St. Joseph is the Man!
The dignity and holiness of St. Joseph are second only to his blessed spouse among the saints in heaven. Any conversation about St. Joseph should start with this foundational point: God the Father chose Joseph to stand in for Himself as the father of Jesus. Being all-knowing and all-powerful, God the Father could have fashioned anyone to be the earthly father of Jesus. Anyone! And God chose Joseph.
It can’t be too surprising, then, that many saints had a deep devotion to St. Joseph. St. André Bessett recommended the intercession of St. Joseph for any need. St. Teresa of Avila concurred:
“To other saints, the Lord seems to have given grace to help us in some of our necessities. But my experience is that St. Joseph helps us in them all; also that the Lord wishes to teach us that, as he was himself subject on earth to St. Joseph, so in heaven he now does all that Joseph asks” (quoted in Fr. Don Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph, p. 90).
St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Francis de Sales, St. Bernadette, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Josemaría Escrivá, Ven. Fulton Sheen, and St. John Paul II all said much the same. Men and women, Church Fathers, recent popes, and several doctors of the Church all agree: go to Joseph. Here are some points of reflection, on aspects of St. Joseph’s character that will benefit our spiritual lives.
Old Man vs. Young Man and Chastity
The tradition of depicting Joseph as an old man comes from the Protoevangelion of James and other apocryphal texts. The Catholic Church has never made a formal pronouncement, but there is good reason to believe that Joseph was not an old man. Fr. Don Calloway takes up this issue in his book Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father. “While there is no doubt that an old man is just as capable of being holy as any young man, it takes a strong young father to teach a boy how to swing an axe, work with wood, carry lumber, walk great distances, and earn a living by the sweat of his brow.” (p. 118) Fr. Calloway also quotes Mother Angelica: “Old men don’t walk to Egypt!” The Holy Family walked over 40 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt, after walking 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem; just thinking about it makes me tired (p. 113).
Besides a greater degree of historical accuracy, Joseph’s title as a chaste man means far more if he was a young man. The custom in sacred art and in the apocryphal works to depict him as an elderly man likely came out of an effort to protect Mary’s perpetual virginity. An elderly man would have been more of a caretaker, for whom chastity would have been less of an issue. “A strong, loving, youthful, and virginal man… would be required to make a tremendous sacrifice of his mind, body, senses, and heart in order to espouse a woman so pure and lovely” (Fr. Calloway, p. 132). A young St. Joseph gives us an incredible model of chastity and purity—far from making their marriage a cold one, the sacrificing of sexual intimacy gave them great freedom with which to love and sacrifice themselves for each other and their Son.
True Husband of Mary
As a chaste, pure man, Joseph was still Mary’s husband. This is the origin of the term “Josephite marriage”, when both spouses forgo the intimacy of the marital bed. Still, the emotional and loving bond they shared must have been incredible. The Church recommends that all marriages be centered on Jesus, but their marriage was quite literally centered on Jesus.
St. Jerome demonstrated the union of Joseph and Mary. In about 383, St. Jerome wrote a lively tract against a priest in Rome named Helvidius. The latter wrote against the perpetual virginity of Mary; Joseph obviously played a key role in that debate. St. Jerome skewered his opponent’s arguments and proudly defended his mother in heaven—but also extolled St. Joseph. “Mary at all events kept all these sayings in her heart. You cannot for shame say Joseph did not know of them, for Luke tells us, ‘His father and mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning Him’” (St. Jerome, Against Helvidius, 8).
Consider the first twelve years of Jesus’ life: starting with the Annunciation and birth of Jesus, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt, and then the finding in the Temple (the last mention of Joseph in the gospels). Imagine Joseph and Mary’s conversations after their little Son went to bed. Picture their conversations about prayer, experience with angels, discussing the Scriptures. The best marriages have a solid emotional bond; Joseph and Mary had that in spades.
Many popes within the last two centuries have lauded St. Joseph and his connection to Our Lady. Pius IX declared him the patron of the universal Church on December 8, 1870, which was the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Pope Francis appropriately announced the Year of St. Joseph on the same day in December 2020.
Pope Leo XIII tied St. Joseph to his blessed spouse so closely that in Quamquam pluries (1889) he asked all the faithful to recite a prayer to St. Joseph at the conclusion of the rosary, in the month of October. For the current year of St. Joseph, it’s a great idea to say Leo XIII’s prayer after reciting the rosary.
A Man of the Incarnation
The Incarnation is the eternal Word becoming flesh; Joseph is a special witness to that mystery: “this is precisely the mystery in which Joseph of Nazareth ‘shared’ like no other human being except Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He shared in it with her; he was involved in the same salvific event; he was the guardian of the same love, through the power of which the eternal Father ‘destined us to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ (Eph 1:5)” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 1).
At every baptism, the Word becomes flesh again. This is how the Church brings new life into the world, so to speak. Mary is rightfully the mother of all Christians, after Jesus gave her to us while on the cross (see John 19:26-27). As Mary’s spouse, it was Joseph’s job to watch over their Son. Now that the Holy Family is in heaven, St. Joseph watches over all those that are part of their Son’s Mystical Body.
In our worthy reception of the sacraments; in living out our vocations in true Christ-like charity; in seeking union with Jesus in prayer, we imitate St. Joseph and his love of the Incarnation.
Model of Faith and Commitment
When Joseph brought Mary into his home, he accepted Jesus at the same time. This follows from Joseph’s chaste love for Mary as well as his obedience and commitment to God. “In this way he showed a readiness of will like Mary's with regard to what God asked of him through the angel” (RC 3). By committing himself to Mary and the Incarnation, Joseph planted himself firmly within the will of God. As any good husband would say: this isn’t just your mission, my beloved, this is mine too.
Pope Francis noted that it seems like the powers of the world have sway and we are completely at their mercy. God’s will cannot be thwarted, though, because of just men like Joseph.
For us Catholics in this turbulent era, we must commit ourselves to Christ and to all the teachings of His Church. Only an interior life nourished by prayer will our faith survive!
“The total sacrifice, whereby Joseph surrendered his whole existence to the demands of the Messiah's coming into his home, becomes understandable only in the light of his profound interior life. It was from this interior life that very singular commands and consolations came, bringing him also the logic and strength that belong to simple and clear souls, and giving him the power of making great decisions” (RC 26).
St. Joseph is also a model for those that worry that holiness is a matter for the cloister. Through his labor, St. Joseph gave stability, protection, and provision to the Holy Family. “In Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony that is only possible for those who possess the perfection of charity” (RC 27). The key to holiness is not a vocation to the religious life but the perfection of charity. That is, to love as Christ loved.
For all these titles, one of my favorites for St. Joseph is the terror of demons. A devoted husband, who loved Mary purely and sacrificially, who adhered himself to the will of God and took care of Jesus? Satan had no inroads with Joseph. In the advice of the saints, ite ad Ioseph, go to Joseph!