The Spirituality of Work

About this article

Catholic spirituality is more than various pious practices. This article points out that it refers to "all of the ways in which we seek and respond to God's presence. Spirituality is the awareness with which we orient ourselves to God." Using this basic definition, the author presents a spirituality of work for those in the classroom. The article goes on to state that once teachers have this framework, students are more likely to understand the concepts of vocation and social justice that are critical in Catholic social teaching.

Teachers who structure justice into their workday lives model a moral vision for their students.

I requested a review copy of all religion textbooks used in Catholic high schools some years ago and scoured over 30 books looking for references to work. Except for one mention of the plight of migrant farm workers, I found nothing.

I wonder if students in Catholic education programs ever get the message that work has religious significance. I wonder too how many students understand that the concept of vocation is not limited to priests and religious, but includes all people.

Students are routinely involved in community service--volunteering at a nursing home, participating in an urban plunge or collecting money, food and clothing for the needy. These are commendable endeavors that help instill lifelong virtues.

Yet I wonder how many students--and teachers--understand that the promotion of peace and justice is not normally a weekend activity, but one best accomplished on the job, Monday through Friday.

A different type of spirituality

For the past 20 years the National Center for the Laity, 1 on whose board I serve, has been promoting the spirituality of work. To many people the phrase is an oxymoron. Spirituality, they assume, is equated with pious practices: saying one's prayers, going to Mass, making a retreat. Spirituality, the thinking goes, means getting away from the world of work, home and neighborhood.

In fact, the Catholic notion of spirituality refers to all of the ways in which we seek and respond to God's presence. Spirituality is the awareness with which we orient ourselves to God.

The church recognizes several approaches to spirituality: Marian, Benedictine, Ignatian, to name a few. The National Center for the Laity advocates a spirituality particularly suitable for the active Christian in the world--the spirituality of work. It is a lens, if you will, through which teachers and other wage earners can look at their jobs and find the grace that is already incarnate there.

Experiencing the spirituality of work, a teacher is reminded that God is the ultimate creator of the students in the classroom. God is everywhere, and everyone is an occasion of grace. The students, even those who are acting out or those who are discouraged, are sacraments. They manifest God to the teacher.

The teacher is further reminded that God is the ultimate author of the tools (books, maps, films, computers) in the classroom. They too are God's analogues. Workers do not usually consider the inner virtues of their tools. Yet, competent work must respect the tool's form, use and value.

A chart, for example, cannot be read in distraction or haste. In employing the tools of their profession, teachers must be attentive and patient, like God, the ultimate author of the chart, is attentive and patient. If it is possible to contemplate the glory of God in a chapel painting, why not in an intricate physics chart or in a seasonal display arranged by a teacher?

Work can act as a mirror for teachers, helping them to observe themselves. Teachers look at the virtue in what they are doing and conclude that it is God-like to strive after knowledge with constancy and persistence. A teacher can likewise conclude that she is a considerate person by observing the kindness she shows to students, or that he is imaginative by observing the innovations he brings to the classroom.

In other words, by stepping back and looking at what seems routine, teachers learn more about themselves. This self-discovery is part of the spirituality of work because God reveals himself by revealing human beings to themselves.

Once spirituality comes to mean not only the way teachers pray but, more importantly, the way they see God through occupational, family and community responsibilities, then the phrase "spirituality of work" no longer sounds so strange. With this understanding, teachers will regard work, by itself, as capable of contributing to the spiritual life.

This spirituality of work will encompass the excellence, competence and teamwork of teachers, including even the language with which teachers describe their profession and the environment in which they exercise it. This spirituality will also make some sense out of the frustrations and hardships of teaching--problems common to all work.

An inclusive Catholic social teaching

Once teachers evidence a spirituality of work, students are more likely to understand the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching. Two important concepts in that tradition are vocation and social justice.

Workday vocations.

Catholics must understand that all baptized Christians--not only priests and religious--can respond to the call to holiness through their careers and their daily responsibilities.

Any discussion of vocations, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once wrote, "limited to" the relative shortage of ordained and religious persons "implicitly assumes that these are the only real vocations."

He concluded that "to the extent this attitude prevails, it can only worsen the crisis posed by the shortage of priests and religious." To solve the priest shortage problem, he said, the concept of vocation must be communicated in its richest and most inclusive sense.2

Many teachers around the country are beginning to heed Bernardin's advice.

Stephen Porth of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offers a fieldwork course for business majors called Management Intervention and Consultation, which places students with nonprofit agencies in the city. The students use their skills to help the agencies solve business problems.

For example, a team of students helped a retirement home open an adult day-care satellite by finding a site, preparing a budget and identifying funding.

The purpose of the course is not, Porth says, to steer students into social work. Rather, the aim is to "develop future business leaders of America" who, by "serving society" through a career in business, will live a satisfying vocation.3

Father Terrence Curry, SJ, of the University of Detroit Mercy, also uses fieldwork assignments to help his architecture students get in touch with their vocations. Curry and his students have won awards for their designs of inner-city housing and parish schools.

The architect's vocation, Curry explains, is to "share in [God's] work of creation....We are created in the image and likeness of God. Image means that we have a visual resemblance; likeness means that we share in the characteristics of the creator." Thus the buildings designed by architects are "sacred containers of the image of God-- tabernacles, if you will."4

Social justice. Since Vatican II the church has seen a proliferation of courses, workshops, educational materials and committees dealing with peace and justice. Most of these efforts give students or parishioners some biblical background, then present current issues.

For instance, a course offered in Chicago parishes titled Moving Faith into Action lists for discussion issues such as partial-birth abortion, the death penalty, welfare reform and racism. Typically, participants in such courses are guided to organizations dealing with these issues on a state or national level.

Missing from many current peaceand justice programs, however, is reflection on how these virtues are related to the daily experiences of teachers, nurses, lawyers, civil servants, union leaders,executives and other workers.

The impression is given that Catholics strive for peace and justice by stepping out of their normal occupational roles and becoming volunteers.

Undoubtedly, community organizations and lobby groups guided by Christian values are vital to instigate needed changes in our society. But unless Christians learn how to structure justice from the inside, the "gospel of life"5 will remain on the sidelines.

In addition to their current curriculum on peace and justice, Catholic schools and parish programs must impart the somewhat abstract principles of Catholic social teaching to young people.

In order to bring a moral vision to their daily decision making, young workers need to be equipped with concepts such as subsidiarity (that holds decisions should be made at the lowest level possible), the common good (that moral action concerns more than the sum of individual interests) and solidarity (that the talents of all people are needed in a good society).

Pope John XXIII Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, recently devoted a week to a "Celebration of Peacemakers." In featuring a wide variety of people during the event, the students seemed to accept a distinction made by John Paul II between "prophets" of peaceand "builders" of peace.

The students wrote reports and drew posters about prophets such as Dorothy Day, but also paid attention to the women and men who actually hammered out institutions that broker peace, such as Frederick deKlerk and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

In search of a spiritual dynamic

Today more than 90% of Catholic school teachers are lay women and men. The "spiritual dynamic" of these schools, says Father Eugene Hemrick, assistant to the president of Catholic University, will have to be built on a base different from a religious order's spirituality, and the schools' future success will depend almost entirely on developing "a lay spirituality."6

A spirituality appropriate to these teachers is what the National Center for the Laity calls the spirituality of work. The context for this spirituality is the classroom, the cafeteria, the library, the office, the neighborhood and the home of the teacher.

The raw material for this spirituality is to be found in the curiosity of students, the frustrations inherent in any institution, the sacrifices made because of lower than average wages, the problems in a student's neighborhood or home, the advances in science, the inspiration of art and literature, the tools of a teacher's trade, the cooperation of parents, the laughter shared with colleagues.

The disciplines of this spirituality might include a Friday support group, a journal about the job, an annual retreat for teachers and the exchange of reflections among teachers. One example of the latter is the book In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works, written by Mark Gerson.7

A spirituality of work will not resolve all personal and institutional tensions that are part of a teacher's life. In fact, the spirituality of work will at times make life more uncomfortable for the teacher because it will challenge him or her to improve the school and the educational system.

It is my conviction, however, that the emerging spirituality of work is the best bet for the Christian identity of tomorrow's Catholic schools and for infusing the marketplace of the 21st century with the values of Catholic social teaching.8

1. The National Center for the Laity is located at 10 E. Pearson St., #10, Chicago, IL 60611.
2. Joseph Bernardin, "Let's Look at the Whole Vocation Problem," The Chicago Catholic, January 7, 1983, p. 2.
3. Susan Hines Brigger, "Forming Business Leaders with a Conscience," Saint Anthony Messenger, November 1996, pp. 36–40.
4. Catholic News Service, "Architecture Students Win Award," Catholic Spirit, December 12, 1996, p. 8.
5. John Paul II, "People of Life," Origins, April 6, 1995, p. 690F.
6. Eugene Hemrick, "Spirituality Significant in Lay-Run Catholic Schools," The New World, January 31, 1997, p. 12.
7. Mark Gerson, In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works, New York, The Free Press, 1997. Other suggested titles: Tracy Kidder Among Schoolchildren, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990; Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education, New York, Harper & Row, 1983; William Droel The Spirituality of Work: Teachers, Chicago, IL, National Center for the Laity, 1989.
8. While this article is directed at teachers in Catholic schools, Catholics like myself who teach in public and other private schools or parish programs can certainly benefit from a spirituality of work.

Mr. Droel is an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, and the author of The Spirituality of Work: Teachers (National Center for the Laity, 1989).

"Religious life"-a legacy of justice
Loretta Carey

Through the long sweep of history some of Jesus' followers have understood themselves to be called to a discipleship that requires commitment to gospel counsels, to fidelity and to a communal life of prayer and service.

The interaction of culture, history, authority, the needs of the times, the vision of founders and the creative (or, at times, uncreative) ways this vision has been lived out have produced a great variety of religious orders and congregations whose missions have influenced the spirit of Catholic education.

Since Vatican II, one major theme articulated by religious orders is this: working for the reign of God requires a concern, expressed in both spirituality and activity, for justice and peace in the world.

The roots of this concern reach back to the fourth century when religious life began. Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and this affiliation increased the growth and power of the church. But the ambiguities of worldly power prompted some to "flee the world" as hermits. Later these individuals came together under Basil as monks in community.

So, a kind of cultural critique and countercultural lifestyle developed in the heart of the Roman Empire, a critique that continues to be a characteristic of religious life, even as it tries to incorporate contemporary insights into its self-understanding.

In the sixth century, Benedict introduced stability and stewardship, and monasteries of men and women flourished in Europe through "ore et labora." This integration of contemplation and action, another ongoing characteristic of religious life, was combined with care for the earth, attentiveness to creation, agriculture, architecture and the arts.

The gap between classes in the 13th century inspired Francis, the merchant's son from Assisi, to found an order based on the insight that a rich church could not speak authentically to the poor.

Educated preachers were needed to counter false teachings in that same period, and Dominic emerged.

Three centuries later, Ignatius' spiritual conversion and the founding of the Jesuits provided the church with missionaries, scholars and teachers who specialized in discerning what the kingdom needed.

Women as well as men struggled with the call to a more active life in ministry. Cultural mores and church canons required monastic enclosures for women and, until recently, vestiges of monastic life were required of active foundations of women.

However, in places where new works and new insights were necessary, congregations of both men and women created structures to care for the sick and the poor, for orphans and for-those in need of education. Nonclerical orders for men, called brothers, engaged in these ministries as well.

Over time, thousands of religious orders came and went, flourished and declined. All answered a need of the world or the church. All, like the church itself, had some unarticulated understanding of how they related to the world, to the meaning of human life and work, and to the meaning of education.

The third millennium for the church really began with Vatican II, 40 years before calendar 2000. Reflecting on its own nature and the signs of the times, the church called for a renewal of worship, of the study of Scripture and of religious life. It affirmed a universal call to holiness.

Modernity had brought new insights into the human person, but it also brought dangers to human life and dignity, to the common good, to peace and justice, to freedom, to equality.

One impetus for Vatican II was the articulation of social teaching, which began in 1891 when Leo XIII recognized the plight of the urban poor during the industrial revolution as a moral problem. The condition, he said in Rerum Novarum, was not inevitable and could, therefore, be changed.

The church began to understand its role in the modern world as a sign and safeguard of the dignity of the human person.

In this vein, religious communities directed their ministries toward understanding human problems, especially poverty, violence and environmental degradation, and adapted their structures and resources to promote social goals. Ministries which liberated and empowered persons to transform their situations were developed, and those which contributed to elitism, false ideas of success or failures in cultural critique were abandoned.

For example, schools and parish programs were encouraged not only to educate the poor but also to educate about poverty and affluence, violence and alternatives to violence, and appreciation and care for the created world. Volunteer service and the development of a critical consciousness were recognized as intrinsic to the education of people of justice, peace, compassion and faith.

Congregations of religious women and men brought their evolving vision and insights about social justice concerns to the schools and programs they founded in the United States. Now lay women and men have accepted responsibility to provide Catholic education for justice and peace. A heritage is passed, a tradition continues.

Sister Carey, RDC is pastoral associate at Saint Elizabeth Parish in Washington Heights, New York City.


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at

Published August 1, 1997.