This School of Love
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“…take my soul into your most sacred wound, so that in this school of love, I may learn to make a return of love to God, who has given me such wondrous proofs of his love.”
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October 24, 2014
In August of 1873, Fr. Leo Dehon, along with members of his St. Joseph Youth Center, joined a Workers’ Union pilgrimage to the shrine of Notre Dame de Liesse. Two months later, Dehon established a Catholic Workers’ Union for the older members of the Youth Center. A week later, the parish pastor blessed their banner.
The purpose of this Worker’s Union was to help the young men understand their rights and duties as laborers. Among other offerings, Fr. Dehon taught them a course in social economy. No doubt, this seminal experience shaped Fr. Dehon’s articulation of the need to empower the working class to obtain a living wage and humane working conditions. In 1894, with over 20 years of experience, Fr. Dehon published Christian Social Manual. The first part consists of a study on “Social Economy.” In the second part, which is a practical guide for establishing social works, he writes the following.
“We were feeling even at the beginning of this century that the world of work was experiencing a malaise. The problem has grown. We have been struck by the nation’s weakness in time of war and by the anarchical unrest which emerged at the time of the Paris Commune. We have sought a remedy.
“Corporations [Editor’s note: this term refers to unions] are the natural organs of social life. They have their well-defined place between families and higher levels of society such as cities, provinces, and kingdoms. They bring together people who have a common occupational interest. Their immediate purpose is temporal. In a Christian society, they are animated with a religious life by the confraternities with which they are linked.
“In the encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII tells us, Mutual aid societies, providential and employer-sponsored works are excellent, and they help to relieve poverty and to reconcile social classes; but first priority goes to workers’ corporations which, in themselves, encompass almost all works!”
Objecting to the French government’s attempts to control any group over which the Catholic Church might have influence, Dehon insists, “We must act by going through every outlet which is open to us in order to bring the corporate ideal closer to realization, that ideal whose principal elements are autonomous and free association, grouping members of the same occupation with a view towards protecting the honor of the trade and occupational interests; with the right of ownership and jurisdiction supplemented by a religious bond and providential and aid-giving institutions, and participation in social and political life through public representation.
“The recent modification to the Guidelines for the Work [Editor’s note: written by the founders of the organization, Works of the Circles] tells us that we must understand the word, work, in its broadest sense, and that we could also very well call it the Organization of Catholic Workers’ Associations.
“We are building on the same foundations, including Catholic statements, the participation of workers in the internal government of the associations, and the commitment of the managerial class towards the workers.
“If we find a pastor or a Christian layman who is willing to establish an economic, corporate work, we do not say to him, ‘You absolutely must wait until you have a committee.’ We shall say to him, ‘If you are alone at the outset, begin alone; but as soon as you can, you will recruit some committee people to form, along with yourself, a committee of sponsorship for your work.’ Thus we will say to all people of good will, ‘Associate yourselves with the Works of the Circles’.”
In his imagination, Fr. Dehon pictures Jesus as a small child learning his father’s trade. “The Creator, maker of the world, strains to lift a piece of wood to assist Joseph. Who can describe the thoughts of the young apprentice? How his youthful Heart must have sympathized with the work, the privations, and the sufferings of the laboring classes of all times.
“He who was later to say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened” [Matthew 11:28], must have embraced all the labors of the poor and prepared many graces of patience and courage for them; he must have foreseen and merited all the good work of public and private charity for Christian societies. If only all who are blessed with the good things of this world would meditate on the life of Jesus at Nazareth! If all laborers would only ponder over the work, fatigues, and privations of Jesus the Worker!”
Although at first glance, a seemingly pious flight of fancy, this meditation advances the notion that any form of work, accomplished with love, is a physical expression throughout the day of the act of oblation. In referring to the years prior to Jesus’ public ministry Fr. Dehon writes, “The hidden life of the Sacred Heart is the ordinary life comprising only obscure acts that attract no attention. This life does not allow for exterior acts of extraordinary sanctity. Men err in seeing sanctity only in its outward manifestations. Our Lord gives us a different lesson; it is to perform, in an uncommon manner, the most ordinary actions with perfect love.
“It is in these ordinary actions, disdained and scorned as they sometimes are, that we ought to find our sanctity. The condition of a workman, to which our Lord chose to reduce himself, brought with it mortifications altogether providential.” For Fr. Dehon, the ordinary action of performing an honest day’s labor is an offering of self that quietly expresses holiness. Nonetheless, this action requires an honest day’s pay.
“Providential mortifications,” having nothing to do with accepting the exploitation of workers, are those efforts which benefit workers and maintain their dignity. In attempting to comprehend economic structures, to understand worker’s rights as well as duties, and to organize for a living wage and safe working environments, Fr. Dehon reflected the love expressed in the Heart of Jesus. Contemporary reality demands understanding and responding to the consequences of Free Trade, Multi-national Corporations, and income inequality, and advocating for universal access to affordable health care.
Jesus the Worker promises rest for and assistance to all who are weary from their heavy burdens. Laborers, who advocate a just compensation for their work, express an everyday spirituality of taking Jesus’ yoke upon their shoulders. In this act of oblation, they become co-workers with Jesus, not only in accomplishing well the work of their hands, but also in easing the burdens of those who experience the injustice of prejudice and exploitation.
The act of oblation—the offering of one’s entire self to God—is usually made in the morning and ideally renewed briefly at various times throughout the day. How can you be conscious that the work you do is a physical extension of your act of oblation?
What one, specific action can you take that would benefit the well-being of common laborers?
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayers all laborers, those who employ them, and those who advocate for them. You may find helpful this act of oblation, adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
God, our Father,
in the early days of the covenant
you spoke to Moses in the burning bush.
You told him that you would be with your people
as a liberator and a savior.
You raised up prophets who denounced injustice
and who called people to cease doing evil
and learn to do good.
At the appointed time,
Jesus, your Son, came to bring good news to the poor.
He called people to follow him,
to set their hearts on heavenly treasure
and to live for others here on earth.
Now, in this moment of the Church,
we offer you our lives.
With the help of your grace,
may we be available
to live in solidarity with your people,
to promote justice,
and to be a sign in the heart of the world
that your love abides in Christ.