Perspectives From the Saints on the Dignity of Work

By Christine Warner
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We find worth in our work. In part, it defines our quality of life and our existence on earth.


We are fulfilled and sanctified through work. It is one of the core qualities that differentiate us, as humans, from other living creatures. As Saint John Paul II reflected in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, published in 1981, “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons.”

Whatever the nature or circumstances of our work might be—manual or intellectual, professional or personal—it has dignity, both on earth and for eternity. We should not let our work define our identity, but we should recognize how it helps us enhance our the moral nature of our culture. As children of God, we are called to surrender everything to His will—including our professional work. These saintly perspectives explain how.


Saint Josemaria Escriva on Encountering Christ


Saint Josemaria Escriva, priest and founder of Opus Dei, was committed to sharing the message of our call to holiness in our everyday life and work—and is referred to as the Saint of Ordinary Life. Reflecting the mission of Opus Dei, he said, “Your ordinary contact with God takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. There you have your daily encounter with Christ.” When we place our work in God’s hands, we can encounter Him and find spiritual fulfillment through it.


“What use is it telling me that so and so is a good son of mine—a good Christian—but a bad shoemaker? If he doesn’t try to learn his trade well, or doesn’t give his full attention to it, he won’t be able to sanctify it or offer it to Our Lord. The sanctification of ordinary work is, as it were, the hinge of true spirituality for people who, like us, have decided to come close to God while being at the same time fully involved in temporal affairs.”  – Saint Josemaria Escriva, Friends of God


Pray each day for the grace to live God’s will for you in the workplace, and to be a witness of Him to those around you: coworkers, managers, partners, direct reports, and others.


Saint John Paul II on Transforming the Material World


Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens emphasizes the importance of calling “attention to the dignity and rights of those who work.” It explores the fundamental role of work in fulfilling our earthly purpose, and evangelizing the world. As we bear our work-related burdens, in any form, we are unified with Christ’s own suffering—contributing to the redemption of humanity. In a practical sense, this means celebrating what we create. All professions and roles involve elements of creation that we should glorify to elevate the spiritual significance of our job performance.     


“The knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it in various sectors. ‘The faithful…must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, and its orientation to the praise of God. Even by their secular activity they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace…Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labor, technical skill and civil culture, created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his word.” – Saint John Paul II, Laborem Exercens


Whenever you feel disconnected from God in your day-to-day tasks, take a moment to reflect and recenter on how you can offer it all to Him. Remember its divine design.


Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Personal Sanctification and Surrender


The spirit of surrender in work and everyday life is central to the mission of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Saint Teresa saw Christ in all the people she encountered and the work she performed, no matter how poor the person or menial the task. She gave everyone and everything the same respect—recognizing God’s love for them and presence in them. She found sanctification in surrendering her work to God, and knew it is His hope for us to desire and seek Him in all that we do. Encouraging humility, Saint Teresa reminds us that any gifts or talents we have come from God. While we should see the higher good of our work, we should not take credit and instead give all the glory to God.  


“Whatever you do…you do it to Jesus…We must not be afraid to proclaim Christ’s love and to love as He loved. In the work we have to do it does not matter how small and humble it may be, make it Christ’s love in action. However beautiful the work is, be detached from it, even ready to give it up. The work is not yours. The talents God has given you are not yours; they have been given to you for your use, for the glory of God. Be great and use everything in you for the good Master.” – Saint Teresa of Calcutta, No Greater Love


Devote your work to God. Saint Teresa also shared the reality that we cannot constantly think of God in every moment, but He doesn’t expect us to. It is our desire that counts.

Saint Benedict XVI on Community and Society Impact


Through the dignity and drive we bring to our work, we can impact our communities and greater society—beyond our own workplace or peers. The integral nature of work, an essential foundation of our existence and earthly motivation, has power to affect the common good of society. Saint Benedict XVI preached about this aspect of work during his homily at the 2016 Mass for Workers. We may not see this in our daily lives, but as a community of people working to do God’s will in every task and job, we collectively bring goodness and grace into the world. Similar to Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s insights, Saint Benedict XVI warns against placing disproportionate value on work. In dignifying it, we should not let it define us.  


“Work is of fundamental importance to the fulfillment of the human being and to the development of society. Thus, it must always be organized and carried out with full respect for human dignity and must always serve the common good. At the same time, it is indispensable that people not allow themselves to be enslaved by work or to idolize it, claiming to find in it the ultimate and definitive meaning of life.” – Saint Benedict XVI, 2016 Mass for Workers


Think beyond your immediate workplace or environment. Consider how as a Catholic community, we can change society together in our respective communities.


Enter each day with awareness about how your work can empower you to encounter Christ, change the world, sanctify your own life, and improve your community. Work of any kind is such a normal and constant part of our lives that we can lose sight of its connection with our faith. Don’t idolize it, but identify its dignity.


To reflect further on Saint John Paul II’s vision about the individual and societal worth of work, join us for our 2018 Principled Entrepreneurship™ Conference hosted in partnership with the Busch School of Business.


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