Thursday, March 18, 2021

Honoring the Quiet Man

Sassoferrato, The Holy Family, 1640-1650
Note: In honor of the Year of Saint Joseph (December 8, 2020-December 8, 2021) proclaimed by Pope Francis, I will be posting in the next three months three articles on Our Lord’s Foster Father. The following article, the first in the series, appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 38-42. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

The Quiet Man is a 1953 John Ford classic about a laconic American (John Wayne) come home to Ireland, but the title also applies nicely to the foster father of Our Lord. Sacred Scripture does not record a single word of Saint Joseph. Perhaps the depiction accurately reflects his taciturnity, for as the Blessed Virgin Mary is reputed to have told Saint Bridget of Sweden:

Joseph was so reserved and careful in his speech that not one word every issued from his mouth that was not good and holy, nor did he ever indulge in unnecessary or less than charitable conversation….He rarely spoke with men, but continually with God. [1]
Inner Portrait
Nevertheless, the main point of Joseph’s silence in the Bible is not to indicate how loquacious he was or was not; rather, as Pope Saint John Paul II observes, “the silence of Joseph has its own special eloquence”—it is “a silence that reveals in a special way the inner portrait of the man.” [2]   Consider the following: 
  1. Matthew’s Gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph’s line rather than Mary’s, even though Joseph is not Jesus’ natural father (Matt. 1, 1-16). Some speculate that at the time a Jew would only have married someone from his own clan, so if Joseph was from the House of David so was Mary. Others assert that legal sonship was considered as real as biological and therefore crucial to fulfilling the Messianic prophecies. Either way, both the Queen of Heaven and the Word Incarnate needed Joseph to make them a legitimate Davidic family.
  2. Joseph is a humble carpenter from rural Nazareth, what today’s social elite would call “flyover country.” Yet the Holy Spirit calls him a “just man” (Matt. 1, 19), a rare compliment in the Scriptures.
  3. When Joseph discovers that his betrothed is with child, he resolves to separate from her privately (Matt. 1, 19). Strict justice according to the Mosaic Law, however, would have required Joseph to expose her to the authorities for punishment—capital punishment, no less (Leviticus 20, 10). That Joseph, “being just,” did not do so suggests that he believed in Mary’s innocence and that something supernatural was transpiring.
  4. Joseph was a man of great faith. He believed the dream that told him that Mary was the Messiah’s mother (Matt. 1, 20), the dream that told him to flee to Egypt with his family (Matt. 2, 13), and the dream that told him to return (Matt. 2, 19). Tradition holds that Mary consecrated herself totally to God while she was studying in the Holy Temple with a vow of virginity. It stands to reason that she told Joseph of this vow when he proposed to her and that he still accepted her.
  5. Joseph was a man of action. He responded to all dreams immediately, rising in the middle of the night to carry out his orders without delay. And he was both competent and courageous: competent in his trade to provide for his family under dire circumstances, and courageous to do it in a foreign land not historically friendly to Hebrews. God entrusted to Joseph the holiest of families, who relied on him. The Son of the Most High was now a helpless Infant, and the Blessed Virgin, who had spent most of her life in Temple boarding school, probably did not take a course on how to survive on the lam. Joseph exercised true leadership to which Mary deferred (Matt. 2, 14; 21).
  6. As his “silence” suggests, Joseph was a man of contemplation. How could he not be? He was in daily contact with the Ark of the Covenant (his wife) and Bread of Life (his foster Son). As Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it, he was the keeper of the “Sacrarium of the Holy Spirit,” the sanctified womb of the Mother of God, [3]  and as John Paul II puts it, he was “the guardian of the mystery ‘hidden for ages in God.’” [4]  Many saints have understandably looked to Joseph as a master of the interior life.
And once Joseph’s unique role in the mystery of the New Covenant is appreciated, one can see how he is prefigured in the mysteries of the Old. For example, the Epistle reading traditionally used for Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) is Ecclesiasticus 45, 1-6, a passage that describes Moses but reads as an uncanny profile of Joseph. Most of all, Joseph bears a remarkable resemblance to his namesake from Genesis, the son of Jacob. As Herbert Cardinal Vaughan explains, “What was truly said of the first Joseph, as to his future, as to his goodness, his chastity, his patience, his wisdom, his influence with the king, his power over the people, [his association with dreams], and his love for the brethren, is verified much more perfectly, even to this day, in the second Joseph.” [5]  With good reason do we apply the words of Genesis 41, 55 to the head of the Holy Family: “Go to Joseph and do all that he shall say to you.”
Johann Conrad Seekatz, The Flight into Egypt
Slow Start
The Church Fathers followed these biblical clues and praised Joseph for his perpetual virginity, fidelity, and justice. Nevertheless, devotion to the Saint was long in the making. There were several reasons for the delay. First, the early Church focused on martyrs and only later came to venerate confessors. Second, one cannot have a theology of Joseph until one has a theology of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one cannot have a theology of Mary until one has a theology of the person of Jesus Christ. It took the Church centuries to work out her Christology and centuries more to work out her Mariology; Josephology needed to await these developments. And third, Joseph was saddled with bad press. Apocryphal literature such as the Protoevangeluim of James portrayed him as widowed, old, and doubting. Joseph was honored as a saint, but as one can see from some medieval mystery plays, he was thought of more as a decent and even tipsy Everyman. There was no church in all of Christendom dedicated to Saint Joseph until around 1130.
Things began to change in the thirteenth century thanks to Saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Gertrude the Great. But Joseph’s main medieval champion was theologian Jean Gerson (1363-1429). [6] Gerson followed a simple logic later summarized by Blessed Bernadine de Bustis (d. 1513):
Since Joseph was to be the guardian, companion, and ruler of the Most Blessed Virgin and of the Child Jesus, is it possible to conceive that God could have made a mistake in the choice of him? Or that He could have permitted him to be deficient in any respect? Or could He have failed to make him most perfect? The very idea would be the grossest of errors. When God selects any one to perform some great work He bestows upon him every virtue needful for its accomplishment. [7]
Gerson and others reasoned that Joseph was thirty-six years old when he married Mary (the prime of life according to Aristotle), a virgin, and free from even venial sin because like John the Baptist he was sanctified in the womb. At his death he was assumed into Heaven, for in the words of Saint Francis de Sales:
When our Savior was a little child, the great Saint Joseph… carried him many times... Ah! who then doubt that when this holy father came to the end of his days, he… was carried by his divine foster Child on his journey from this life to the next, into Abraham’s bosom, from there to be translated into His own bosom, into glory, on the day of His Ascension? [8]
 Although the Magisterium teaches that Joseph is second only to Mary in human holiness, it has never weighed in on his assumption. It is noteworthy, however, that there are no first-class relics of Joseph. 
Devotion to Joseph grew thanks to Saints Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, and others. Teresa named her first monastery after him and, after his intercession cured her of a crippling illness, adopted him as her father. In her Autobiography Teresa writes: “I cannot call to mind that I have ever asked him at any time for anything he has not granted. I am filled with amazement when I consider the great favors God has given me through this blessed Saint.” [9]
The nineteenth century was especially kind to Joseph’s cultus. In 1815 the Holy See began receiving petitions to insert his name into the Roman Canon; bishops and superiors general also asked the Pope to declare Joseph Patron of the Catholic Church. On December 8, 1870 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), Pope Pius IX obliged the latter request. In declaring Joseph our universal patron, the Pope was hoping during “this most sorrowful time” for the protection of the Church, currently “beset by enemies on every side and…weighed down by [heavy] calamities.” [10]  Pope Leo XIII expanded on this theme, seeing in Saint Joseph the perfect antidote to several errors of modernity, such as socialism, the exploitation of the working class, and the depredation of the family. [11]
Saint Joseph’s Day
Liturgical veneration of Joseph was also slow in the making. In the East, the Coptic Church has celebrated since the ninth century a “Feast of Saint Joseph the Carpenter” on July 20; they do so on the basis of a second-century apocryphal text called The Story of Joseph the Carpenter that claims the Saint died that day around the year A.D. 18 at the age of 111. On the Orthodox Byzantine calendar is a “Commemoration of the Holy Righteous David the King, Joseph the Betrothed, and James the Brother of the Lord” on the Sunday after Christmas; Byzantine Catholics also add Saint Joseph to the “Synaxis of the Theotokos” on December 26.
Joseph’s name began appearing in [Western] martyrologies in the eighth century, first on March 20 and then overwhelmingly on March 19, but it is unclear why. Some speculate that the Blessed Virgin’s Spouse was confused with Joseph of Antioch (whose feasts falls on March 20), others that Joseph’s feast was meant to replace a Roman holiday to Minerva honoring workers on March 19, even though there is no evidence to support this claim. Whatever the reason, the Latin Church has been fairly consistent in commemorating the anniversary of Joseph’s death on March 19/20, even though it falls during Lent. [12]
It was not until the Benedictine Abbey of Winchester began observing a feast of Joseph in the early eleventh century that the West had a proper liturgical celebration of the Saint. The observance spread slowly, first to other Benedictines, then to the Franciscans in the thirteenth century, and then to the Servites in the fourteenth (although the Servites held it on March 15). The Dominicans and Carmelites also celebrated an “Office of Most Holy Joseph, foster and adoptive father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Saint Joseph’s feast was added to the Roman Calendar in 1479, and in 1621 Gregory XV made it a holyday of obligation, a decision that is still binding except in countries that have a dispensation from the Holy See.
Despite its Lenten location, Saint Joseph’s Day—which is also Father’s Day in Spain, Portugal, and Italy—is a time of great festivity. In Italy and some parts of the U.S., the faithful give thanks to Saint Joseph for delivering Sicily from a famine long ago. Elaborate three-tiered “Saint Joseph tables” (tavola di San Giuseppe) are set up at church and loaded with various dishes, many of which have bread crumbs to symbolize the sawdust of a carpenter. Also included are fava beans, which sustained the Sicilians during the famine. The celebration typically begins with a cry of Viva la tavola di San Giuseppe! and ends with everyone (including the poor) taking home food and a “lucky” blessed bean. New Orleans has added to these festivities an annual parade through the French Quarter. On the more domestic side is a custom from the seventeenth century in which a statue of Joseph is placed on the table during dinner and “served” generous portions, all of which then go to the poor.[13]
Other customs include music, dancing, fireworks, and bonfires. Polish and Italian Americans wear red on this day as an assertion of ethnic pride, red appearing in both countries’ flags.
A St. Joseph’s table in the church of Saint Joseph, Valguarnera Caropepe, Sicily, Italy
The Canon
Josephite piety did more than affect the calendar. On November 13, 1962, John XXIII inserted the name of Saint Joseph into the Communicantes of the Roman Canon immediately after that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The decision was momentous. It was the first time that Joseph’s name appeared in the Ordinary of the Mass (as opposed to the Leonine Prayers) and the first time in centuries that the Canon had been modified. It was also the first time that a non-martyr’s name had been included in the Canon, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is Queen of the Martyrs, not counting. And according to Annibale Bugnini, Paul VI looked back to the decision as evidence that the Roman Curia would capitulate to liturgical novelty as long as it was papally endorsed. [14]
On the other hand, the desire to include Joseph’s name was hardly novel, and when the name was finally added, liberals such as Father Yves Congar decried the decision as “regrettable or retrograde.” As traditional scholar Father Neil Roy argues, “The inclusion of St Joseph immediately after the Blessed Virgin constitutes an embolism of Marian devotion.” [15] The inclusion is an “embolism” or extension of Marian devotion because Joseph participated intimately in her mission as co-guardian of the mystery of the Incarnation. And since the Incarnation and Redemption “constitute an organic and indissoluble unity,” notes John Paul II, it is fitting that John XXIII added Joseph’s name to the Canon, “which is the perpetual memorial of redemption.” [16]  Moreover, if Mary is a martyr because a sword of sorrow pierced her soul (Lk. 2:35), Joseph, who was a unique “participator in her sublime dignity,” [17]  also shared in her martyrdom through their shared Sorrows.
Roy also notes that the inclusion “reflects an increase in devotion to the Spouse of the Mother of God particularly since the nineteenth century.” [18]  In the official decree mandating the change, John XXIII states that he is “following the footsteps of his predecessors” in increasing the homage to Saint Joseph for these latter times. As if to stress that he was acting out of continuity rather than rupture, the Pope ordered the change to take effect on December 8, the 92nd anniversary of Pius IX’s declaration of Joseph as Patron of the Church. [19]  Roy concludes that “the papal adoption of the cultus of St Joseph” that began with Pius IX “reached its zenith when John XXIII inserted the name of St Joseph into the Roman Canon.” [20]
Pope Blessed Pius IX
Novus Ordo
Paul VI’s new liturgy retained Joseph’s feast day but made several changes. As we will examine in an upcoming article, the title of Patron of the Universal Church was quietly dropped and is nowhere to be found in the new rite of the Mass. Also absent are biblical lessons such as Ecclesiasticus 45:1-6 that connect Joseph to the mysteries of Old Testament prefiguration.
As for Joseph’s name in the Canon, while it was retained in “Eucharistic Prayer I,” none of the new Eucharistic Prayers included it. In response to numerous petitions to correct this omission, Benedict XVI “deemed them worthy of implementation and graciously approved them,” and on May 1, 2013 (the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker), Pope Francis officially added Joseph’s name to Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV. [21]
School of Love
Giving Joseph his due recognition among the Communion of Saints took a good deal of time and effort, but it was worth it. For what was hidden behind the scant biblical details about his life is an inspiring school of love.
Joseph loved Jesus. Jesus was “the dear Child of his heart.”[22] According to Pius XII, Joseph showed “all the natural love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father's heart can know.”[23]
Joseph loved Mary. In the words of Father Walter Farrell, “Mary brought trouble to Joseph, plenty of it, and he loved every instant of it. He rejoiced that he had been chosen to protect her, to give her unselfish devotion. In other words, Joseph was in love.”[24] And this love was in no way lessened by their chastity. On the contrary, Mary and Joseph took the natural purpose of marriage, to procreate and educate offspring, to another level with the spiritual fecundity of virginity as they parented the Son of God. Rather than being a marriage manqué, theirs was the first true Christian marriage and “the most perfect and holy realization of the sacrament of matrimony.”[25] For a beautiful tribute to Joseph’s love of his wife, read Sr. Mary Ada’s poem “Limbo". 
Jesus and Mary loved Joseph. Saint Joseph holds the incredible honor of being the only creature whom Jesus Christ loved as a father and whom the Mother of God loved as a husband. “O great Saint Joseph!” Francis de Sales exclaims: 
How many times have you borne in your arms the love of heaven and earth! All the while, inflamed by the sweet embrace and kiss of that divine Child, your soul was dissolved in joy. All the while—O God, how sweet it was!—He spoke tenderly into your ears and told you that you were His great friend and His beloved father.[26]
As for Mary, she freely “responded to Joseph’s choice of her,” first trusting him with the secret of her consecration and then loving him even more when he accepted her as his wife. “They chose each other freely,” writes another author, 
loving each other and discovering, in this encounter, the providential action of God in each of their lives. No other two persons have ever known an encounter so profound, of such simplicity and such intensity of love—a love which was, above all, divine, yet which did not destroy the human love which united them.[27]
Imagine dying in the arms of Jesus and Mary as they look upon you tenderly. No wonder Saint Joseph is the patron of a happy death.
Jesus’ close friends, the Saints, love Joseph. We have already mentioned several holy men and women devoted to Saint Joseph, and although we could mention many more, we limit ourselves to one. After the apparitions at Lourdes, Saint Bernadette Soubirous joined a convent and became its infirmarian. Once she promised to pray for a patient, saying: “You’re in pain? Wait a moment: I’ll go and see my father.” “Your father?” the surprised nun asked. “Oh, yes!” Bernadette replied. “Surely you know that Saint Joseph is my father now?”[28]
We should love Joseph too. “It is impossible to think of Joseph without loving him,” writes Farrell. “He was indeed a father and we have seen his likeness on earth.”[29]  And that father is extending his loving protection to us now as he did to his earthly family, saving us from the Herods and piloting us through the Egypts of this world and giving us worldly aids to use en route to our heavenly destination. Now more than ever, when the Church, the family, and fatherhood are under unprecedented assault, should we heed the words: Go to Joseph. Go to the Quiet Man.
[1] From Favorite Prayers to St. Joseph (TAN Books: 1997), 50. 
[2] Redemptoris Custos, 17. 
[3] Summa Theologiae III.28.3.
[4] Redemptoris Custos, 25, 5.
[5] Favorite Prayers, epigram. I have added “association with dreams.”
[6] See Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, The Holy Family Devotion: A Brief History (Centre de recherche et de documentation Oratoire Saint-Joseph, 1997), 5ff. 
[7] Quoted in Edward Healy Thompson, Life and Glories of Saint Joseph (Burns & Oates, 1891), chapter 2, no. 5.
[8] Treatise on the Love of God 6.13. 
[9] Autobiography 6.9.
[10]ASS 6 (1871), 193-94. 
[11] See his Prayer to St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church and encyclical Quamquam Pluries
[13] See Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, 1958), 323-325. 
[14] Bugnini alleges the Pope said the following: “‘You saw, didn’t you, what happened when St. Joseph’s name was introduced into the Canon? First, everyone was against it. Then one fine morning Pope John decided to insert it and made this known; then everyone applauded, even those who had said they were opposed to it.’ ‘And if the response is still negative?’ ‘Don't worry,’ the Pope said in conclusion, ‘I have the final say’ ” (Reform of the Liturgy [Liturgical Press, 1990], 369, n. 30). 
[15] “The Roman Canon: deësis in euchological form,” in Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, eds. Neil J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford (Four Courts Press, 2010), 190. 
[16] Redemptoris Custos, 6. 
[17] Quamquam Pluries, 3. 
[18] Roy, 190. 
[19] AAS 54 (1962), 873. 
[20] Roy, 190, n. 24. 
[21] Paternas vices (Prot. N. 215/11/L). 
[22] Treatise 7.13. 
[23] AAS 50 (1958), 174. 
[24] A Companion to the Summa, vol. 4 (Sheed and Ward, 1956), 146. See Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., The Mystery of Joseph (Zaccheus Press, 2009), 7, 13. 
[25] Chorpenning, 31. 
[26] Treatise, Dedicatory Prayer. 
[27] See Philippe, 7. 
[28] Francis Trochu, Saint Bernadetter Soubirous: 1844-1879, trans. John Joyce (TAN Books, 2012), 345. 
[29] Farrell, 146.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: