“Stop! Don’t Shop on Sunday.” That was the advice of a large poster hanging on a wall of our Catholic Labor Alliance office in Chicago during the 1950’s. We drummed home the same message in our monthly publication, called Work, and in a pamphlet I wrote for Ave Maria Press. It was a modest campaign, joining the initiatives of some other groups, such as the Third Order of St. Francis, which supplied the poster. Our underlying motive was to foster respect for the Lord’s Day.
Once, on a casual visit to our office, Nicholas von Hoffman, the writer who was then a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, saw the poster and shook his head skeptically. Our campaign against Sunday shopping, he predicted, would go nowhere. And he was right. It proved to be a loser.
At that time, a half-century ago, only about 16 percent of supermarkets across the nation had their doors open for business on Sunday. Today, with rare exceptions, all of them do. Sunday has become their second busiest shopping day of the week, topped only by Friday or Saturday. That’s the national average. In some urban neighborhoods, Sunday takes first place, not only for supermarkets but for department stores, auto lots, shopping malls and other retail establishments.
From their very beginnings in the 19th century, U.S. unions joined with religious and other allies to maintain Sunday as very special, a day set apart from the others. Collective bargaining agreements complemented local legislation as bulwarks against the seven-day work week. But in the mid-1900’s, retail businesses and consumers increased pressures to make Sunday another day of commerce. In opposing that trend, Patrick E. Gorman, then head of a Chicago-based national union of food workers, wrote: “There is absolutely no excuse for Sunday operation in any food market. The whole idea is irreligious....With all of the modern conveniences for home storage of meats and other perishables, there is no plausible reason” for food store openings on Sunday.
At that time, some business leaders in the retail industry felt the same way. A grocery chain executive, G. L. Clements of the Jewel Tea Company, said that his company “has a firm belief that it can give service to homemakers in six days of business, and no additional benefits are to be derived from remaining open on Sunday.” Some businesses joined with unions and churches to support Sunday closing laws. Arguing that “Sunday is a holy day, a family day,” a grocery store owners’ association in Pueblo, Colo., for example, backed a proposed ordinance to ban Sunday food sales, but voters defeated it by a two-to-one margin.
In support of its theme, “Don’t Shop on Sundays,” my pamphlet quoted Gorman, Clements, church leaders and others who, futilely as it turned out, opposed the growing trend. In fact, I went back to a pastoral letter issued in 1884 by the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore to quote a warning of the U.S. bishops: “To turn the Lord’s day into a day of toil is a blighting curse to a country.” But the foundation of my case rested on a quotation from the Bible (Ex 20:8-11): “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labor and shalt do all thy works. But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt do no work on it, nor thy son nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy beast nor the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and the sea and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day.”
Notice that, as laid down in Exodus, God’s law on a weekly day of nonwork has both an individual and a social dimension. Together, they say that I am morally responsible not just for my own conduct on Sunday and how it affects me, but also for how it affects others—arguably including those drawn into Sunday work by my shopping in a supermarket or an auto salesroom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not quote Exodus’s strong prohibition against having others work for me on Sunday, but it does say, “Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day.”
Here I should admit that my pamphlet’s excerpt from Exodus was not as complete as it could have been. I neglected to include both what the Lord instructs Moses to tell the Israelites (Ex 31:15), “Anyone who does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death,” and how Moses relayed that instruction word for word (Ex 35:2). Why had I left out this powerful warning that violations of the Sabbath merited death? Frankly, at the time I had not read far enough into Exodus. Even if I had done so, however, I probably would not have quoted this passage. Why? Because doing so would have prompted puzzlement and disbelief among those I was trying to persuade (“Capital punishment for Sunday shopping? Gimme a break”). One rule about writing that I learned early on was to avoid introducing issues that you cannot deal with convincingly in the space available.
In any case, how persuasive are arguments based solely on fear of a dire punishment? Were I to update my Ave Maria pamphlet, which has long been out of print, it would have a more positive theme. Unfortunately, when I wrote it a half-century ago, I was not familiar with the profound wisdom of Isaiah and the positive emphasis that he put on the “delight” of observing Sunday as a holy day. I would certainly have quoted that great prophet’s words (58:13-14):
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice—
Then you shall delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth....
Here Isaiah not only recognizes the Lord’s Day as different but also promises soaring happiness if I respect that difference by pursuing a special path, distinct from the paths I ordinarily follow the other six days of my week. Like other biblical truths, this guideline is fundamentally simple and still profoundly challenging to the consciences of different people in different circumstances.
Even though Isaiah’s words offer no moral blueprint, they don’t leave anyone off the hook either. Each of us should ask, “What does it mean for me, in my own special circumstances at this time in my life?” I have asked myself that question again and again. In my eight decades on this earth, the Lord has been very good to me—so good that I have often wondered, “Why me, O Lord?” I was able to withdraw from the job market more than a decade ago, thanks to Social Security and other pension checks generous enough that I don’t need income even from a part-time job. I now have at my disposal rest and leisure seven days a week.
In these comfortable circumstances, however, I have continued to work, not to make money but to make some use of the knowledge and skills I have developed over the years. In a real sense, my whole life has been an apprenticeship for what I am doing now: writing on human rights issues, occasionally for magazines but mainly for my own Web site, which is now in its seventh year. Altogether, it is one senior citizen’s personal contribution to the cause that John Paul II calls “globalizing human solidarity.”
The first psalm says, “Happy indeed is the man...whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night.” Personally, I am happy indeed that I have been blessed with the weeklong freedom to ponder the meaning of God’s law for many of today’s global issues and to write about some of them. But, respecting Isaiah’s wisdom, I still strive to revere Sunday as very special. Without the need to round up children for Sunday Mass, I can easily arrive 15 or 20 minutes early to review the readings of the day and to meditate on them. On Sundays I refrain from paying bills, balancing the checkbook, shopping at stores or online, working in the garden, washing the car and doing similar non-emergency chores. Now I have plenty of time to do such things during the six other days of the week. When I was employed, I did not have that choice. At least I thought I didn’t.
I remember that as youngsters, my sisters and I were not allowed to read the comics before Mass. The comics no longer interest me, before or after Mass, though the news and features in the Sunday papers do. I clip articles that have special relevance to my daily work, but I do not write articles or business letters. Sunday is a good time for writing personal letters to family members and friends. Time, too, to visit our children and granddaughter nearby and to phone those more distant. Time to read and reflect on a chapter of a good book on the New Testament.
The overriding goal is to make Sunday a day to tread a path truly different from, and perhaps less hectic than, those taken on the other days a week. I cannot claim I am always successful. But, in case you are wondering, this article was researched, written and edited on weekdays.