Each year on the first Monday of September people in the United States and Canada celebrate Labor Day (well, in Canada they celebrate Labour Day). At Mass on the day preceding this holiday it is not unknown for the Sunday liturgy to close with some sort of patriotic song to commemorate the upcoming celebration. This past Sunday at St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish we closed with a song whose lyrics offered the perfect lead-in for a holiday that is celebrated around the globe.
The music for the closing hymn, known to the world as Finlandia (although officially it is Opus 26), was written in 1899 by the most famous of all Finnish composers, Jean Sibelius. The accompanying lyrics were written by the young American Lloyd Stone in 1932 as the poem “This Is My Song”.
Over the years other verses have been added to the two written by Stone, and there are also completely different sets of lyrics that use Finlandia’s music. The most well known of these is “Be Still My Soul” written by a pious 18th Century German hymn writer named Catharina von Schlegel.
In Stone’s version the sentiments are not overtly Christian or even religious, but they are definitely catholic, meaning “universal or worldwide”. He shows a love of the land of his birth with words like, “This is my home, the country where my heart is/Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.” Beautiful and universal sentiments about one’s native land, and without any hint of xenophobia or jingoism.
The following line goes even further as it bestows equal footing to the feelings of those from “lands afar” as it states: “But other hearts in other lands are beating/With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” In the same spirit, Stone’s second verse concludes with, “So hear my song, O God of all the nations/A song of peace for their land and for mine.”
These sentiments are quite striking when one is made aware of the circumstances under which Finlandia was written and performed. For Sibelius and those who commissioned the work, Finlandia was a protest against the anti-Finnish censorship then practiced by the Russian Empire. The work represents the struggles of the Finnish people, and concludes with the magnificently peaceful and emotion stirring section known as “Finlandia Hymn”.
Almost from the time of its first performance in July of 1900 this final movement has been universally recognized by the Finnish people as the unofficial anthem of Finland. The addition of Stone’s lyrics simply universalized those sentiments and made them applicable to all people of good will.
And this is what made that song so appropriate for our Labor Day weekend Mass. Labor is one of the great universals of humankind. Pope St. John Paul II, who himself worked in a stone quarry as a young man, spilled gallons of ink promoting the dignity of labor, especially in documents like Laborem Exercens.
In doing so he was continuing in the long line of popes who wrote about the importance of labor in our lives - a line that goes back to Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Because of the “new things” (in Latin, rerum novarum) confronting workers in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution Leo felt the need to present the world with both a Catholic and a catholic perspective on labor. He wanted to give hope to those whose rights were being threatened by social, political, and economic movements on both the right and left - movements identified with the plutocratic robber barons on the right and the violent revolutionaries on the left.
So from a Catholic, as well as a catholic, perspective it is fitting to celebrate Labor Day, a holiday that has a long and noble history - beginning with its first celebration on May 1, 1886, in commemoration of the institution of the eight hour work day. From 1887 onward Labor Day was celebrated in the United States in early September, and Labor Day weekend became the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Whether celebrated in May or September, this holiday unites all of us throughout the world as workers - workers who toil for those people and places we love.
Labor, as a noble effort of sacrifice for others, crosses all of the boundaries that normally separate us. Work is a universal - a catholic - experience, and one where we all - no matter our nationality, or our political affiliation, or our economic beliefs - can sing from the same hymnal to the same Father who sanctifies our efforts.