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Opus: A Spirituality of Work [O1]

Updated: Feb 5

What you think about work determines why, where and how you work, and the extent to which you become holy and fulfil your vocation.

Someone in Church once told me that the favourite verse of Catholics in Singapore is, “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest, says the Lord”.

But what does our Catholic faith tell us about work?

Work is a calling and a duty. By it, we participate in and continue God’s work of creation, animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ, and glorifying God. For Christians, it can and should be redemptive. It is an important means of sanctification, both for ourselves and others. Indeed, it is a critical path to developing ourselves and to fulfilling our vocation.

Transfigured in this light, work is no longer a bore or a chore or purely to get more, but rather, core to our path to holiness and happiness.

Let us now ponder what the Bible [1], the Church and the Saints teach us about this crucial topic.

Play on Spotify to listen to the full podcast:

“The absolute and yet sweet and gentle power of the Lord responds to the whole depths of the human person, to his loftiest aspirations of intellect, will and heart. It does not speak the language of force but expresses itself in charity and truth…

… Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ's power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.

… We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”

In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

1. The Purpose and Dignity of Work

Are Singaporeans overworked? This recent and intriguing YouTube video discusses this hot topic. The responses of each of the interviewees reveal why, where and how they work, i.e. their “spirituality” of work.

As Catholics in Singapore, do you have a spirituality of work that you are aware of? Well, what does our Catholic faith have to say about a spirituality of work?

1.1. Work is a Calling, a Mandate to Continue God’s Work of Creation

We need to start at the very beginning, in the book of Genesis. You might notice that after God created the world, and created the first human person, God did this:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Gen 2:15).

Genesis 1:26-28 also tells us that after God created mankind “in his own image” and “after our likeness”, God blessed them and gave them this mandate:

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Pope Francis in The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) at 23 referred to Gen 2:15 and explained that “It is clear from the very first pages of the Bible that work is an essential part of human dignity”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, at 2427, echoes the same principle, and explicitly states that human work prolongs God’s work of creation:

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another.”

Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, and we are called to participate in and continue God’s work of creation – a mandate first given to our forefathers in Genesis and which continues to apply to us today [2] – wouldn’t work be an essential part of our dignity as human beings? And so it is!

This applies to all types of work, paid or volunteered, in the corporate world or in the Church, at home or in school, humble or “exalted”, young or old, manager or staff, blue or white collared, manual or intellectual, publicly admired or privately done, and in “the most ordinary everyday activities” (Laborem Exercens, 25) and “[t]his mandate concerns the whole of everyday activity as well” (Gaudium et Spes at 34) [3].

And knowing that by means of work we share in the work of creation “constitutes the most profound motive” (Laborem Exercens, 25) for working, and for “undertaking it in various sectors”, i.e. everywhere.

As Catholics, we now first come to realise that work is our calling.

"The First Labours of Adam and Eve" by Alonso Cano (1601–1667). Adam is seen tilling the ground with Eve spinning at the background. For attribution, see Footnote [22]

1.2. Work is a Duty, and Honours Our Gifts and Talents Received from God

Next, the Church also teaches that work is a duty (CCC 2427; Laborem Exercens, 16). St. Paul commanded the Thessalonians that “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10), and charged them “to work with your hands” (1 Thess 4:11).

The Church goes on immediately to teach that “Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him” (CCC 2427).

There is therefore no room for being lazy or unproductive. For we all have to give an account to the Lord, on the Last Day, for how well (or unprofitably) we have used our gifts and talents.

1.3. Work to Provide for Ourselves and Others

Work is meant to provide for ourselves and our family [4].

Work is also to serve the needs of others. St. Basil the Great discusses the purpose of work in his sermon on “Christian Labour”, and he exhorts us to a higher charity and motivation for working:

“… he who labours ought to do so, not that he may serve his own needs but that he may be able to fulfil the command of the Lord Who said: I was hungry, and you gave me to eat… Each one therefore, in undertaking any task, should have this purpose in mind: to serve the need of others, not his own ends.

… But he who strives after perfection, let him work day and night, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need.”

In this way, we would have a Kingdom-centred view of money (see “F” for Finances for an elaboration), where we work in order to have enough to give regularly and generously.

1.4. Work is for Man, Not Man for Work

The Church also teaches that “Work is for man, not man for work.” (CCC 2428) [5].

In terms of developing a spirituality of work, to the extent that it is within one’s control, it is unwise to overwork ourselves and neglect the importance of having proper rest, especially when it negatively affects our spiritual life and life of discipleship and service, and particularly when the sole or predominant motivation for such excessive work is to serve one’s own wants or desires.

Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us (in Laborem Exercens, 25) that human work should prepare us and be seen in the light of the eternal “rest” that we are ultimately meant for:

“[Human work] … must leave room for man to prepare himself, by becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be, for the ‘rest’ that the Lord reserves for his servants and friends[6].

Finding the right balance may require, in some cases, a form of voluntary or spiritual poverty, e.g. by changing jobs or company, or by even voluntarily choosing a less affluent standard of living.

1.5. A Word of Encouragement for those Faced with Unemployment or Job Loss

The Church stands in solidarity with and shares the pain of those faced with unemployment, under-employment or job loss, and calls for societies and States to collaborate to ensure suitable employment for all who are capable of it [7].

This Catholic lay writer shares his personal testimony on how the Church helped him to understand and appreciate the time in between jobs (“Coping with Unemployment: ‘Be Not Afraid’”).

2. The Effects of Sanctified Work on Ourselves, Others and the World

If you ask Catholics what are the effects of sanctified work (see Part 3 below for an elaboration), we will probably get a sea of blank faces. Yet, it has several powerful effects on ourselves, others and the world.

2.1. Work Makes Us Holy and is Redemptive

"The Youth of Jesus" by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). By assuming human nature, Christ sanctifies and elevates human nature itself, such that, there is no aspect of human life that cannot be transformed into an act of offering to the Father, including work.

Work “can be a means of sanctification” (CCC 2427). In other words, work helps us become holy, in response to the universal call (yes, to all of us) to holiness.

The founder of Opus Dei St. Josemaria Escriva explains this beautifully:

“To love and serve God, there is no need to do anything strange or unusual. Christ bids all men without exception to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect. Sanctity, for the vast majority of men, implies sanctifying their work, sanctifying themselves in it, and sanctifying others through it. Thus they can encounter God in the course of their daily lives.”

Work “can also be redemptive”. As the Catechism goes on to explain with reference to Christ as our model (CCC 2427):

“By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish.”

We can likewise unite or offer up our crosses, difficulties or exertions at work with the redemptive work of Christ, for the salvation of souls.

2.2. Work is a Critical Path to Develop Ourselves and Fulfil Our Vocation

The Council Fathers of Vatican II beautifully casts the vision for one’s personal growth and fulfilment of vocation when human persons works (Gaudium et Spes at 35):

“For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered. A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has.

“… [This allows…] men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it[8].

The Catechism echoes this, “In work, the person exercises and fulfils in part the potential inscribed in his nature” (CCC 2428).

In other words, work (if sanctified) is a crucial vehicle through which we become who God made and called us to be. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).

One of St. John Henry Newman’s most famous quotes, which draws the close link between work and Christ’s unique life mission for each of us, sheds light on this:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work[9].

2.3. Work Makes Others Holy

How does work makes others holy?

The faithful “must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations” (Lumen Gentium, 36). As mentioned above, St. Josemaria reminds us that we can sanctify others through our work.

In this regard, what apostolic fruit are we producing with our work? Are we bringing souls closer to God through work friendships and social dealings [10]?

This leads us directly to the next point.

2.4. Work Glorifies God and Illumines the World with the Spirit and Light of Christ

Doing our work well glorifies God. The Council Fathers in Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes at 34, taught this:

“For man, created to God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to Him Who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.”

By our labour, we are also “unfolding the Creator’s work”, and “contributing by [our] personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan” (Laborem Exercens, 25). Work is “a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ” (CCC 2427). “In this manner, through the members of the Church, will Christ progressively illumine the whole of human society with his saving light” (Lumen Gentium, 36).

What does this mean?

It means that doing our work well is our practical and tangible way of being salt of the earth and light of the world, and of bringing the Spirit of Christ and his saving light to the whole of human society. “The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfilment of this duty” (Lumen Gentium, 36).

In other words, this is an important form of pre-evangelization in the secular world that Catholics fail to realize, a type of preparation of hearts and minds to receive the proclamation of the Gospel. It is also the laity’s way of fulfiling the exhortation at the end of mass: Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.

Listen also to how Fr. David Garcia, O.P. poignantly describes the role of lay people in the “stage of work” [11], in this YouTube video:

3. How to Sanctify Our Work

As Jesus modelled for us, human work can be sanctified (i.e. made holy) [12].

Now that we understand the purpose and dignity of work, and the powerful effects which sanctified work has on ourselves, others and the world, how do we practically go about sanctifying our work?

3.1. For Love of God, with Greatest Possible Human Perfection, and in Union with Christ

Sanctifying one’s work means making holy our work by:

  • Doing it for love of God;

  • With the greatest possible human perfection; and

  • Offering it to God in union with Christ [13].

In other words, a Christian should do all honest human work, be it intellectual or manual, with the greatest perfection possible:

  • With human perfection (professional competence); and

  • With Christian perfection (for love of God’s will and as a service to mankind) [14].

Human work done in this manner, no matter how humble or insignificant it may seem, helps to shape the world in a Christian way, and our human labour is raised to the order of grace [15].

3.2. Pray and Delight in God Upon Rising and Before Working, and Regularly in Between

St. Basil the Great examines the intimate relationship between work and prayer in his sermon on “Christian Labour”. He advises us to pray the moment we wake up, upon rising,

“so that we may consecrate to God the first movements of the soul and of the mind, and take no other care upon us until we have been gladdened by the thought of God, as it is written: I remembered God, and was delighted, and was exercised, and my spirit swooned away[16].

St. Basil goes on to say that we should not “apply our body to labour until we have done what is written: To thee will I pray: O Lord, in the morning Thou shalt hear my voice. In the morning I will stand before thee, and will see[17].

"Sanctification through work" by Augustine Azariah Koh, based on 1 Cor 10:31 and the Opus Dei charism. The Dove hovering above the priest praying over the farmer, is the Holy Spirit - blessing work, simple and advanced, as a means of sanctification and evangelism. The skyscrapers (left) and the farm (centre) exemplify work in urbanized and rural settings respectively. A local parish where the priest lives is on the right side.

Indeed, for most of us, there is a very strong temptation at the start of each morning to rush headlong into deadlines and urgent tasks without first praying and delighting in God.

May pondering St. Basil’s sagely advice reawaken in us a desire and determination not to start work until we have first soaked in Scripture and prayer each morning (which in turn requires waking up earlier or setting aside time to do so). May the Holy Spirit help us all in this regard!

St. Basil also strongly recommends (and not to neglect), for “those who have given themselves to live for the praise and glory of God and of His Christ” [18], that we pray at regular breaks throughout the work day [19].

3.3. Pray as We Work, Work becoming Prayer

In addition, we should strive to turn our work into “a personal prayer… a real conversation with Our Father in heaven” [20]. Or as Brother Lawrence famously puts it, to continually practice the presence of God [21], throughout the day and even as we work.

4. Conclusion & Closing Prayer – Prayer before Work to St. Joseph the Worker

As we conclude this session, we ask for the intercession of St. Joseph, who worked with his hands and taught his craft of carpentry to Jesus as a child, and who did so prayerfully, excellently, and for love of God, and thus humbly modelled for us a true spirituality of work, that we too may obtain his same spirituality of work.

"Saint Joseph protecteur de l’enfance de Jésus" (1874) by Georges Becker

“O Glorious Saint Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work in a spirit of penance for the expiation of my many sins;

  • to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my natural inclinations;

  • to work with thankfulness and joy, considering it an honor to employ and develop by means of labor the gifts received from God;

  • to work with order, peace, moderation, and patience, never shrinking from weariness and trials;

  • to work above all with purity of intention and detachment from self, keeping unceasingly before my eyes death and the account that I must give of time lost, talents unused, good omitted, and vain complacency in success, so fatal to the work of God.

All for Jesus, all through Mary, all after thy example, O Patriarch, Saint Joseph. Such shall be my watch-word in life and in death. Amen.” (Composed by Pope St. Pius X)

* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “P”, for Prayer.

Recommended Closing Song

Keith & Kristyn Getty, “Be Thou My Vision” (this song beautifully reflects the spirituality of work proposed in this article; may the Lord grant us all this new or renewed vision).

Listen also to this soaring rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” by Nathan Pacheco, an American tenor.

Recommended Reading / Resources

Reflection and Sharing Questions

This month’s podcast considers “O” for Opus, A Spirituality of Work. What you think about work determines why, where and how you work, and the extent to which you become holy and fulfil your vocation. The key points may be summarized as follows:

1. The purpose and dignity of work include the following principles:

  • Work is a calling, a mandate to continue God’s work of creation.

  • Work is a duty, and it honours our gifts and talents received from God.

  • Work to provide for ourselves and others.

  • Work is for man, and not man for work.

2. The effects of sanctified work on ourselves, others and the world include:

  • Work makes us holy and is redemptive.

  • Work is a critical path to develop ourselves and to fulfil our vocation.

  • Work makes others holy.

  • Work glorifies God and and illumines the world with the Spirit and light of Christ.

3. How to sanctify our work:

  • Work for love of God, with the greatest possible human perfection, and in union with Christ.

  • Pray and delight in God upon rising and before working, and regularly in between.

  • Pray as we work, work becoming prayer.

Question 1: What spirituality of work, if any, did you have before reading this article?

Question 2: With reference to the principles proposed in this article, what tangible steps will you take today to develop a spirituality of work?

Download the slides here:

O1 Opus - Slides
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© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha. Cover art: Koh Azariah Augustine.


1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.

2. See Gaudium et Spes at 34, “For man, created to God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to Him Who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.” See also Laborem Exercens, 25 which discusses “Work as a Sharing in the Activity of the Creator”.

3. As the founder of Opus Dei St. Josemaria Escriva reminds us, there is a “marvellous reality (forgotten for centuries by many Christians) that any honest and worthwhile work may be converted into a divine occupation.In God's service there are no second-class jobs, all of them are important.”

4. See e.g. The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) at 24; Laborem Exercens at 16 and 25; CCC 2428.

5. From this, we can derive several principles or application points – the right to dignified work, the avoidance of immoral work, the right to a living and fair wage, the duty to treat workers justly (and not exploit them, i.e. people before profits), and having proper rest, amongst others. We hope to explore such issues (including issues such as a critique of the fairness of work practices and culture, and whether work-life balance is a Christian idea) in the future.

6. Pope St. John Paul II cites Matt 25:21 in a footnote. Matt 25:21 refers to the good and faithful servant who made five talents on top of the five he was given, and the master rewarded him with the invitation to “enter into the joy of your master”.

7. See e.g. Laborem Exercens, 18.

8. The full quote (for the abovementioned last paragraph) is as follows, “Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it.”

9. St. Newman goes on, “I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.”

10. See Maximilian B. Torres, “St. Josemaria Escriva and the essence of work”. See also St. Josemaria Escriva, Conversations, 70: “This same professional job brings them into contact with other people — relatives, friends, colleagues — and with the great problems which affect their society and the world at large; and it affords them the opportunity to live that self-giving in the service of others which is essential for Christians. This is where they should strive to give a true and genuine witness to Christ so that all may get to know and love our Lord and discover that their normal life in the world, their everyday work, can be an encounter with God.”

11. “The role of the lay people is to be Christians in the world, not to be Christians in Church... So God performed his redemption for all of us and continues to do that. But we have to play that in the stage of our families, in the stage of the world, and… in the stage of work.”

12. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si (2015) (“On Care for our Common Home”) at 98, explains how Jesus sanctified human labour: “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship. It is striking that most of his life was dedicated to this task in a simple life which awakened no admiration at all: ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ (Mk 6:3). In this way he sanctified human labour and endowed it with a special significance for our development. As Saint John Paul II taught, ‘by enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity’.”

13. As framed by Javier Lopez in “Sanctifying with our Work”, summing up or explaining the teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva (see e.g. Conversations, 10).

14. See St. Josemaria Escriva, Conversations, 10.

15. See St. Josemaria Escriva, Conversations, 10.

16. Psalm 76:4 [Douay-Rheims] (77:3 [RSV-2CE]).

17. Psalm 5:4-5 [Douay-Rheims] (5:2-3 [RSV-2CE]).

18. That is a call to all of us!

19. St. Basil recommends every 3 hours throughout the day at work, at the end of work and at night, i.e. 9am, noon, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm, and to have “diversity and variety in [such] prayers and psalms”, so that our “love is refreshed” and our “attention renewed”.

20. St. Josemaria Escriva, Friends of God, 64.

22. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. Photo credit: Pollok House.

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