Countering the consensus against St. Joseph the Workman

At Opus Publicum, Gabriel Sanchez has an interesting comment about the feast of St. Joseph the Workman, which begins, in relevant part:

The author’s latest target is the Latin feast of St. Joseph the Worker (San Giuseppe Comunista!), a mid-1950s invention which most traditional Catholics today regard as either imprudent or unnecessary. Those who have been exposed to the Gregorian hymns for this occasion know full well that they fall pretty darn short of “the mark” when it comes to the beauty and richness of the Roman Rite and some of the propers are not exactly inspiring. However, to howl on about the feast being a “modernist invention” is a bridge too far, particularly when one understands that the primary intent and purpose behind the feast was to dislodge May Day as an exclusively secularist (and communistic) holiday. Did it work? Well, of course not, but not because the liturgical texts themselves are riddled with theological error or bumped the feast Ss. Phillip and James (a feast many Catholics have all but forgotten about). Let’s not forget, however, that the feast was introduced during a period of time when the great 19th and 20th century popes took it upon themselves to speak forcefully on matters concerning labor, economics, and society, with stern reminders being issued by the likes of Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI on the justice due to laborers. In fact, this teaching is captured nicely in the feast’s introit: “Wisdom rendered to the just the wages of their labors, and conducted them in a wonderful way: and she was to them for a covert by day, and for the light of stars by night, allelúja, allelúja.”

(Emphasis supplied and quotation marks reformatted.) And the author Sanchez discusses is not the only author to criticize at great length the feast of St. Joseph the Workman. Fr. John Hunwicke, for example, has had several lengthy posts in the last couple of weeks, mostly directed to the fact that the new feast of St. Joseph the Workman replaced the feast of Ss. Phillip and James. (Or, more precisely, displaced, since Phillip and James were moved to May 11.) And Fr. Hunwicke is not alone in his distaste for St. Joseph the Workman. Part of the low regard in which the feast is held is, we think, a function of the fact that a broader sense is emerging that the liturgical reform that culminated in the Novus Ordo really began in earnest under Pius XII. (Though that attitude fails to take into account that the Breviary was reformed almost constantly from the moment Quod a nobis was signed.) And St. Joseph the Workman is seen as part and parcel of that reform.

But Sanchez makes a point that—we confess—had not occurred to us before; that is, the feast of St. Joseph the Workman fits into the broader context of the great pronouncements of Leo XIII and Pius XI on social-justice issues. And, aside from the twin pillars of Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, these issues were very much in the Church’s mind in the first half of the twentieth century, the two world wars notwithstanding. The Church’s developing social teaching was very much present in Pius X’s Notre Charge Apostolique, though that encyclical was directed to more concrete circumstances in France. And, of course, Pius XII himself made significant contributions to the Church’s social teaching with his radio address, La solennità della Pentecoste, some of which found its way into his document on migrants, Exsul Familia Nazarethana. All of this is to say that the question of workers and justice for workers was very much a live question for the Church in the first half of the twentieth century. And, certainly, one cannot remove Pius XII from this context. And, therefore, it makes sense, as Sanchez suggests, that Pius XII would introduce a major feast addressing in a liturgical way the issues that he and his immediate predecessor had grappled with.

Now, it is an open question whether the implementation of St. Joseph the Workman was well done. One of the comboxers at Sanchez’s site points out that the readings at Matins are not uniformly hugely edifying. And it is true that one of the three nocturns consists of the acta of Pius XII regarding the implementation of the feast, though the other two nocturns seem more or less okay, especially the readings from Genesis. But, setting that to one side, is the office of St. Joseph the Workman worse in any objective sense than the offices of any of the important saints whose third-class feasts consist of the psalms and antiphons of the day, the usual hymns, chapters, and antiphons from the common, and one reading at Matins unique to the saint (with the bulk of Matins being given over to the occurring readings)? We have a hard time seeing that it is, especially since, when one gets into a long run of confessors-not-bishops as one is apt to do in tempus per annum, the offices blend together. One does not necessarily excuse the other, of course, but let us not, out of condemnatory zeal, act as though St. Joseph the Workman is a blight on an otherwise traditional Breviary. By 1960 the trajectory toward Pope Paul’s Liturgia Horarum, with its horror of repetition and its strong (almost unalterable) presumption in favor of the occurring psalmody, was largely marked out.

With the chummy relations between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X, we are, of course, hopeful that full canonical regularity will be established, ideally in the form of a personal prelature or some other juridical structure that preserves, insofar as possible and desirable, the independence of the SSPX. But one of the issues that will have to be addressed at some point is the question of the liturgical books. Lefebvre’s choice of the 1960/1962 books was not necessarily a deeply ideological decision, as we understand it, and there may well be little reason to cling to them once the SSPX is regularized. Perhaps at that time, with so much in the air, a complete overhaul of the calendar would be in order. The differences between the 1960/1962 calendar and the current calendar are especially acute on this subject: St. Joseph the Workman is not a solemnity in the new calendar (having been drastically downgraded to an optional memorial), and Ss. Phillip and James are no longer celebrated on May 11, but May 3.

Read Sanchez’s whole post. A couple parts we did not quote are well worth thinking about.