St. Joseph was a man beset by problems, uncertainties and dangers, who, like us, had to live by faith.
Father Benedict Groeschel, who taught at Maryknoll School of Theology during the 1970s and 1980s, once opined, “I’ll tell you why St. Joseph’s a saint. Imagine sitting at the breakfast table every morning and having to look at the two most perfect people in the world!” In addition to being funny, Groeschel’s observation about St. Joseph reveals a glaring gap in our knowledge of the foster father of Jesus.
Still, there is enough information about Joseph in the Gospels to paint more than a pious picture of the saint to whom Pope Francis has dedicated this entire year. Indeed, what emerges is a very human and relatable image of a man beset by problems, uncertainties and dangers, who, like us, had to live by faith.
Matthew describes Joseph as a “just” or “righteous” man. That is, he was someone who lived according to the law of Moses. Yet, his very dedication caused his first dilemma. Mary, his beloved betrothed, was pregnant—and the child wasn’t his. The law was very clear: the punishment for infidelity and adultery was death. How could he subject her to public condemnation and execution by stoning? He resolved to “divorce her in secret,” thus breaking off their engagement yet sparing her life. Joseph could rightly be considered the patron saint of troubled marriages and broken engagements.
Instructed by an angel in a dream, he took Mary as his wife, making the child she bore from God legally his own. A patron saint for adopted and foster children!
Forced by the imperial census to return to his hometown, Joseph had to take his very pregnant wife to Bethlehem, “because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Again in a dream, Joseph was ordered to flee with his wife and child to escape King Herod’s murderous rampage. Leading the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt surely earns him the title of patron of refugees.
After Herod’s death, Joseph is again called by an angel in a dream to return home. But using his own good judgment, he avoids going back to Bethlehem due to the unpredictable Herod Archelaus, and instead goes to Nazareth. Joseph therefore can rightly be considered the patron saint of those in discernment.
After a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, losing the 12-year-old child for three days surely filled Mary and Joseph with anxiety. Mary expressed as much when they found him in the Temple amid the scholars: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48) Parents of missing children may find comfort in Joseph’s patronage.
The boy Jesus’ apparently brusque response to his mother—“Why did you look for me? Did you not know I must be about my father’s business?”—shows that even the Holy Family dealt with misunderstanding between parents and children.
And that’s the last mention of Joseph in the Gospel. Presumably, he died in the presence of Jesus and Mary, thus earning Joseph the title of patron of a happy death.
Joseph, by his absence no less than by his presence, stands out as the silent yet strong witness to family life to which all of us can look for inspiration and intercession.
At the end of his letter Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), in which he announced the Year of St. Joseph to be celebrated from Dec. 8, 2020 to Dec. 8, 2021, Pope Francis offers this prayer to St. Joseph for all of us:
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.
Featured Image: A statue of St. Joseph carrying the baby Jesus. Pope Francis has dedicated the year to St. Joseph starting on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 2020. (Pixabay)