St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin.  Courtesy Photo
St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin. Courtesy Photo

If it were not for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, and her “yes” to God, the world would have never heard of Joseph, the “carpenter of Nazareth.” And, yet, this man of whom the Holy Scriptures say so very little is the Universal Patron of the Catholic Church.

This title, first given to St. Joseph 150 years ago (December 8, 1870) by Blessed Pope Pius IX, prompted our Holy Father Pope Francis to declare on December 8, 2020, an entire year dedicated to his memory.

But what do we know about St. Joseph?  Early in Matthew’s Gospel, the “Infancy Narratives” introduce Joseph, son of Jacob, as “the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1: 16). The following brief story tells of how Mary pledged to be married to Joseph but “found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  Now Joseph was a “righteous man, unwilling to expose her to shame, so he decided to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19).”  God intervened in a dream through an angel, revealing his divine intention, and Joseph “did as the angel had commanded him and took Mary into his home as his wife (Matthew 1:20-24).”  This passage calls to mind the notions of honor and commitment as they apply to Joseph.

Matthew next presents Joseph, again responding to an angel of the Lord in a dream, taking Mother and Child “to the Land of Israel, to the region of Galilee” and settling “in a town called Nazareth so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘he shall be called a Nazorean’ (Matthew 2:13-15;23).”  Here Joseph demonstrates his care for the Holy Family through obedience.  Jesus is later identified as “the carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55).”

Luke’s Gospel version of the “Infancy Narratives” portrays “Joseph, of the House of David” engaged to Mary (Luke 1:27) traveling with his pregnant wife “from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem” since that was his lineage and Caesar Augustus had ordered a census of the whole world be taken (Luke 2:1; 4-5).”  It was during that trip, while in Bethlehem, that the Child Jesus was born (Luke 2:6-7).  It was there that the shepherds first witnessed the Holy Family (Luke 2:16-17).  This passage reveals Joseph’s fortitude and perseverance.

Faithful to the Law of Moses, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Jerusalem for the prescribed ritual consecration of the Child when they encountered the holy man Simeon in the temple, who praised God and exclaimed, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:25-32).”  Luke writes that “the Child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him (Luke 2:33).” Joseph was a faithful religious man who was open to the will of God.

When Jesus had turned twelve, Joseph and Mary, after their annual Jewish custom of returning to Jerusalem for Passover, began their journey home. The boy Jesus, however, “remained behind in Jerusalem but his parents did not know it (Luke 2:43).”  After a day’s travel, not finding him among their caravan, they returned to Jerusalem only to discover the boy “in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking questions (Luke 2:44-47).”  They were surprised and expressed their anxiety, but Jesus explained to them, “I must be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:49).”  The boy Jesus then returned to Nazareth and “was obedient to them” as he “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man (Luke2:51-52).” Joseph showed himself to be a loving and protective “father.”

Joseph was mentioned again in Luke’s “Genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:30)” at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at age thirty as he had also been listed in the “genealogy” of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  The two evangelists were careful to identify Joseph’s Davidic ancestry in the long line of Jewish holy men and his role in salvation history.

Although Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist without any preliminary “Infancy Narratives,” he does refer to Jesus as “the carpenter” – reflecting Joseph’s trade – and as the “son of Mary (Mark 6:3).” 

John’s Gospel does not focus much on the human origins of Jesus but makes one reference to his family and to Joseph: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? (John 6:42).”  John also notes the inhabitants of Jerusalem, questioning Jesus’ messianic role, saying, “But we know where he is from.  When the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from (John 7:27).”

Joseph was a working man, a “carpenter” although the Greek word “tekton” used in the Scripture to refer to him has multiple translations. He was the husband of Mary.  He was head of the Holy Family. He lived with them in Nazareth.  He was a faithful and observant Jew.  He was, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote, the ”guardian of the Redeemer (John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos, August 15, 1989).”

It is clear that Joseph plays a significant role in the life of Jesus and, as such, in the history of human salvation, but it is also true that the Scriptures do not present a great deal of specific information “about” him.  We don’t know the story of his own family background or his age at Jesus’ Birth.  We don’t have many details about the life and activities of the Holy Family.  We don’t know when he died or where he was buried. Perhaps, however, the relative historical and scriptural “silence” about Joseph the man, in itself, speaks something spiritually instructive to us about Joseph the saint.

“Let us allow ourselves to be ‘infected’ by the ‘silence of St. Joseph.’  We have much need of it in a world which is often too noisy, which does not encourage reflection and listening to the voice of God (Benedict XVI, “Angelus,” December 18, 2005).” 

Although historical writings about Joseph appear in the early centuries of the Catholic Church in the theological works of St. Jerome (342/347-420) and St. Augustine (354-430), formal devotion to him as the “guardian” of the Lord Jesus dates back to the early Middle Ages, around 800 A.D.  St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote of the significance of St. Joseph in the Incarnation of Christ and the necessity of the care and protection of a human father in the culture of his time. He extended the same need to the Church.

“There are many saints to whom God has given the power to assist us in the necessities of life, but the power given to St. Joseph is unlimited: It extends to all our needs, and all those who invoke him with confidence are sure to be heard (Thomas Aquinas, “The Childhood of Christ,” Summa Theologiae: Volume 52: 3a. 31-37).”

Great saints, Doctors of the Church, theologians, popes and spiritual writers in subsequent centuries have added greatly to the development of what has become the Church’s “Josephology,” or study of St. Joseph and his significance within and to the Catholic Church.  It is astounding to consider his spiritual impact on Catholic faith and devotion, in countless prayers and intercessions, in artwork, statuary, music and the patronage of cathedrals, churches and schools all over the world, given the scarcity of historical and scriptural witness to his privileged role in the life of Christ and his eventual declaration by Blessed Pope Pius IX as Universal Patron of the Catholic Church 150 years ago.

In the encyclical containing that declaration and establishing March 19 as a solemn feast of the “Spouse of Mary,” Pope Pius IX proclaimed, “Him whom countless kings and prophets had desired to see, Joseph not only saw but conversed with, and embraced in paternal affection and kissed.  He most diligently reared him whom the faithful were to receive as the bread that came down from heaven whereby they might obtain eternal life. … Pope Pius IX, in order to entrust himself and all the faithful to the Patriarch St. Joseph’s most powerful patronage … has solemnly declared him Patron of the Catholic Church (Pius IX, encyclical Quemadmodum Deus, December 8, 1870).” 

Nineteen years later, Pope Leo XIII published an encyclical that affirmed his predecessor’s sentiments, writing that “in giving Joseph the Blessed Virgin as his spouse, God appointed him to be not only her life’s companion, the witness of her maidenhood, the protector of her honor but also, by virtue of their conjugal tie, a participant in her sublime dignity (Leo XIII, encyclical Quamquam pluries, August 15, 1889).” 

Pope Benedict XV on July 25, 1920, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original declaration, proclaiming “with the flourishing of the faithful’s devotion to St. Joseph, there will simultaneously increase as a consequence their devotion to the Holy Family of Nazareth of which he was the august head. … In fact, through Joseph we go directly to Mary, and through Mary, to Jesus, the origin of all holiness (Benedict XV, motu proprio Bonum sane, July 25, 1920).”  Ite ad Joseph, Go to Joseph!

More recently, Pope St. John Paul II, on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical referred to earlier, took the occasion to speak of Joseph as “the first guardian of the Divine Mystery” along with Mary, and the one who “shares in this final phase of God’s self-revelation in Christ.”  For his part, St. Joseph represents “the sanctification of daily life, a sanctification which each person must acquire according to his or her own state, and one which can be promoted according to a model accessible to all people (John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos, August 15, 1989).”

What a marvelous presence St. Joseph has in the life and history of the Catholic Church!  All of the titles and patronages attributed to him are certainly richly deserved despite the “silence” that surrounds his brief appearance in the earliest days of Christ in the Gospels. It is most fitting then that Our Holy Father Pope Francis has designated the current year in his honor as Universal Patron of the Catholic Church.

In his apostolic letter Patris corde, “With a Father’s Heart,” Pope Francis reminds us of all the ways St. Joseph has quietly yet unmistakably touched the Church with paternal love from the moment of the Incarnation. “Each of us,” Pope Francis writes, “can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all (Francis, apostolic letter, Patris corde, December 8, 2020).”

“A beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a creatively courageous father, a working father, a father in the shadows,” St. Joseph has something to teach and to offer us all, especially but not exclusively to fathers and spouses.  “St. Joseph, as a model of quiet prayer and closeness to Jesus, also invites us to think about the time we devote to prayer each day.”  Pope Francis expresses his hope that his apostolic letter would “increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.”

To that end, again, so many prayers, chaplets and novenas have been written and recited through the ages; so many paintings, statues and stained-glass windows have been created and admired; so many people and things have borne his name. And to think that none of that would have been possible were it not for the woman he loved and the God in whom they both trusted.  She said “yes” to God first and invited him to be part of her “yes,” an invitation he humbly and faithfully accepted.  And the world would never be the same.

As he drew his apostolic letter to a close, Pope Francis has offered us a prayer to say with him in this “Year of St. Joseph”:

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy, and courage,
and defend us from every evil.  Amen.