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THE CONTRIBUTION OF LABOREM EXERCENS ON WORK

Reflecting on work, the Magisterium did not end with Rarum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Gadium et Spes. Knowing the weight and importance of it in human life  as  well as in the life of the Church, Pope John Paul II  (now a saint), decided to expound on it in the encyclical titled as Laborem Exercens which was published in 1981. That was the 90th anniversary of Rerum  Novarum.  Laborem  Exercens  represents one of the most remarkable fruits of  Vatican II  as  well  as the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

In representing the rich thought of the document in a synthetic way we may focus on three aspects. First of all, there is the personal and existential dimension of work (cf. nos. 1-9). This thought is developed especially in the introduction to the encyclical. It stresses that work is the activity of the human person, it is the expression of the human personality. Therefore, it cannot be interpreted principally in an objective sense, that is as being the result of the efforts made by people. In other words, work is for people and not people for work. A person should not be enslaved by work. A person is the master of work - after God, of course. The whole social question is to be understood from the point of view of the activity of the person. In Laborem Exercens, the Pope stresses that work is proper to human beings only. Animals do not work as their activity is principally concerned with supporting life. Because of having been made in the image of God, the human being is called to dominate the earth. In other words, human beings are called to work right from the beginning. Thus, work is a vocation, a calling by God to which a response must be given. Human beings fulfil their vocation or their nature through the exercise of activities.

Secondly, work is marked by solidarity (cf. no. 8 & 10). Being a human activity, work expresses the relational dimension of human life. It is not only a collective activity, but it also builds up social relationships. The 'social question' originated in an atmosphere of conflict - the employers and employees. Yet it gave rise to a whole network of relationships marked by solidarity among workers especially among the industrial work force. In order to become a force that creates relationships and generates solidarity, work has to overcome the scheme product-salary that has often marked the way it is understood. People realise that they do not work in isolation. Rather they act with and for others. The work of  some  follows  on  the activity of others. Moreover, work assumes many aspects that go beyond the characteristics of socially recognised  or salaried work. In  this  way,  work  is a relevant contribution to the common good.

Thirdly, work assumes a theological dimension in the light of the Easter mystery (cf. nos. 24-27). In fact, the last chapter of Laborem Exercens proposes elements of spirituality of work. It is a section of theological nature, where the various constitutive elements of work examined in the preceding parts are reflected upon in the light of the mystery of Christ in order to derive an understanding of human activity that will enable the Christian to see their activity in a more complete way. It intends to complete the presentation of the concept of work. Considering that the Bible presents the human being as having been put in charge of the garden by God (cf. Gen. 1-2), it follows that work, in the sense of human activity, is part of God's project. People's work is a participation in God's creative activity. Only if in God's plan human work will be a source of blessing and fulfilment. This is the meaning of the day of rest on the seventh day: a time of rest from stressful activities in order to have the space and the time to open one's life to God. A day of appreciation, of thanksgiving to God who has given us that gift of work for our survival.

However, reflecting on Gen. 4 and 11, one realises the mark of sin on human activity which becomes burdensome, tiring and oppressive. Like any other aspect of human life, work is redeemed by Christ. The Christocentric approach enables the dimension of work to be part of Christ's humanity and redemptive work. Human activity is understood within the dynamism of Christ's giving up of life in order to receive it fulfilled in the resurrection. This can be referred to the Gospel image of the grain of wheat that bears fruit once is sown in the ground and dies (Jn. 12:24).

If salary is due to the worker in order to sustain and better life conditions, the meaning of work cannot be satisfied by salary. It remains open to a deeper understanding that embraces the whole of the human personality. In other words, if a person works simply for the sake of working and has no meaning it, then work loses its meaning. If work is not part of the human integrative aspect of life, then work becomes mechanical and loses its original meaning intended by God. It is, therefore, the task of theology to give meaning to human activity in order to see it within the dynamism or context of God's redemptive plan and His call to people to cooperate in it. Internalising work in one's life, embraces the human holistic approach to work!

-FR DR JAMES NGAHY, M. AFR.

jngahy@yahoo.com

 


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