In the space of 200 years we have moved from the appalling conditions of work during the Industrial Revolution, through the Marxist-Communist era, when Russian workers, newly called the proletariat, sweated to fulfil the country’s unrealistic Five-Year plans, to the modern age where there is increasing talk of artificial intelligence taking over the workplace and ordinary people being paid a living wage not to work at all.
Into this debate comes the wise, sane voice of the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland for 32 years, in this book first published in 1946: Sanctify Your Daily Life: How to transform Work into a Source of Strength, Holiness and Joy (EWTN/Gracewing).
At the time Wyszynski was Bishop of Lublin. Shortly before he became the Polish primate in 1949, the Communist Party in Poland gained control of the country and the “Iron Curtain” came down as it did over all Eastern Europe. The then Bishop Wyszynski would have known how atheistic Communism operated in Russia and would have had few illusions about it.
Appropriate to the man who courageously and doggedly stood up to the new masters of his country for 32 years, insisting that the Church be allowed its rightful place in Polish spiritual life, but always using his diplomatic skills in doing so, he never mentions the new ideology by name in his book.
With God rather than man as his starting point, the author explains how God “worked” during his creation and thus how work itself is integral to human existence. Pointing to Jesus’ hidden years, he reminds readers of the “mystery…that Christ gave many years of His life to physical work”, echoes of which occur all through the images employed in the parables. He notes the significance of “hardened, robust, fearless fishermen” being chosen as the apostles, as well as St Paul – surely the most famous tent-maker of all time.
It was the pagan world, Wyszynski suggests, that thought of work as the activity for slaves, leaving superior men to indulge in leisure. Work creates bonds between people; “a special communion of saints”, such as the generations of artists, artisans and others who built the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe over hundreds of years.
Again, in contrast to the Communist axiom that “property is theft”, the author states that private property “is protected by the law of custom…and the law of God.” Nonetheless, “We should live frugally, to share more with the poor.” Those who have more than their basic requirements, have a duty of almsgiving, charity and magnanimity. Wyszynski also stands up for a fair wage: “The labourer is worthy of his hire” he states. Nevertheless, employers have to ensure that their workers have time for relaxation, prayer, family life and hobbies.
Does all this sound impossibly idealistic, out of touch with modern life? Only if you remove God from the equation, in which case you also remove man’s intrinsic dignity. He is then at risk of becoming a cog in a machine, a statistic, a wage-slave or a recipient of government charity. If he were writing today, the late Cardinal would not change his premises – though he would point out that work should ennoble and that chronic unemployment degrades those who suffer it. As Wyszynski observes about the parable of the vineyard, although those who began work at the 11th hour could not contribute much to the day’s toil, they were not left idle: “No-one should live without work”.
A wise and thoughtful book, drawing on papal social encyclicals, reminding us all that advances in technology should not make lives of idleness the default position for men and women.