Baptizing May Day: How St. Joseph was Enlisted to Defeat Communism

Gerrit van Honthorst, Childhood of Christ

By Mitch Boersma Published on May 1, 2015

ROME, ITALY — May 1, 1955

Another May Day, another round of riots.

Beginning with the 1886 Chicago Haymarket labor riots, May 1st — also known as “International Workers’ Day” — had grown in popularity around the world as an annual opportunity for communist and Marxist agitators to incite violence, rioting, destruction and unrest. And this May Day was no different.

At least not yet.

The chasm between the totalitarian communist ideology and Christianity was so obvious to Pope Pius XII that by 1949 he issued a Decree Against Communism, which threatened to excommunicate anyone who continued to propagate “the materialistic and anti-Christian teachings of communism.” By 1955, the pope found himself locked in a battle against the increasingly influential forces of communism — both in Italy and across the western world.

But not all hope was lost.

Heeding the call, a small but growing group of Italians broke off from the larger labor unions — which had long since thrown in with the communist movement — to form the Christian Association of Italian Workers (ACLI).

Sixty years ago this Friday, while protesters once again took to the streets, the ACLI gathered in Vatican City to meet with Pius XII and renew their commitment to a Christian view of work. It was an understanding, as Pius XII put it, that recognized “the dignity of labor and that this dignity may be a motivation in forming the social order and laws founded on the equitable distribution of rights and duties.”

But what started as a largely symbolic stand against a day plagued by violence and destruction took an unexpected turn when the pope announced to the ACLI his new plan for dealing with the May Day dilemma — he baptized it:

Acclaimed in this way by Christian workers and having received, as it were, Christian baptism, the first of May, far from being a stimulus for discord, hate and violence, is and will be a recurring invitation to modern society to accomplish that which it still lacking for social peace …

… We are happy to announce to you the liturgical feast of St. Joseph the Worker, assigning to it precisely the first day of May.

And just like that, Christians around the world had a new reason to celebrate.

Today, thousands of communist sympathizers might continue to use the first day in May to try and make the streets run red. But no longer could they match the one billon Christians around the world now turning their gaze away from the agitators and towards the simple carpenter said to be “more completely and profoundly penetrated by the spirit” than any other worker: Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus.

It was a historic inflection point at the crossroads of theology and modern society. At one level, the installation of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker was a culmination of efforts initiated decades earlier by Pope Leo XIII to develop a social theology of the church and protect workers from the materialistic excesses of emerging political and economic structures.

At the same time, it marked the beginning of the end for global communist influence, which would collapse by the end of the 20th century thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of Pope John Paul II.

And so it’s fitting that this May 1 also marks the fourth anniversary of the beatification of Pope John Paul II — who identified work as “the essential key to the whole social question” — and the one year anniversary of the week Pope Francis declared him Saint John Paul II.

Diamonds are the traditional gift exchanged by married couples blessed enough to celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary. On this diamond jubilee of the May Day “baptism,” we do well to give thanks for the example and guidance of St. Joseph the Worker.

For all lovers of freedom and human dignity, but especially for those Christians around the world who were all but crushed under the immense pressure and heat of a godless ideology, today’s feast day is a glittering reminder that our work should always bring us dignity, bring us together in peaceful community, and bring us closer to God.

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