Sanctifying Work in the Post-COVID World
More than anything else, work and the workplace has been affected by the recent pandemic.
LONDON — In many ways COVID-19 has changed the world in which we live. For many, however, nowhere is this more so than in their sphere of work.
The long-established way of employment — in a workplace separate from one’s home — was shattered by recent events. For a time, remote working, chiefly from home, became the norm for many more than had been the case previously. This factor prompts the question: What implications does this have for work in the longer term? This is especially so when work has been something understood as consisting of communal activity, as well as being one of the key means by which we strive both for personal sanctity and for the sanctification of the world around us.
“In terms of sanctifying work, I think the pandemic has been just a new circumstance [to be considered creatively and sanctified], albeit a very trying one, “ said Opus Dei Father Joseph Evans, a British priest and co-founder and editorial director of Adamah Media. The personal prelature founded by St. Josemaria Escriva possesses a charism in regard to sanctifying one’s work.
Father Evans told the Register, “In a sense, [the new working conditions triggered by the pandemic] is like the introduction of the motor car or the computer. Both these innovations came at a certain time and changed everything, but the question remains: how do you use them? A car or computer can bring you closer to God, or take you away from him: It depends on your inner attitude.”
Amal Marogy, academic and social entrepreneur, shares these sentiments.
She told the Register, “I think the new circumstances make us realize how much we have been sacrificing for — and not always sanctifying — our work.” Furthermore, she wonders if the “old ways” of working were, for many far from what could be described as a sanctifying experience. Instead she sees some of the new ways now being opened up as providing fresh possibilities for sanctifying work and the workplace.
“I haven’t met anyone who has not noticed something positive about finally having the space to reconsider their relationship with work,” she says. “There are always those who resist change but for many this has been a period that forced us to stop and reflect on what really matters in life.”
There is little doubt that COVID-19 has begun a series of profound changes in work patterns throughout the world. Founder of Catholic Voices Jack Valero has these observations on this new “circumstance.”
“There have been big changes due to the pandemic,” he says. “Many people have started working from home, using teleconferencing for meetings and joint work; others have been put on furlough, unable to do their job or indeed any other job; and others have had to continue with their front-line jobs under dangerous conditions (nurses, public transport employees, essential shops’ employees).”
But Valero does not see that the essential challenge for the Christian in the workplace — holiness — has been altered in any way by these new circumstances.
“All occupations and jobs can still be sanctified,” he maintains, “God is very interested in everything to do with each one of us and our work because we are his creation. So even if the job has become boring, or different, or dangerous, God is still very interested in it for our sake.”
Valero says that the three perennial aspects involving the sanctification of work continue to apply to the new circumstances in which we find ourselves.
“In the first place, the sanctification of work itself — doing it as well as we can and doing it for God. … Then the second aspect: sanctifying ourselves through that work, which means becoming more Christ-like as we do it. … And finally, the third aspect: that of sanctifying others through our work.”
Obviously the first two aspects remain unchanged by COVID-19. These urge each baptized soul to seek holiness in and through their work. But how is the third aspect to be understood in an increasingly virtual work environment, one at best scattered or intermittent?
“One challenge of the increasingly virtual workplace is to overcome self-centeredness, while working with and for others,” says Valero. “Each person will need to resolve this challenge in the way that works for them,” he says, and he is adamant that each soul needs to continue to maintain as many friendships and social contacts as possible while at the same time giving as much time as they can spare in the service of others.
In regard to the changing nature of where we work, Marogy senses any virtual workplace just like any traditional workplace in that it can either isolate or help Catholics to be creative and ambitious about sanctifying it — just as they have done for centuries before.
She is clear: “God and his grace are not limited to physical offices.” Furthermore, she thinks that with the new possibilities inherent in any virtual world we should look for help from our guardian angels “to discover how we can make it a place of encounter with the Divine. In a way, we are pioneers in our desire to sanctify a new reality. It is up to us as trailblazers to show our colleagues and the next generation that it is still possible to sanctify this increasingly virtual workplace,” Marogy says.
Given the ingrained social nature of mankind, Father Evans says these new remote ways of working will not last.
“I have found that many people missed the personal contact with others which work provides,” he says. “Work colleagues can sometimes be annoying, or the commute to the workplace unpleasant, or the hours long, but you’re with real people and we’re made for that.”
He points out that human beings “need physical contact with others. I think the pandemic has made clearer the logic and genius of the Incarnation: how much we need and value real human contact, and not just virtual contact.”
Although he senses that Zoom and other electronic ways of connecting people have opened up many positive opportunities, Father Evans maintains such virtual contact is “not the same as real contact,” emphasizing that any personal apostolate, or witnessing to Christ, is “primarily person to person, in the flesh. It’s very hard to witness to Christ, who came in the flesh to real people in a real place and context, if not through the flesh, in conversations with real people in real places.”
Marogy maintains that the current switch to more remote workplaces may have positive potential for Catholics.
“There were workplaces where you were nearly expected to hide the fact that you believed in God, let alone that you were practicing Christian or Catholic,” she says. Since the pandemic struck she feels that it has been easier to talk about our personal lives and, by extension, “what really matters to us.”
While she does not envisage remote working as “something definitive,” she senses that the pandemic and its flexibility in the workplace present Catholics with an opportunity to show colleagues that “we are still there for them, that they can rely on us in a way that was not always possible when we’re miles away.”
In the last months one of the noted features of the workplace has been how the boundaries between the home and office, work and family have been blurred, if not in some cases removed altogether.
“For some, the initial enjoyment of working from home turned into [an experience of] work invading home life,” Father Evans points out. “Work cannot be sanctified if it harms family life. God made Adam and Eve a couple first, an incipient family, and only later called on them to work. Everything begins with the family and if the new post-COVID ways of working lead to the invasion of work into family life, it will become an obstacle to the sanctification of work.”
He says that for one’s work life to be sanctified, it needs boundaries and self-evidently these are going to be more challenging to draw when forced to work from home.
Marogy senses that being forced to work from home has “reminded us that our house is more than a temporary office, it is our home. … The last 18 months have taught us that there are other things more important or equally important as our work. We finally have had the time to reflect on the meaning of work and its place in our life.”
Establishing these work/home boundaries Valero views as the primary challenge in this current emerging situation. He feels that this is especially so for people working for multinational corporations and who may experience what he sees as “the temptation” to be work at all hours with colleagues from all over the world, “possibly to the detriment of our first apostolate which is at home.”
In addition, the concept of “doing the job well” when working from home may be viewed differently by employers and colleagues than it has been previously. As a result, explains Valero, “Boundaries may become a problem and work may interfere with family life: it is in that kind of situation knowing that one is working for God may help [us] focus on work in the right way.”
For example, he says, “For people on furlough, they may need to be imaginative to get involved in things that are of service to others — such as DIY work in the house or volunteering — for as long as they are not able to do their job.”
“For those in front-line jobs, the job itself is very much a Christ-like occupation, in the service of others,” he says. “Our work should be for the sake of others — our family, colleagues, friends, society at large — and our doing it as Christians should have an impact on the lives of others through our daily apostolate.”
Reflecting on the last 18 months, Valero feels that more than anything else what is needed in this post-COVID world is an awareness of this interconnected nature of our world, the fraternity of all peoples, and especially so in our work.
Before COVID-19, he reflects, “we were under the illusion that we were powerful people doing important work on our own. The pandemic has shown us that we are all connected, and that we depend on each other, even for basic things.”