The Roman magistrate Appius Claudius Caecus, who died in 273 B.C., accomplished much despite physical infirmities: “caecus” means blind. His greatest monuments were Rome’s first aqueduct (Aqua Appia) and first highway (Via Appia), which is still in use today. He was also a literary man, who wrote of the working man (homo faber) and gave moral significance to the human ability to build: “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”
In his youth Saint John Paul II had been a factory worker in a chemical plant, virtually a slave laborer under the Nazis, an experience that gave poignancy to his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, written in 1981: “ ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ (Genesis 3:19). These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from [Eden] onwards has accompanied human work . . . And yet, in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. . . . through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’ ”
Made in the image of God, human beings do not merely toil, for they can use their imagination and reason to design and create. New York City is a virtual hymn to that ability, symbolized by the Empire State Building right up the street from our church. Despite the Depression and lack of the advanced power tools we have today, it took only 410 days to finish in 1931; in one spurt, fourteen floors went up in ten days. Thousands of workers, including Mohawks who have a talent for managing heights, completed it for $41 million, $19 million less than estimated. Hard hats were not used in those days, yet remarkably only five workers were killed—five too many, but still a tribute to skill and caution.
Our church is now in the heart of the largest building development in our nation’s history. Sixteen skyscrapers are rising in this Hudson Yards project, one taller than the Empire State Building. It will bring 12,700,000 square feet of office, residential and retail space, and an estimated 65,000 visitors daily. The sacrifices involved to build this cannot be overstated. In recent days three young workers were killed, and hundreds of devout laborers asked me to gather with them in the midst of the steel girders and concrete to lead them with prayers and Holy Water, for their work is more than mere toil.
Our Lord, who was a carpenter, certainly challenges all of us to do his work in this gigantic new chance to let his light shine. With all this engineering and commercial display, “homo faber” can only know himself rightly by knowing that he is a helper of God the Creator. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).