Long in obscurity, it was the 15th century before the veneration of St. Joseph became widespread throughout the Roman Church. This seems ironic to us today because the Church counts Joseph among the most important figures in salvation history. Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903) wrote of him in his 1889 encyclical Quamquam Pluries: “In truth, the dignity of the Mother of God is so lofty that naught created can rank above it. But ... it may not be doubted that he [St. Joseph] approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses so nobly all created natures”(No. 3).
The lack of attention toward Joseph over the centuries resulted in some measure from the brief way he is treated in the Scriptures. Additionally, there were early stories and legends making him out to be an old man, including some insinuating that he may have been married even before taking Mary as his bride. There were stage plays, as late as the Middle Ages, depicting Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Mother, as a senile, aging man. In the late 15th century, this neglect by the faithful in the Western Church started to change.
Veneration of Joseph Expands
The Franciscan St. Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) began advocating the righteousness of Joseph and the important role he played in the life of Christ. St. Bernardine rejected the perception that Joseph was a decrepit, aging individual; rather, a younger person who could protect and care for Mary and Jesus. In his rationalizing, Bernardine also concluded that as the husband of God’s mother and foster father of Jesus, Joseph was free from sin and a virgin. Such unique thinking would influence how Christians considered Joseph.
In the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) was significant in further extolling the virtues of Mary’s husband. Teresa claimed that after praying to Joseph, he interceded with God on her behalf and consequently cured her of a serious illness. Believing in this miracle, she dedicated different monasteries of her Carmelite order to Joseph and placed them under his protection. She wrote, “I cannot call to mind that I have ever asked him at any time for anything that he has not granted; and I am filled with amazement when I consider the great favors which God hath given me through this great saint — the danger from which he hath delivered me both body and soul” (The Life of St. Teresa).
Joseph was in many ways like the Blessed Mother. His place and manner of death are unknown; there are no relics, no tomb to visit. Both Mary and Joseph were visited by an angel (Joseph three times) and both said “yes” to God’s call. Some theologians have argued that Joseph was also assumed into heaven.
Veneration to St. Joseph was elevated throughout the Church when, in 1870, Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) proclaimed him “St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church.” The Church annually commemorates St. Joseph with a solemnity on March 19. Another feast day, May 1, was assigned and named the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This feast was established in 1955 both to acknowledge Joseph and in part to counter the grand celebrations of the Communist international party held on that date. In 1961, Pope St. John XXIII (r. 1958-63) named St. Joseph as patron of the Second Vatican Council. It was also Pope John XXIII who, in 1962, added St. Joseph’s name to the first Eucharistic prayer of the Mass. Pope Francis would add his name to all the Eucharistic prayers.
A Just Man
The reversal or revival in thinking within the Church finally resulted in appropriate honors given to Joseph, guardian of Mary and Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We often hear that God has a purpose for each of us, and we are placed on earth at a specific time to carry out that mission. God, in turn, provides us the needed grace to achieve his calling. Certainly such was the case with Joseph. As Mary was selected to be the Mother of God, Joseph was selected, among all men, to be his foster father. Strangely, even with such an important, sacred trust, he receives just a few lines in the Bible. Only Matthew and Luke reveal anything about Joseph, yet what we conclude from their brief accounts provide vast insight into this holy man’s character. The Gospel According to Matthew 1:19 describes him as a “just man” or one who loves God and his fellow man. St. John Chrysostom defined a just man to be “perfect in every nature.” Although limited, the insights provided by the Gospel help us understand the virtues of Joseph; virtues often sought out by others and imitated by the Catholic priest.
Joseph’s Faith and Obedience
Joseph was visited by an angel three times, and three times his faith in and obedience to God were magnified. First, according to Matthew’s version of the Gospel, he was told not to hesitate to take Mary into his home, even though she was pregnant: “For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt 1:20). When an angel appears, Joseph must have wondered what exactly was happening, but he didn’t hesitate, didn’t fail to obey: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” (Mt 1:24). Joseph took Mary into his home, but then the Gospel tells us they went to register for the census in Bethlehem. Here, as it was the time for Jesus to be born, and because of crowding in the city, they had to settle for lodging in a stable. The poverty of the surrounding was diminished by the glory manifested in the birth of Christ. St. Pope John Paul II refers to Joseph as a silent witness and never more so than on this holy night.
A second angel tells Joseph to take his family and flee away from the murdering Herod. Joseph must have thought it odd that the Son of God would have to run away from some earthly king, but again there was obedience, no hesitation; during the night he began a perilous journey of some days travel, taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The joy Joseph knew at the Nativity, the happiness of Mary, is suddenly impacted by the threat on the life of Jesus.
During the third appearance of an angel, Joseph is advised that it was safe to return to Israel. The Holy Family went back to Galilee and eventually to Nazareth. The dangers associated with these travels, the distances, the setting up households in strange places, finding work, were part of a divine plan that Joseph never questioned. God the Father was always watching over the Holy Family.
Today in our holy Church, the priest in the manner of Joseph doesn’t hesitate to obey God’s plan for him, to go to a new place and serve others no matter the location. In obeying, the priest fulfills the role for which he was ordained. Initially breaking away from family and comforts of home to follow his holy calling is often uncomfortable and with a certain level of uncertainty. Uprooting from familiar surroundings will likely occur many times, and resettling while continuing to serve God will always take the kind of faith and obedience evident in St. Joseph. There is no manual that guides a priest into a new place or new assignment; he goes forth with the faith that God will show the way.
Every priest’s patron, St. John Vianney, was greatly troubled when he arrived at the parish church in Ars, France, during February 1818. According to Abbe Francois Trochu, in his book The Cure D’ Ars, the new pastor “entered upon a missionary district inhabited by a people bereft of both faith and morals.” Most readers know the story of the lack of piety, the attention given to secular addictions and attractions demonstrated by the Ars congregation. The future saint, although rejected by many, slowly turned the congregation back to God. Trochu wrote: “A holy priest is able to achieve great results with means that would seem wholly inadequate.” Although nowhere do we find St. John Vianney attributed his success to St. Joseph, the “means to achieve great results” are found in Joseph.
A pastor often has difficult situations and tough calls to make while attending to his flock. From building a new church or expanding an old one, counseling sessions that are often uncomfortable, even deciding on Mass times, he is always under some scrutiny, sometimes not appreciated and can even feel isolated. Again, there is Joseph like a beacon in the night. Joseph knew he was never alone but was ever being guided by the hand of God and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Having recourse to Joseph, the priest can find solace, inspiration and help.
Joseph’s Humility and Self-Denial
Someone once asked a parish priest why during the Mass a priest always reads from the Roman Missal. The person asking the question reasoned that the priest probably knew most all the prayers and sacred verses, so why did he read everything? The response was one word: “humility.” In fact, at no other time is a priest’s humility more evident than during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The way Joseph protects the child Jesus, so the priest protects the holy Eucharist.
The key virtue of most every saint and holy man is humility. St. Joseph’s attitude toward the messages of the angels well demonstrated this virtue. He didn’t understand totally what he was being called to do or about Mary’s pregnancy, but he didn’t hesitate to take her into his home despite what the neighbors thought. Joseph did not have a long time of discernment about becoming the guardian of Mary and Jesus, may have been confused about the mystery of the virgin birth, but he accepted his sacred commission without concern for himself or his future. Simply, he was secure in God’s love. A priest is often faced with those moments when he denies himself and unhesitatingly responds to God’s call or to his superior. He says “yes” that not only will he be obedient to the summons but will do so with humility.
The role of Joseph in the early life of Jesus was that of any father, with one exception: Jesus is divine. This was the “hidden life” in Nazareth, and Jesus likely lived like every other boy. He was taught the Jewish religion, how to pray, attended school, grew up in a small community and learned the carpenter trade all under the watchful eye and love of his foster father. A humble man, Joseph would always remain in the background, carrying out what God asked him to do without attention or status, trusting fully in God’s providence.
A priest is also a “father” not to one single person or family but often to a community. As head of that community, he, too, teaches how to pray, explains the word of God, provides guidance and assists many on their faith walk, even into the Catholic Church. He spends time giving of himself as a loving father.
Like Joseph, the priest is the anchor of the family or community, and there is no little time spent as the patriarch. In this role, Joseph demonstrated patience, understanding and love — traits entrusted to every priest. In doing God’s will, both St. Joseph and the priest puts himself last and his family first.
D.D. Emmons writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.