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“The Greatness of Work”—A Pope, A Quarry, and Our Prayer

Today is the feast of St. John Paul II. Before he was a saint, or a pope, or even a priest, he was a Polish quarry worker who wrote poems at night—pulled out of university when the Nazis invaded and sent to work at a variety of jobs, including this back-breaking and repetitive work. This October, as the newness of the start of the school year fades—and as challenges that call for us to keep doing hard things emerge for both students and educators—reflecting on and praying to the quarry worker who became a saint might help us with the fortitude we need.

There are certainly many causes for joy these days in our schools: simple pleasures of friends and meaningful work, or special ones like Halloween just around the corner. But there are also days and tasks that feel repetitive or frustrating. For a handful of our students, the habits of in-person schooling are hard to re-adjust to, as Dean Fiona Chalmers reflected earlier this week. And as is the case in any school year, breaking bad habits and forming good ones can feel as tough as hammering stone, for teachers and students alike.

Karol Wojtyla, as that quarry worker was known, did more than just tough out long days breaking rock in the middle of a war that saw the deaths of the rest of his immediate family. He reflected deeply on what his work and its material said about what it means to be human. In a poem, he questions where the strength of the stone goes when it is unleashed by blasting and hammering, and the answer he finds ennobles and connects him to creation: “It is he who carries that strength in his hands: the worker.”

“A thought grows in me day after day,” the quarry worker who would become pope shares, “the greatness of work is inside man.” In the presence of dehumanizing work, surrounded by global threats, he sees beauty and the potential for greatness.

This week, Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee shared a picture of a Partnership classroom where students look every day at three things: their school work; a crucifix; and this saying: “We are God’s masterpiece.” We—educators and students alike—are already miraculous, even with lots of habits to form and targets yet to reach. Like John Paul II reflecting in the quarry in the middle of a war, we can draw life-sustaining comfort from remembering this God-given greatness, even in the face of our challenges. And the crucifix and even the math problems remind us, masterpieces are not painless creations.

St. John Paul II, saint, poet, and stoneworker, pray for us.

The full text of St. John Paul II’s poem “Material” can be found here