Saint for fathers, families and real estate transactions
Feast Days March 19 and May 1
Small plastic statues of St. Joseph have become one of the hottest items in religious gift shops. Prospective homebuyers bury the statuette in the lawn of the house they want to buy, the head pointing toward the house. Homeowners wanting to sell buy the statuette, too, but with the head pointing toward the street. It is one of the odder saint-related phenomena of our time, but no one can say with absolute certainty how the trend began.
The link between St. Joseph and houses is not far-fetched; as the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the foster father of Jesus, St. Joseph has always been associated with a happy home. One likely source for the statue-burying custom comes from the life of another saint who was intensely devoted to St. Joseph. St. André Bessette (1845-1937), a French Canadian Brother of Holy Cross, dreamed of honoring his favorite saint by building a shrine on Mount Royal overlooking Montreal. He had a plot of land in mind, but the owners refused to sell.
After years of fruitless negotiations, Brother André took a pocketful of St. Joseph medals and buried them all over the piece of land he wanted for his shrine. The next time Brother André approached the owners with an offer, they accepted.
The link to Brother André seems more plausible when one notices that Pope John Paul II declared Brother André “Blessed” in 1982, thereby garnering him new attention especially among Catholics just across the border in the United States: the custom of burying St. Joseph statues began to mushroom in the U.S. about 1984.
Today, St. Joseph is such an essential part of Catholic devotional life that it is hard to imagine when he was not one of the most popular saints on the calendar. Yet devotion to St. Joseph got off to a very slow start. During the first centuries of the Church, so many heretical splinter groups denied the divinity of Christ that Church authorities felt it was more important to emphasize the doctrine that God was Christ’s father than to venerate the man who was Christ’s foster father.
Although there are isolated examples of St. Joseph receiving some recognition in Egypt, in England and in Germany, the Church did not grant him offi cial recognition until 1479 when Pope Sixtus IV established March 19 as the feast of St. Joseph. From that point, devotion to St. Joseph increased dramatically. The Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Jesuits all promoted St. Joseph. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who was particularly attached to him, said of St. Joseph in her Autobiography, “With other saints it seems the Lord has given them grace to be of help in one need, whereas with this glorious saint I have experience that he helps in all our needs.”
As if to make up for centuries of lost time, the hierarchy and the faithful rushed to heap new honors on St. Joseph. He is the guardian of families, the patron of workers, the patron of a happy death. His name was added to the Litany of the Saints in 1726; in 1870 Blessed Pope Pius IX named him patron of the Universal Church. Pope Pius XII called upon St. Joseph to join in the struggle against communism by making May 1 the feast of St. Joseph the Worker; in 1962 Blessed John XXIII inserted Joseph’s name into the Roman Canon of the Mass; and earlier this year, Pope Francis confirmed a decision originally made by Pope Benedict to include St. Joseph permanently in Eucharistic prayers II, III and IV.
Craughwell is the author of more than 30 books, including “Saints Behaving Badly” and “This Saint Will Change Your Life.”