Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Patron Par Excellence

The following article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 50-54, the last in a series on the cultus of Saint Joseph in honor of the year proclaimed to honor him by Pope Francis. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

In a previous article, we examined the life of Saint Joseph, the development of his cultus, and his principal feast on March 19. Today we turn to one of Joseph’s most important titles, the devotions stemming from it, and the one-and-a-half feasts that have celebrated it.

Natural Title
“Universal patron” is not an ancient title for our Lord’s foster father, but upon reflection it follows naturally from his status as the husband of Mary (Matthew 1, 16). In his 1889 encyclical Quamquam Pluries, Pope Leo XIII makes a simple but effective argument. Joseph was truly married to Mary, making him the head of the Holy Family. The head of a family leads, guards, and protects those in his care, which Joseph did superlatively well. The Holy Family, however, contained within itself the initia exorientis Ecclesiae, which the official English version renders “the scarce-born Church” but which can also be translated as “the beginnings of the rising Church.” Joseph, therefore, is the patron of the Church. It therefore stands to reason that Joseph extends to the entire Church the same love and protection that he showered on his earthly family, saving Christ’s faithful from this world’s Herods, piloting them through this world’s Egypts, and equipping them with worldly aids to use on their way to their heavenly destination. Just as Joseph protected the young body of Jesus from harm, so too can we picture him doing the same for the Mystical Body of Jesus. [1] For being a patron is nothing more than being a good foster father, or as the Latin word for foster father (a nutritor or nourisher) would suggest.
Or consider this: To be baptized is to be an adopted son of God the Father, and if we are the adopted sons of the Father, then Jesus Christ is (among other things) our brother, Mary our mother, and Joseph our foster father. Just as the Holy Family is the original “domestic Church,” [2] so too is the universal Church the extended “holy family” incorporated through divine adoption into that of Nazareth. [3] The recognition of Joseph as patron of the universal Church entails the embrace of the doctrine of divine adoption, which is itself an affirmation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, of our transformation in Christ, and of the Church as Christ’s mystical Body. 
It took time for Joseph’s universal patronage to be universally acknowledged. Saint Thomas Aquinas is allegedly one of the first theologians to broach the subject. “Some Saints are privileged to extend to us their patronage with particular efficacy in certain needs but not in others,” he is said to have written. “But our holy patron St. Joseph has the power to assist us in all cases, in every necessity, in every undertaking.” [4]
Saint Teresa of Avila was especially convinced of Joseph’s universal patronage. “To other Saints Our Lord seems to have given power to succor us in some special necessity,” she writes, “but to this glorious Saint, I know by experience, He has given the power to help us in all. Our Lord would have us understand that as He was subject to St. Joseph on earth—for St. Joseph bearing the title of father and being His guardian, could command Him—so now in Heaven Our Lord grants us all his petitions. I have asked others to recommend themselves to St. Joseph, and they, too, know the same thing by experience.” [5]
Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Teresa of Avila
The Doctor of the Church knows whereof she speaks. Teresa adopted Saint Joseph as her father after he cured her of a crippling illness. In her Autobiography she writes: “I cannot call to mind that I have ever asked him at any time for anything he has not granted.” [6] Saint Teresa died in 1582; in 1621 her Carmelites chose Saint Joseph as their patron, and in 1689 they began annually celebrating a Feast of the Patronage of Saint Joseph on the Third Sunday after Easter, the first of its kind.
Devotions and Customs
In the meantime, the Church grew increasingly aware of how much the Pharaoh’s words about the Old Testament patriarch Joseph applied to the Lord’s foster-father: “Go to Joseph” (Genesis 41, 55). As Father Francis X. Weiser puts it, “Filled with affection, love, and confidence, the faithful turned to him in all their temporal and spiritual needs. Every detail of his life gave rise to a special patronage. He is the patron of tradesmen and workers, of travelers and refugees, of the persecuted, of Christian families and homes, of purity and interior life, of engaged couples, of people in temporal distress (food, home, clothing, sickness), of the poor, aged, and dying.” [7]
Numerous devotions developed: litanies, novenas, Memorares, a Thirty Days Prayer, a Seven Sundays devotion, the Seven Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph, a Nine First Wednesdays devotion, a chaplet of St. Joseph, a ring of St. Joseph (the blessing of which was formerly reserved to the Carmelite order), and a violet, gold, and white scapular associated with the Capuchins. [8]
Special mention should be made of the cincture or cord of St. Joseph. In 1657 Sister Elizabeth, an Augustinian nun in Antwerp, Belgium was dying from a painful illness when she fashioned a cord, had it blessed, and put it around her waist in honor of Saint Joseph. A few days later, she was immediately and miraculously cured while praying before his statue. The devotion was eventually approved by Pope Pius IX. The cord, which is made of thread or cotton and has seven knots on one end for Joseph’s Seven Sorrows and Joys, is worn around the waist. It should be blessed by a priest (there is a formula in the Roman Ritual). The wearer should recite the Glory be seven times a day (on each knot) in honor of Saint Joseph along with a special prayer for purity. Wearers of the cord receive: 1) Joseph’s special protection; 2) purity of soul; 3) the grace of chastity; 4) final perseverance; 5) Joseph’s particular assistance at the hour of death.
Interestingly, of the several objects venerated as relics of Saint Joseph, the most famous is his ostensible girdle or belt, a yard-long stretch of grey hemp with an ivory buckle brought to France in 1254 from the Crusades and still on display in a reliquary in the Church of Notre-Dame de Joinville-sur-Marne. [9]
The patronages of Saint Joseph, both universal and particular, also inspired several distinctive customs. Couples in some parts of Europe once observed “Saint Joseph’s Night,” abstaining from consummation on their wedding night and instead doing some devotion to Saint Joseph. [10] Another custom is attaching a note with a petition on it to an image of Saint Joseph, the note functioning as a sort of votive candle and a reminder to have confidence and faith (a crucial component in prayer). When Saint Teresa of Calcutta visited a cash-strapped hospital kitchen and clinic in Los Angeles in 1977, she advised them to observe this practice. Within two weeks, the group received the needed money, with the largest amount coming from an anonymous donor in Alaska. [11] In 2015, Pope Francis spoke to an audience in the Philippines about the custom of placing a note under a “Sleeping Saint Joseph” statue. The image is a reminder that Joseph protects the Church even when asleep and that inspiration from God often comes to us when both our inner and outer worlds are silent.
But for the Little Sisters of the Poor, notes are not enough: they prefer to place the very object they need in front of Saint Joseph’s statue: “a potato, a lump of coal, even a can of beer.” [12]
And, of course, there is the custom of burying a statue of Saint Joseph when selling a home. It is said that in the sixteenth century a convent of nuns acquired some much-needed property by praying and burying medals of St. Joseph. The idea caught on, although it moved from buying property to selling it and from medals to statues. Nowadays it is customary for home-sellers to bury a statue of the saint upside down in the backyard: because Joseph does not like being in this position, it incentivizes him to work harder. The owners then pray to Saint Joseph and dig him up once the deal is closed. Finally, the statue is given a place of prominence in the sellers’ new home, rewarding the saint for a job well done. There are even Saint Joseph Home Selling Kits available for purchase that include a booklet entitled “The Underground Real Estate Agent.”
Finally, the month of March and the Wednesday of each week were dedicated to Saint Joseph. March is the month of his principal feast, and Wednesday was chosen for Joseph most likely because it was, along with Friday and Saturday, an ancient station day. [13]  Since Friday was reserved for the Passion of the Christ and Saturday for the Blessed Virgin, it seemed natural to give the remaining station day to Joseph. [14] In 1921, Benedict XV granted indulgences to those who performed devout exercises in honor of Joseph on the first Wednesday of the month.
Papal Declaration
In 1815 the Holy See began receiving petitions from prelates to declare Joseph Patron of the Catholic Church. On December 8, 1870 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), Pius IX obliged their 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.” [15] The Holy Father was most likely thinking of the loss of the Papal States, which had happened earlier that year and had deprived him of his temporal authority. But his successors from Leo XIII on also saw Joseph’s patronage as singularly suited to the troublesome times of modernity in general.
Pope Blessed Pius IX
Feast of the Patronage
Twenty-three years before he formally declared Joseph Patron of the Catholic Church, however, Pius IX had promoted Joseph’s patronage through a different means. In 1847, in one of the first acts of his papacy, the Pope placed the Carmelites’ Feast of the Patronage on the General Roman Calendar. The Holy Father was essentially acting in accordance with the principle lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer shapes the law of belief. The Middle Ages and early modern period witnessed increasing recourse to Joseph as a powerful patron saint; this recourse was developed further in the liturgical lives of first the Carmelites’ and then the entire Latin Church; and finally, it was solemnly ratified and affirmed by papal decree
Like the Carmelites’, Pius IX’s feast was on the Third Sunday after Easter, but in 1912 Pope Saint Pius X moved it several days earlier to the third Wednesday after Easter as part of his general effort to restore the Sundays of the liturgical year to their earlier integrity. Pius X also renamed the feast the “Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Confessor, and Patron of the Universal Church,” and gave it an Octave. [16] The name closely mirrored that of Joseph’s principal feast on March 19: “Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Confessor.”
Josephite piety developed in part because the Latin Church had begun to reflect more deeply on the uncanny parallels between the Old Testament’s Joseph the son of Jacob and the New Testament’s Joseph the husband of Mary. The first Joseph was just, chaste, patient, wise, influential with the king, protective of his family, and kind to his brethren; he was also a sagacious interpreter of dreams and the keeper of the nation’s wheat. The second Joseph possessed the same qualities and was the keeper not of wheat but of the Bread of Life. The propers of the Mass and Office for the feast of Joseph’s patronage beautifully draw from this tradition. For example, the Epistle reading is Genesis 49, 22-26, a passage on the son of Jacob that ends with the stirring words “May [blessings] be upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the Nazarite among his brethren.”
1955 and Beyond
In 1955, Pius XII abrogated the Solemnity of Joseph Patron of the Universal Church and replaced it with the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1. We examined the Feast of the Worker in another article. As we noted then, May 1 for communists is International Workers’ Day, and the feast of Joseph the Worker was, among other things, created to supplant the communist celebration and reassert the Church’s embrace of the working class. But May 1 and the Third Wednesday or Third Sunday after Easter are always in proximity to each other, and sometimes they fall on the same day. The moveable feast of the patronage could not remain where it was once the commitment was made to an anti-May-Day Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker.
Pius XII may have abrogated the older feast in response to this conundrum, but he did not allow Joseph’s important title to disappear from the calendar. Instead he transferred the name for the feast of the patronage to March 19. Hence in the 1962 Missal, Joseph’s principal feast on March 19 is called the “Feast of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Confessor, and Patron of the Universal Church.” And hence our quip in the introduction about “half” a feast celebrating Joseph’s patronage.
In 1969, however, the title of patron was removed from the feast on March 19—and thereby from the Roman Missal. The title that had figured so prominently in the development of Josephite devotion and in the Church’s battle against the errors of modernity was quietly dropped without any official explanation. In 1989, Pope John Paul II wrote that Joseph’s patronage “must be invoked as ever necessary for the Church, not only as a defense against all dangers, but also and indeed primarily as an impetus for her renewed commitment to evangelization in the world and to re-evangelization in [formerly Christian] lands;” [17] yet this patronage is nowhere mentioned in the new rite of the Mass. 
A Case for Restoration
The Solemnity of Joseph Patron of the Universal Church could not remain where it was after the institution of the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1, but it did not have to be abrogated. It could have been transferred—and can still be transferred, even if the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker is one day abrogated or transferred—to another part of the year. The liturgical recapitulation of certain mysteries or saints’ lives is a valuable and time-honored practice. [18] The 1962 General Calendar, for example, has eighteen feasts of our Lady, two of Saint John the Baptist, two of Saint Paul, and two of Saint Peter (and before 1960, Peter could boast of four feasts). The 1962 Missal has two mandatory feasts of Saint Joseph while the 1969 Missal has only one, since the Feast of the Worker was demoted to an optional memorial.
It is fitting that the Mother of God should have the most feasts out of any saint, for as Pope Leo XIII notes, “the dignity of the Mother of God is so lofty that naught created can rank above it.” But it would also be fitting that Joseph be accorded more feasts since “he approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity” of his wife. “Marriage is the most intimate of all unions which from its essence imparts a community of gifts between those that by it are joined together,” the Pope explains. “Thus in giving Joseph the Blessed Virgin as spouse, God appointed him… a participator in her sublime dignity.” [19] If Joseph surpasses Peter, Paul, and perhaps even John the Baptist in holiness and dignity, it would be fitting for Joseph to have more feasts than they. And if the Church’s appreciation of our Lord’s foster father has developed and increased over time (and indeed it has), it would be fitting to have that development reflected in the calendar.
One intriguing possibility is to restore the feast of the patronage by assigning it to a date that falls during the Time after Pentecost. I wonder if this season is not more appropriate for such a feast than Paschaltide, and for two reasons.
First, the Time after Pentecost abounds in “ecclesiastical” feasts, feasts that highlight in a distinctive way the Church’s pilgrimage through history after the first Pentecost. All of the liturgically commemorated dedications of a church, for instance, occur during the Time after Pentecost, and so do feasts like Corpus Christi (the spiritual food of the post-pentecostal Church) and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (the apostolic foundation of the post-pentecostal Church). To celebrate Joseph as universal patron during the Time after Pentecost would give the saint his due as well as emphasize his ongoing role as protector of the Church, a role that the Popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were fairly consistent in preaching.
Gerard Seghers, Dream of St. Joseph
Second, if the Church celebrated Joseph’s patronage soon after the Feasts of John the Baptist (June 24) and the Visitation (July 2), it would align well with the chronology of the Holy Family's dramatic beginnings, with the espousals of Joseph and Mary taking place on January 23, the Annunciation on March 24, the Birth of John the Baptist on June 24, his circumcision on July 1, and the conclusion of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth on July 2. Although not stated in the Scriptures, it is likely that Joseph journeyed to Zachary and Elizabeth’s home to accompany Mary back to Nazareth when her visit with them was over. It was then that he would have noticed that Mary, whom he had not seen in three months, was with child; and it was then that he would have experienced his crisis of faith (Matthew 1, 19). That crisis was resolved when Joseph obeyed the angel in the dream and took Mary to wife (1, 20); his “yes” to the angel was his own fiat to God similar to that of Mary’s during the Annunciation. And it was Joseph’s fiat that made him the Patron of the Holy Family and the universal Church. Based on the reasonable assumption that Mary would have stayed in Judea long enough to help her cousin Elizabeth give birth to John the Baptist on June 24 and to help with the celebration of John’s circumcision and naming on July 1, Joseph’s crisis and fiat would have taken place in early or mid July. 
Of course, if there is to be liturgical change, it should happen according to a gradual pattern of organic development. One way that organic growth has occurred historically is by praying and waiting for a suitable occasion. The Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians (May 24) was added to some calendars in thanksgiving for Pope Pius VII’s prevailing over Napoleon Bonaparte, while the Feast of the Transfiguration was assigned to August 6 in commemoration of the Battle of Belgrade in 1456. Perhaps divine providence has in store for us a similar scenario: a group or prominent individual (such as a pope) prays to Saint Joseph for a special intention and, in thanksgiving for the saint’s intercession, the Feast of the Patronage is restored on an appropriate date. Not all scholars will agree that this method qualifies as “organic development,” but at least it is the result of an authentic encounter with one of God’s saints. And it surely beats decisions made by a committee of experts.
A recent author is convinced that “The Holy Spirit is asking the Church today to give special consideration to the mystery of Saint Joseph: to help the Church discover a light in this mystery that will allow her to move forward with a new surge of life and love.” [20] Philippe also suggests that we are currently “confronted with a great crisis,” “with ‘apocalyptic tremblings’…even within the Church.” [21] If he is right, then we should more than ever be turning to Joseph as our patron not only in our daily prayers but in our annual sacred festivals as well.

[1] See Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries 3.
[2] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 49.
[3] See Quamquam Pluries 3.
[4] This statement is commonly attributed to St. Thomas, but I have not been able to find it in his writings. If anyone has a citation, please let me know.
[5] Autobiography 6.9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, 1958), 324.
[8] Michael Walsh, Dictionary of Catholic Devotions (Harper Collins, 1993), 144-45.
[9] Other purported relics include Joseph’s staff and the wedding ring he gave to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[10] See Weiser, 324.
[11] Favorite Prayers to St. Joseph (TAN Books: 1997), 70.
[12] Ibid.
[13] For more on station days, see my “Making the Stations,” TLM 18:1 (Winter 2009), 38-41.
[14] See Weiser, 28.
[15] ASS 6 (1871), 193-94.
[16] Along with all other octaves except those of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, this octave was abolished in 1955.
[17] Redemptoris Custos 29, emphasis added.
[18] See my “Divine Do-Overs: The Secret of Recapitulation in the Traditional Calendar,” TLM 19:2 (Spring 2010), 46-49.
[19] Quamquam Pluries 3.
[20] Mystery of Joseph (Zaccheus Press, 2010), 5-6.
[21] Ibid., 4.

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