Faith and Work

A Personal Reflection

When Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem exercens that everyone is a worker, he set the stage for a deeper reflection and a broader understanding on workthan has been generally conceded either in the world of industry or in the world of the academy. To say that work means any activity of man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances is to help us all grasp the truth that work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures.

My subject today is work and the relationship of faith and work as I have experienced it in my own life. I must warn you at the beginning that I do not present the circumstances of my own life as in any way a model for someone else. In fact I pray that none of you will have to face some of what I have had to experience even though every moment of my life has been blessed by God and is a life for which I am ever grateful to God in his goodness to me.

My own work has been as a student, a priest, a bishop, a teacher in our seminaries and now as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. A bishop whose work is an extension of the pastoral office and care of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. Each of these stages of my life has had its own challenges, its own moments of success and failure. But each of them has contributed to the building up of who I am as disciple of Christ and bishop in His Church. Today I will not dwell on any single moment of my life but rather use my own life to reflect upon what is important in the Church’s teaching on faith and work.

"Faith is the defining moment for each of us in a way that makes possible and conditions all our other choices."

Work is one of the characteristics by which we express who we are and we become who we want to be. The choices we make for our life of work as professionals, businessmen, leaders and doers in our society and in our communities are among the principal ways we define who we are and develop who we will be. There are many other choices that are as important or even more so. . . . of all these the most important is expressed in my desire to be a priest and your choice of a spouse. These two choices, priesthood and marriage, are the two fundamental vocations of our human life placed within the context of our faith.

And what is the next crucial aspect of the humanity we share: our faith. Faith is the defining moment for each of us in a way that makes possible and conditions all our other choices. We may not always be aware of it but faith enters into and shapes who we are because faith is the one characteristic of our life that, once given through God’s grace leads into a fuller human life that ultimately is the only gift that will lead us into eternal life. Therefore, we can say that faith is the substratum of our work just as faith is the basic building block of our whole existence.

Faith makes it possible for us to understand both the importance and the limits of what our work is and can be in our lives. Why is that? It is simply because faith makes us into someone more than we otherwise could be. And, as we grasp what faith does for us, we can begin to grasp the wonderful truth that who we are is more important than what we do. Who we are is found in God’s design for us.

As if this is not enough, it is for us that Jesus Christ became man and lived, died and rose for our salvation. Who we are is ultimately known only when we grasp who he is, who he has become for us and who he makes us through the outpouring of grace in the gift of faith given to us in and through his church.

That is why I say to be is more than to do. Let me illustrate that further by one example from my own life. I had been a priest and ordained a bishop, named to a diocese when in 1975 the Vietnamese government placed me under arrest. In prison I could hear the bells of my cathedral chiming dailybut there was no possibility for me to be there, to say mass for my people, to bring them the sacraments, to teach them the faith during all those years I could not “do” for my people in the conventional sense. Yet I never ceased to “be” their priest, their bishop, their pastor. I could not build up the Kingdom of God by preaching and governing and bringing the sacraments to the People of God. Yet I was always who I am. I am certain, with the certainty that only faith can give, that my being was accepted by God as a service to his people even though I could not fulfill my “work” as I had been ordained to do.

Again that does not mean that my work became unimportant to me. On the contrary, what a joy it was to be in Hanoi, even during my house arrest, to teach the seminarians. How much sense of fulfillment did I have when I was able to write of my experiences and to place them within the context of God’s loving care for us. Now I have been given a new position and it is work that truly gives me the possibility of growing and advancing in the use of whatever gifts God has given me.

"Faith is the substratum of our work just as faith is the basic building block of our whole existence."

This is as it should be. The Church’s social teaching, especially as Pope John Paul II has presented it in Laborem eexercens underscores that the work we do has a dignity and a meaning because it is a product of our labor, of our efforts and our creativity. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being, and, indeed in a sense, becomes more a human being.

Not only does work enhance your own lives personally. It has a direct effect in your family life and in your life as a people and a nation. The role of work makes it possible to found and maintain a family I need not belabor here. You know that. What is present in your appreciation of work is the extent to which it is not just a means for you to support your family. It is even more a value, a good, whose contribution you not only should esteem but you should also instruct your own family so that they too will grasp the good that work is. In that way the family becomes a school of work.

Finally there is one most important observation to be made about a spirituality of work. Work involves toil, effort, commitment, often suffering, but determination to achieve because there is a good to be attained. In that our work brings us close to the cross of Christ. “The Christian finds in human work a small part of the cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his cross for us. In work we find a glimmer of new life, of the new good which confirms the indispensability of the cross in the spirituality of human work. On the other hand, the cross which this toil constitutes reveals a new good springing from work itself, from work understood in depth and in all its aspects.

All of us live under the sign of the cross and the resurrection. Our work, as men and women of faith, is undertaken, like all men and women, for our good and for the good of our families and dear ones. Because of who we are, followers of Jesus, people of faith, our being in Christ Jesus sets the stage for our work to have a deeper meaning and a more significant end. Co-creators with the Father, we can transform the toil of our lives into a good that helps transform our communities and our worlds.