Saturday, May 03, 2008

For the Workers

An unfortunate consequence of Ascension Thursday this year was that -- at least, here in the Northeast (where, you know, we do things right... and, by and large, could use fuller pews) -- we lost the feast of St Joseph the Worker, instituted in 1955 as an antidote to the Socialist-inspired "Workers' Day" celebrations that had sprung up across Europe.

The value and import of the work of human hands inspired what's become known as one of B16's most endearing talks -- the impromptu "thank you" of the newly-elected Pope to the laborers who renovated his apartment a few days before Christmas 2005.
I don't have much to say. Just a word. But this word, with all my strength of belief, is a feeling of "thank you" that comes from the bottom of my heart. In less than three months, you accomplished an immense work in the renovation of my Apartment. I'm convinced -- because in Germany, I built a small house for myself -- that elsewhere these labors would've taken at least a year, or probably even more than that. So, having seen this and with what dedication you've worked, with the competence and the type of cooperation among the different technical services who were committed in such a way that I can only admire and is, for me, a testimony of your interior commitment to good work at the service of the Holy See and the Successor of Peter. You've all really given the example of responsible work. I also marvel at the things you've done, like these beautiful floors. In a particular way, I like my new library, with its old feel. For me, it's like being surrounded by friends since the shelves and the books arrived. Then there's the medical study and all the things I can't list. But I saw, even though I have little competence in the field, that in these three months, you've worked, I would say day and night, with an incredible dedication. I can only assure you of my profound gratitude and my prayers.

I'm taken in mind to how, in the New Testament, in the profession of Jesus before his public ministry, the word "tecton" appears, which we translate as "carpenter", because then homes were mostly homes of wood. But, more than a "carpenter," it's an "artisan" who is able to make everything necessary for the construction of a house. So, in this sense, you are "colleagues" of Our Lord, as you've taken up what he did willingly, according to his own choice, before he announced to the world his great mission. The Lord has wished to show in this way the nobility of this work. In the Greek world, only intellectual work was considered worthy of a free man. Manual labor was left to the slaves. It's totally different in biblical religion. Here, the Creator -- who, in a beautiful image, made man with his own hands -- himself appears to give us the example of a man working with his hands and, in doing so, working with his mind and with his heart. Man imitates the Creator because this world given to us by his hand is an inhabitable world. This appears in the biblical story from the very start. But always, in a powerful way, in the fact that Jesus was "tecton," "artisan," "worker" appears the nobility and greatness of this work.

Having said all this, as Christmas is getting close, it's a moment to say "thank you" for all this, for your work which encourages me -- as you gave everything -- to give on my own part, in this late hour of my life, the greatest amount I can possibly give. that light, just as The Visit saw Papa Ratzi highlight St Patrick's Cathedral as a true "house of prayer for all peoples," early this week saw a Memorial Mass fill the "nation's church" for the 13 New York construction workers killed on the job this year amid fears of a coming work shortage.

The crowd of workers swelled into the sanctuary and aisles of the Gotham landmark, as thousands more unable to fit stood outside.
Holding hard hats high to salute helmets on empty chairs in St. Patrick's Cathedral, thousands of city construction workers Monday paid tribute to their colleagues killed in a growing number of deadly accidents this year.

Construction workers held an unprecedented Mass to remember fallen workers, joined by the families of victims in a March crane collapse and several other high-profile accidents in the city. Many came straight from construction sites in work boots and jeans after several contractors closed down jobs early.

Bells rang as labor officials recited the names of 26 union and nonunion laborers who died in the city since last April. The dead include six of seven victims of the March 15 crane collapse, a window washer who fell off a Manhattan skyscraper and a man who plunged 40 stories to his death off a Donald Trump tower.

"They didn't die in vain," said Father Brian Jordan, who served as a chaplain at ground zero. "They upheld the dignity of human labor."

The ceremony was on Workers Memorial Day, which is held annually to commemorate the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. But city construction workers have not held a Mass this large before and many said the crane collapse called greater attention to the high risks of their industry.

"I went to three funerals in a week" after the collapse, said Ralph DiDonato, a senior superintendent at Bovis Lend Lease. "Construction workers are the tightest crew when it comes for caring for people."

The number of deaths cited at the service comes from federal labor figures and does not match the city Buildings Department, which also lists non-construction worker deaths and has said fewer people have died: 13 this year, 12 last year....

Several times the workers raised their hats to nine empty chairs, each with a different colored hard hat and roses or daffodils on the seats. Eight referred to the union construction workers who lost their lives in the past year, while the ninth represented the 18 who died in nonunion jobs, Jordan said.

The workers held a moment of silence after OSHA officials Richard Mendelson and Janet Kenny finished reading the names. Edward Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said prayers are always said on sites when they learn a worker has died.

No one will forget the fallen workers, Malloy said, because "the legacy of all construction workers ... is the skyline of New York."
PHOTOS: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times