I recently flew from Poland to Italy, two overwhelmingly Catholic nations of Europe. The road to the Modlin Airport passed through Warsaw’s peripheries: a mixture of affluent suburbs, the new and impressive Temple of Divine Providence in the District of Wilanow, wheat fields and fruit trees, and less affluent areas. You couldn’t help noticing that, with few exceptions, the shops, commercial centers, and chain stores – even Starbucks – were closed. In November 2017, Poland’s parliament voted to phase out shopping on Sundays by 2020, and Warsaw is already phasing it out. The idea was for Poles to spend more time with their families and less time shopping.
The situation in Italy was very different. Around Ciampino Airport, stores and supermarkets were open on Sunday. Italy is one of the most liberal European countries for commercial activities. Stores can remain open as long as they wish, and do as much business as they want.
The liberalization of commerce was introduced by Salva Italia, the “Save Italy” decree of 2011: shops and supermarkets can stay open for 24 hours a day, every day of the week, including Sundays and feast days. They pay workers more, usually 30 percent more, if they work on Sundays or feast days.
According to a recent study, 4.7-million Italians have worked on Sundays. The government’s intention in approving the decree was to save Italy from an economic collapse and to increase consumption and employment.
However, this has not worked as expected. Liberalization did not generate an explosion of GDP, unemployment in Italy has not decreased, and the policy seems to have had a negative impact on the workers’ spiritual wellbeing.
Countries such as Germany, Austria, and Poland that tried liberalization of commercial activities in the past, have backtracked, rejecting the indiscriminate openings of stores and commercial activities on Sundays and feast days.
So did Salva Italia save Italy?
Obviously not. The Italian trade unions and the Catholic Church have been very vocal in criticizing labor on Sunday and feast days. They argue that the prolonged commercial activities harm the rights of workers; the Church adds that prolonged work on Sundays harms the rights of believers.
The Catholic Church has consistently taught that Sunday belongs to the Lord, and the Lord’s Day should be centered on the Lord and the family. Every Sunday, Christ’s faithful come together in church to hear the Word of God and partake in the Eucharist, calling to mind the Passion and Resurrection and thanking God who “in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Pet. 1:3)
In Homily 16, entitled On the Lord’s Day, Eusebius of Alexandria, a fifth-century ecclesiastical writer, explained why the Lord’s Day belongs to the Lord only – not to work. The holy day of the Lord is a memorial of the Lord: “It is called the Lord’s day because it is the Lord of all days.”
According to Eusebius of Alexandria, Sunday is the beginning of Creation, Resurrection, and a new week. This three-pronged beginning symbolizes the Holy Trinity. God has granted his people six days to work and one to pray and rest – and not to work: “Woe to all who, on the Lord’s day, play the zither, dance, litigate, work, take oaths or make others take oaths, because they will be condemned to the eternal fire, and their lot will be with the hypocrites. It is not right even to try to help the poor people with their work on Sundays. Slaves, hired men, oxen, all need the Sunday rest.”
Pope Benedict XVI in his September 9, 2007 homily at Vienna’s Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, said:
Sine dominico non possumus! Without the gift of the Lord, without the Lord’s day, we cannot live: That was the answer given in the year 304 by Christians from Abitene in present-day Tunisia, when they were caught celebrating the forbidden Sunday Eucharist and brought before the judge. They were asked why they were celebrating the Christian Sunday Eucharist, even though they knew it was a capital offense. Sine dominico non possumus. . . .For these Christians, the Sunday Eucharist was not a commandment, but an inner necessity. Without him who sustains our lives, life itself is empty. To do without or to betray this focus would deprive life of its very foundation, would take away its inner dignity and beauty.
In Italy, many workers are forced by their employers to work shifts on Sundays and feast days, thus preventing the family from meeting and spending time together. In some cases, the parents work in shifts throughout the week and moments when the family stays together have become a rarity.
The liberalized opening of stores and shopping centers does not make space for something different, or a healthy discontinuity of a commercial routine to enjoy other aspects of life itself – and Italy has a lot to offer in this regard! In 1891, in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII expressly asked for legislation that would ensure Sunday rest:
The rest from labor is not to be understood as mere giving way to idleness; much less must it be an occasion for spending money and for vicious indulgence, as many would have it to be; but it should be rest from labor, hallowed by religion. Rest (combined with religious observances) disposes man to forget for a while the business of his everyday life.
The current Italian Minister of Labor, Luigi di Maio, said on June 21, 2018 that he is willing to re-discuss former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s decree on Sunday work, adding, “we must try to combat precariousness and eliminate exploitation.” Maybe this is the first step in the right direction to really Salva Italia– by keeping the Lord’s Day holy. It’s a lesson other countries might learn from as well.
*Image: Grace before the Meal by Fritz von Uhde, 1885 [Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin]