St. Herman Joseph

(c. 1150-1241)

Herman Joseph was one of the most beloved of medieval saints. Legends about this childlike person have inspired many artists and delighted many children.

St. Herman was a native of Cologne, Germany: the child of parents who were now poor but had once been prosperous.

At the age of seven, he began both to attend school and to develop a characteristic devotion to the Mother of God. As often as he could, he went to the church of “St. Mary on the Capitol” to kneel before her statue and carry on tender conversations with Mary and her Child.

Two of the most charming stories about him are connected with these visits. Best known is the occasion on which he brought an apple that he had saved from his scanty meal, and offered it to the Christ-child. The Child came alive long enough to reach out and accept the gift from the youngster’s hand.

On another occasion, when Herman came to pray barefoot on a bitterly cold day, he heard a voice that he concluded was Mary’s. She told him to look under a certain stone in the church where he would find enough money to pay for a pair of shoes. He obeyed, and discovered a cache of coins large enough to enable him to purchase the footwear.

At age 12, Herman entered the monastery of the Canons Regular of Premontre at Steinfeld. He wanted to become a Premonstratensian (Norbertine) father, but he was still too young to be accepted as a candidate. So the superiors sent him to study at a Norbertine monastery in the Netherlands. The teenager was a good student, but he did think that spiritual knowledge was more important than any secular studies.

When he was old enough to be clothed in the habit, Herman was brought back to Steinfeld. Once an accepted member of the order, he was assigned the task of waiting on tables in the refectory. Although he performed these menial tasks diligently, as a gifted mystic he would have preferred to be allowed to spend all his time in prayer. Out Lady settled his dilemma in a vision. She told him that nothing pleased God more than seeing a person serving his own brothers and sisters in charity.

Later, Brother Herman was appointed a sacristan. He liked that job, for it gave him more opportunity to be in the monastery chapel.

After his ordination to the priesthood, Herman became noted for the devotion with which he celebrated Mass. Indeed, he fell into an ecstasy of prayer so often at Mass that his Masses went on forever. Eventually, nobody wanted to serve him at Mass, because it took so much of the server’s time!

As a monk, Father Herman retained all the blameless innocence of spirit that had characterized him as a child. He was much loved for his readiness to help everybody. But while he had practical skills (he was an able mechanic and clock-maker), he was essentially a contemplative.

His confreres jokingly called him “Joseph” for his attention to the Madonna and Child. Typically, he declared himself unworthy to be called after the father of the Holy Family. But Our Lady took a fancy to the name, and in a vision put upon his finger a wedding ring to confirm that he was her spiritual spouse. On the basis of this vision, Herman added “Joseph” to his other Christian name.

St. Herman Joseph had never been physically healthy, but God healed his infirmities nine years before his death. During those final years, the Saint wrote many popular prayers and hymns. He died on April 7, 1241, and was buried at Steinfeld. The process of his canonization was never fully completed. However, Herman was considered a saint by all. In 1958, Pope Pius XII confirmed this popular cult, thus granting him “equivalent canonization”.

If we try to act toward Jesus and Mary as St. Joseph did, we, too, can become “honorary spouses” of Our Lady.

St. Herman Joseph would be pleased with that!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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