St. Joseph

(Life dates unknown)

In one sense, St. Joseph has shared the lot of all human fathers. Mothers are wont to receive the most praise for their offspring, and husbands remain background figures. Of course there were other reasons why Joseph became the object of special veneration in the Church only several centuries after Mary had been accorded that honor. The chief one is that he was not the true father, but only the foster father of Jesus, though Mary was the true mother of the Son of God.

Eventually, however, St. Joseph would deserve to be recognized (although this truly humble man would doubtless have preferred to remain ever in the shadows.) What an important role he played in the formative years of Christ! He was not the actual parent of Our Lord, but he was his legal father in a true if virginal marriage; and it was by virtue of Joseph’s descent from King David, as the genealogies of the New Testament indicate, that Jesus was entitled to be called “Son of David,” a prophetic and messianic title. Furthermore, Joseph not only protected his foster son, but gave him human training both in the profession of carpentry and in the arts of family life. To do that, the saint must have been a rather young man, for Jewish practice recommended that men marry in their late teens.

All this we conclude from the New Testament, although it tells us even less about Joseph than it does about Mary. We can ignore the apocryphal tales of St. Joseph that began to be written about the Holy Family from about 150 onward. These are, in general, devout fiction. The foster father was evidently dead by the time of Our Lord’s crucifixion, else Jesus would not have commended his mother to the care of St. John the Apostle, and through John to all of us.

St. Matthew tells us that even when Joseph married Our Lady he was a “just man,” i.e., conscientious, principled. But we must assume that Joseph became holier still through his family contacts with Jesus and Mary. Who would not have? A Trappist monk who is an old friend of mine once wrote me an interesting reflection on St. Joseph’s growth in virtue.

Of Joseph’s initial decision, when he found that Mary was pregnant before their marriage, Father Anthony called his impulse to divorce her quietly, a “stupid” one. If the reason for the separation ever did come out–suspicion of adultery–the Jewish law would have demanded that Mary be stoned to death.

Luckily, Joseph did not have to follow this purely natural chain of reasoning. God settled the issue supernaturally by informing him that Mary had conceived, not through any human intervention but through the agency of the Holy Spirit. How the saint, ever obedient and compliant, must have rejoiced at that news! It was no doubt a learning experience on his part, that he must always rely on God’s guidance rather than purely human reasoning.

Father Anthony passed on to an interesting conclusion regarding disruptive tendencies in other human families.

“I’ve often thought how encouraging it would be for people tempted to divorce to realize that St. Joseph went through the same torture. Even for the divorced, it would be encouraging to realize that a direct intervention of God alone saved the marriage of Mary and Joseph.”

There’s a thought for today’s married couples in times when so many divisive problems arise!

Devotion to St. Joseph as a great forgotten man began to receive strong backing in the 15th and 16th centuries, with Ss. Bernardine of Siena and Teresa of Avila as leading promoters. Pope Sixtus IV first introduced a feast in his honor in Rome around 1479. Eventually, Pope Pius IX in 1870 proclaimed Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church–a bow to his fatherly skills. In 1962, Pope John XXIII, in response to a vast popular demand, added the name of St. Joseph to the “Communicantes” of the Roman Canon, (the first Eucharistic prayer of the Mass). Thus the humble “man nearest Christ,” patron of fathers, patron of laboring men, and patron of the universal Church, had finally been given due recognition.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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