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The Spirituality of Work: Perspectives from Pope St. John Paul II

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If anyone tried to tell us that there is spirituality to work, we might be tempted to laugh at him or her. We might be tempted to view our work with the eyes of the author of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Our work may sometimes seem futile, and it may even leave us exhausted, irritated, and discouraged. Yet Pope John Paul II was bold enough to say that there is spirituality to our work in his encyclicalletter entitled Laborem Exercens (1981). Aside from the great contribution to Catholic social teaching made by John Paul II in this document, he also made it very clear that our work, as laity, is part of God’s divine plan for us and actually leads us closer to him. An exploration of the spirituality and theology of work described by John Paul II is worth pursuing, lest we become discouraged in our daily work.

John Paul II’s perspective on the spirituality of work must be situated within his understanding of the secular character of the lay faithful. In his post-synodal apostolicexhortation, Christifideles Laici (1988), John Paul II points to the Second Vatican Council, which discussed the laity’s secular character. He writes, “The ‘world’ thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ” (CL, art. 15). This does not mean that the laity are meant to be worldly. As Christ prays to the Father at the Last Supper, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world…As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:16; 18). Thus, the lay faithful discover their path to sanctity by living in the world and engaging the secular culture. While a contemplative religious retreats from the world to contemplate the mystery of God more deeply and to pray for the world and Church, the laity live in the world and bring the Gospel to others through their example of Christian living.

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