Sunday, May 1, 2022

May Day

One of the ironies of modern history is that May Day, for centuries a major seasonal turning point (the first day of summer) in an agriculturally oriented, nature-based calendar, became in the 19th century a day dedicated - of all post-agricultural, post nature-based things - to modern industrial labor and the proletariat it produced. Before it became an International Workers' Holiday, May Day was more about dancing around the maypole and crowning the May Queen (a remote antecedent of the contemporary Catholic May Procession and Crowning). Undoubtedly, some contemporary "neopagans" may be reconstructing some of those older nature-cycle pagan festivals and again celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival

May Day still survives as a workers' holiday, of course, but barely (following the collapse of communism and the eclipse of socialism). In the United States, where we have a different "Labor Day" holiday and May Day has accordingly always resonated less among the "working classes" than in Europe, it is the labor movement itself which has been eclipsed. In the 20th century, as Michael Kazin has shown in What it Took To Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, /Strauss, and Giroux, 2022), the U.S. Democratic Party became briefly, but very successfully, an American Labor Party. But those days appear long gone, and the U.S. Democratic Party has long since abandoned its identification with the "working classes" (to the party's own electoral detriment, as well as the detriment of the "working classes").

The political abandonment of the "working classes" has come about much more slowly in Europe. Moreover, the mid-20th-century post-war period in Europe was characterized by authentic religious outreach as well. This was reflected, for example, in the Mission de France and the "worker-priests" movement and, somewhat more superficially, in the mid-1950s invention of the Roman Catholic liturgical feast (photo) of S. Joseph Opifex, assigned by Pope Pius XII to this date, somewhat ironically referred to in the feast's original office as "a day which the workers have adopted as their own." While the new festival famously failed to outperform the more popular leftist May Day, in the process the new observance did displace another relatively modern feast in the Catholic calendar, that of the Patronage of Saint Joseph, celebrated in the 19th century on the Third Sunday after Easter and then in the 20th century on the Third Wednesday after Easter. Pius XII's ineffective innovation still survives - somewhat vestigially and not much noticed - in the Church's contemporary calendar.

In 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (whose own given name, of course, was Joseph) made the best of what the calendar offered, somewhat unconvincingly calling this observance in honor of Saint Joseph the Worker "a liturgical Memorial very dear to the Christian people." Recalling how it had been established "to highlight the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and his Church in the working world," he expressed his "hope that work will be available, especially for young people, and that working conditions may be ever more respectful of the dignity of the human person." 

Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759), spoke disapprovingly about what he called “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition,” which he called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” How ironic that it is precisely such ordinary, unappreciated “persons of poor and mean condition,” whose social and economic well-being our society has largely neglected for decades, are now seen as “essential workers” - poorer people in low-paying jobs that our wealth-worshipping society habitually disrespects and whom this present pandemic so directly endangers.

We celebrate (or don't celebrate) "Saint Joseph the Worker" in the context of our current covid crisis, which has highlighted society’s collective dependence for survival on ordinary workers. These are workers ordinarily treated as unimportant compared with rich and powerful people whose work benefits largely only themselves and people like them - and certainly not society at large.

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