can in order to make as much money as I can, so that I can retire as soon as I can… all so that I don’t have to work anymore.”

Others of us likely have a more purposeful view on life and have the approach, “that I need to be as productive as I can while at my job so that I can have more time and money to go do things that have real meaning.”

It seems to me that our view of what we should be doing in the work place is incomplete.

When asked how we can live our faith while at work, the most popular response I hear is, “Well, I can search for opportunities to tell people about Jesus while I’m at work.”  While this is certainly a good thing that we should, do, I believe it is incomplete as it doesn’t recognize the value of the work itself.  Furthermore, if we do too much of it we could even run the risk of theft of time from our employer as this is not what we have been hired to do.

And for others, they have a “business-as-mission” approach. They are entrepreneurs or missionaries who create local businesses or travel very far away to undertake the work of building wells or houses,  so they can create more opportunities to be in front of people who will now more likely to accept the Gospel because of the good works for them that have just been done.  While this is certainly noble, and should be encouraged, it too is incomplete.

Other times we hear comments from those who have answered a call to religious life or to mission work in a faraway place, that they are so glad that they are finally able to spend their days doing God’s work. We’ll hear things like, “I left my previous life to join a vocational ministry.”

Again, incomplete.  Of course, when we hear a call to religious life or full-time mission work, we should go, and we need more people to answer this call.  But what is it that we think these people were doing before they answered that particular call?  Did their lives up to that point again have a pass from spiritual responsibility in the work place? 

So is the popular view of work in our society incomplete or possibly disordered?

To answer those who think that work is nothing more than a product of the Fall and a necessary evil to support our families and our Church, I can present this:

A couple of weeks ago I made a statement in this room that before the Fall, life was paradise and that there was no work in the Garden of Eden.

I was likely mistaken; on the work part, not the paradise part.

Does this imply that when the shrubs do appear later in creation, the man will need to start tilling?   Perhaps so, because in Genesis 2:15 we are told that “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”  It seems that before the fall God had work for Adam to do.

And later in Genesis 2:20 we see that God found none of the animals “proved to be a helper suited to the man.” Thus he created woman.  What is it that God created woman to help man with?  Because it seems that animals were first considered as potential helpers for man and none proved suitable, we almost certainly are not talking solely about woman’s role of joining in a sexual union with man and populating the earth.  There must have been something else for both man and woman to do.

After the Fall in Genesis 3:17 we do hear God say to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life.”

Note that what was cursed was the ground. Not work.  However, the work we do is now much harder than it was before the fall.

And if we go to the very beginning of Genesis, we learn that, “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.

Certainly if as we learn from Genesis 1:27 that “God created mankind in his image;” and God does work which has meaning and develops the world, then we who are constantly striving to be with him should also do work to develop this world.

This may explain why St. Thomas Aquinas arrived at the conclusion in his Summa Theologica that “"In spite of this toil... work is a good thing for man: not only is it a worthy and useful good, it corresponds to man's dignity, and expresses and increases it (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 1.40 a.1c; I-II q.34.a.2,ad.1)"

And in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope St. John Paul II boldly tells us, "The ethical meaning of work is found in this truth: work is a good thing for man because, through work, man not only transforms nature, and adapts it to his needs, but he achieves human fulfillment and becomes 'more of a human being.”

Strong words.

But understanding these things and living them are two different things. How can we live this?

Perhaps we should stop speaking of Christian work? Or at least we should stop speaking of it as something that is distinguishable from secular work.  It is all God’s work.

When we hear calls for prayers for vocations in our Churches, they are almost always payers for calls to ordained religious life.  But what about those who spend most of our days working at a job?  Because of the way our society is set up, for those of us in the laity who make up over 99.9% of our Church, we spend more waking hours at work each day than we do with our families. What is our call for the use of those hours? Should we also pray fervently for that?

What if our work exists to give us opportunities to serve our fellow man and to build up our communities?  What if our lay calling is to take the talents and professional inclinations God has given us, constantly refine them, and to become, as Matthew Kelly says, the best version of ourselves as we shape our communities.

Some of us are called to work which puts us closer to the end results of saving souls or righting injustices, but we all play a role in serving by working.

For example, we can all appreciate the work of the family who drops everything and moves to Africa to spend their days flying to the most remote villages to feed those who are starving.  Few of us would say that this family is not living a call to do God’s work.

But what of the engineer who designed the airplane that made this delivery of food possible to a place with no roads? Was he not doing God’s work? What if he had abandoned his “secular” profession so that he could pursue what everyone around him kept telling him was more meaningful vocational ministry?  The delivery of food would not have been possible.

And what of the farmer who grew the food? What of the truck driver who drove the food to the airport? What of the factory worker who formed the steel which was used in the truck that drove the food?  What of the accountant who kept the books for the trucking company so that it can remain solvent and continue to put trucks on the road? What of the graphic designer who designed the marketing materials that allowed the farmer to find the trucking company? Were these people not all also doing God’s work? Were they not all playing a role in feeding of the hungry?

Fortunately, God has set up the natural laws of the Earth so that when properly used, markets allow us to spend our days at work serving our fellow man. Not just by making donations, but by doing for profit work.  While the compatibility of God’s natural law with markets would be the subject of another presentation, here this short anecdote will suffice:

A few months ago, I moderated a business plan competition during which entrepreneurs were tasked with presenting: 1) the market need for the opportunity they intended to pursue, 2) how their product or service would meet that need, and 3) how their business would help their community. 

Pitch after pitch included a well-thought-out business case followed by an explanation of how profits would be disbursed to a meaningful cause.  After one particularly abrupt transition between the business case and the altruistic conclusion, one of the judges critiqued that the business case was decent, but the helping-the-community part didn’t seem related.  The entrepreneur retorted that part of the assignment was to explain how her business was helping the community and she was merely fulfilling the requirement.  A conversation on best ways for businesses to “give back” quickly ensued.  Judges attempted explanations such as, “the more money a business can make, the more it can give” and “you’ve got to make the money first, and then you’ll be able to help people.”  One judge suggested this was easier for a business in the room which was a medical practice. In his opinion the business full of doctors was uniquely already giving back every day because they helped sick people all day long.  Thus, they were relieved of any additional social responsibility to help the community.

I couldn’t help but interject.  I reminded the entrepreneurs that if they are setting up their businesses properly, then they are helping their community just by showing up to work. This is true not only of medical businesses, but of those in any industry.

I see business through a different lens than most.  Businesses are most successful when they identify a need or desire of people in the community and then meet that need by arranging the necessary resources into a lower priced offering than what those in the community would have paid had they met their needs and desires on their own.  They operate by serving.  Perhaps when viewed through this lens we can start to make sense of Pope St. John Paul II’s claim that man’s work achieves human fulfillment and makes him more of a human being.

So what if instead of only praying for vocations to ordained religious life, to which some are called and most are not, we started sending the message to every single member of our Church that “You are called!”? What if we used every teaching moment to form our children on a path of developing their talents and skills into the ability to do productive work for building our community and developing our world. And that call may be to be a priest, nun, married person, accountant, engineer, mechanic, or some combination of those? And God may change that call in different seasons of our lives, but at no time of our lives and at no certain hours of any day of our lives are we given a pass to simply to do secular work that doesn’t exist for a purpose!

Would we end up not only with thousands more Catholics moving purposefully throughout their careers to build their communities up, but also end up with more vocations to religious life as well?

I heard a story recently of a business man who told his pastor, “I’m on the supply lines and you are on the front lines.  I’ll make as much as I can so I can support you who is doing the real work out there.   The person telling the story wondered aloud if this was backwards.  Perhaps it is the lay people who are charged with the front lines of creating positive cultures not only in our families but in our workplaces and as Pope Francis said recently in Evangelii Gaudium, “the minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.”

What if instead of only sending missionaries across the globe with an impervious sense of purpose, we showed up every day with a steadfast purpose of using our jobs to serve others and build our communities? And what would happen as this renewed fortitude began to infiltrate industries desperately in need of missionaries such as media, entertainment and politics?  What would that economy look like?

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