Labor Day, taking place on the first Monday in September, numbers among the national holidays in the USA. Its origin directs our attention to 1882 and the beginning of the movement to protect laborers from severe and unhealthy working conditions. It promoted the establishment of unions. In the modern era, the emphasis falls more upon a desire to recognize those who provide the foundation upon which our country grows through the tasks that they do and the spirit that they bring. Labor Day invites the opportunity to have picnics and a day off from work.
I find a very Vincentian spirit in Labor Day. From the beginning, Louise and Vincent were serious about being hard workers themselves and promoting the ability to work among the poor whom they served. One of the most well-known statements of Vincent highlights his call to an effort-filled service:
“Let us love God, my brothers and sisters, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows. For, very often, many acts of love of God, of devotion, and of other similar affections and interior practices of a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they don’t translate into the practice of effective love” (CCD 11, p. 32).
Less familiar, but characteristic of the focus and organizational prowess of Louis, are her notes on organizing one of their ministries:
“Since one of the greatest assets of this project is the work which it provides, it is necessary to assign tasks which are useful and productive. An acceptable one would be that of clothmaker. Apart from being productive —the cloth could be used in the House and in other places— it employs many persons and requires little equipment. Bootmakers and shoemakers would also be most useful. Any buttonmakers and muslin workers who are skilled in their trade can put the finishing touches on the products before they are put into use. Other useful workers are: lacemakers, glovemakers who know how to trim, seamstresses who can take in work from the dressmakers of the city and of other places, and pinmakers.” (Louise de Marillac, Notes on the organization of the Hospice of the Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, A 99))
And she goes on in practical detail and planning.
Both Vincent and Louise believed in providing the poor with honest work that respected their humanity and dignity. So, too, did Ozanam. Spending any time with his writings dealing with labor provides a primer for Catholic social teaching around work and its connection to the practice of Christian values.
Clearly, the Vincentian charism lifts up the value of human labor. Members of the family hear the summons to take their tasks of service seriously. We also receive the reminder to be grateful for and supportive of the work of others—with particular emphasis upon the poor. Vincent teaches us:
“We live on the patrimony of Jesus Christ, on the sweat of the poor” (CCD 11, p. 190).