Tradesmen, Craftswomen, Fishermen – Part XXVIII

Is there something about skill, hard labor, and teamwork that engenders holiness?



First and foremost among holy tradesmen are Jesus and St. Joseph. How did the two of them go about their work—improving their skills, finding the right wood, finding the right tools? What kind of relationships did they have with their customers—discussing the customers’ needs such as the product’s use, its design, its cost, any deadline? When Jesus’ critics argued that He was nothing more than “a carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3), He surely thought of Joseph, the training He had received from Joseph, and the human pride He took in being Joseph’s son, apprentice and co-worker. He knew intimately the holiness of Joseph and Joseph knew His. He must have taken umbrage at the disdain shown “a carpenter’s son.”

Some questions: (1) Did they have Roman customers? (2) What did Jesus think as He worked with wood, the material to which He knew He would be affixed for His death? Would He pray to the Father, as He would in Gethsemane, for the cup to pass? (3) What did Jesus and Joseph make? One answer: “There is an old tradition that has come down to us, that he was a maker of plows and yokes. The yoke, and most of the plow, with the exception of the iron ploughshare, are constructed of wood…As there were many farmers among the ancient Hebrews…there would be a great demand for yokes and plows. Other products of the carpenter would include wooden locks and wooden keys for houses, doors, roofs, windows, low tables, chairs or stools and chests for storage use. The carpenter’s most ornamental work would include paneling of the roof, latticework for windows, and decorative art on house doors” (from “Manners & Customers: Carpenters: Carpenters in the Ancient World,” Bible History Online,

Many of the Apostles were fishermen. The brothers Peter (Simon) and Andrew, and the brothers John and James, sons of Zebedee, were all fishermen (Matt. 4:18-22). St. Peter was mending his nets when Jesus stepped into his boat (Luke 5:1-3). It appears that Thomas and Nathanael (Bartholomew), and perhaps additional Apostles, were fishermen (John 21:1-5). Why so many fishermen among the Apostles? Naturally, there would have been a goodly number of men who lived around Lake Galilee who would have made their living by fishing. But was there something about fishing — the teamwork, the comradeship, the skill, the hard labor — that engendered holiness in these men that Jesus recognized? Maybe these men who, dependent on Nature and Nature’s God (a phrase from the U.S. Declaration of Independence) were given the grace to “read the signs of the times,” the coming of the Kingdom, were better than the typical members of the “current generation”:

[Jesus said] When evening comes, you say, ‘The weather will be fair, for the sky is red;’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but not the signs of the times! (Matt. 16:2-3)

[Jesus said] As soon as you see a cloud rising in the west, you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and that is what happens. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It will be hot,’ and it is…You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:55-56)

St. Paul and Saints Priscilla and Aquila were tent-makers. This married couple is mentioned six times (Acts 18:2-3, Acts 18:18, Acts 18:26, Rom.16:3-4, 1 Cor. 16:19, 2 Tim. 4:19), and half of those times the wife is named before the husband (see Gerard Castillo, Sixteen Marriages That Made History (2015), and Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience of Feb. 7, 2007).

Lydia, the woman of Acts 16:14-15, was also in the textile business. She dyed clothes purple.

Let’s jump forward in time to the laymen who accompanied the Jesuit missionaries to North America in the 17th century. “The Jesuits had always had laymen to help them with the manual labor in their missions, but under [St. Gabriel] Lalemant’s direction a new force of devoted volunteers emerged, called donnés, or oblates. Bound by [temporary] promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but not by the religious vows of the Society, the donnés became a tremendous asset, for in addition to offering their talents as domestic laborers they became auxiliary catechists and missionaries” (The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, “The Eight North American Martyrs,” July 11, 2005, at


***Editor’s Note: For Part XXVII in this series, click here


James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C., attorney. His master’s thesis was Aquinas on Marriage. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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