By Cardinal Justin Rigali
It has been said that we live in an age of utilitarianism. We sometimes think only of our own benefit when making use of things and wind up with a very narrow and selfish view of life. This can occur in our use of the goods of the environment and, very sadly, even in our relationship with people. “What can he, she or it do for me?” can be an unfortunate theme of a utilitarian age. As we begin the month of March, the Church puts before us from her treasures “ever ancient and ever new,” the example of one who was not strictly necessary-a man who seemingly had no absolutely necessary role in the work of the Redeemer. We are speaking of Saint Joseph, whose Solemnity on March 19 is one of the few great feasts permitted to be celebrated liturgically during the Lenten Season.
God does not insult the nature He has created
We say that God never insults the nature which He has created. For instance, He calls to us and invites us to love Him but always within the context of the freedom which He has made a part of our nature. In becoming man, the eternal Word obeyed as closely as possible the order of nature which He had created. From the moment of His conception in the womb of our Blessed Mother, Jesus was like us “in all things but sin.” Since He is the Son of the Eternal Father, we know that he took flesh in the womb of His Mother by the “power of the Holy Spirit.” He did not have an earthly father, upon whom He would depend for the seed of life because He is the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. Yet, in God’s eternal plan, Jesus allowed Himself to be known as “the son of the carpenter.”
Just as God created man and woman to be companions in this life and to continue the human race within that union, making the family the basic unit of society, so He wished to be born within the bosom of the family when He became flesh. Biologically, Saint Joseph was not necessary but he was given a central role in God’s eternal plan, allowing the order of nature to be followed as closely as possible in these miraculous circumstances.
The role of Saint Joseph, as made clear in the Gospels, also fulfills the promises made concerning the coming of the Messiah. “God called Joseph to ‘take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,’ so that Jesus, ‘who is called Christ,’ should be born of Joseph’s spouse into the messianic lineage of David” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 437).
Saint Joseph is treated as the head of the Holy Family and the guardian of Jesus and Mary in all the instructions he is given by the angel in the Gospels. He is the next person, after Mary, to learn of the beginnings of our salvation. He is instructed concerning the name of the child to be born and is given careful directives for the safety and care of both mother and child before and after the birth of Jesus.
Pope Pius XII beautifully expressed the fact that Joseph was able to show Jesus “by a special gift from Heaven, all the natural love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know” (Radio Message to Catholic School students in the United States, 19 February 1958). In addition to this, we know that even from the moment of His conception in Mary’s womb, Jesus always beheld the face of His Father in Heaven. In His human nature, that love of the Father was interpreted for Him on earth by Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph was the constant earthly witness of the love of His Father in heaven. Since the Church teaches that God always gives the graces sufficient to fulfill the mission He has given us, imagine the great graces bestowed upon Saint Joseph in light of his mission!
We know that Mary and Joseph were the first guardians of the mystery of the Incarnation. To them its unfolding was made known and they were its earthly instruments. Joseph’s earthly life ended before the completion of that mystery in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. However, the Dogmatic Constitution on spanine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council teaches that the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption are bound together in a union within which they unfold “through deeds and words which are intrinsically connected” (Dei Verbum, 2).
In this context, in his Apostolic Letter on Saint Joseph, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Precisely because of this unity, Pope John XXIII, who had a great devotion to St. Joseph, directed that Joseph’s name be inserted in the Roman Canon of the Mass, which is the perpetual memorial of redemption, after the name of Mary and before the apostles, popes and martyrs” (Redemptoris Custos, 6).
The silence of Saint Joseph
The Gospels do not record any words actually spoken by Saint Joseph. While they make his sentiments and actions clear, they do not record his words. As with all of Scripture, this fact is also providential. It is true that we have been called to use the great gift of speech in God’s service. Jesus did this by His own preaching and He commanded that His message be preached to the ends of the earth. However, speech can also be abused and misused. We only need to look at some of the film footage of the dictators of the twentieth century to see and hear how they used the gift of speech to deceive and manipulate their hearers. Cultured and intelligent peoples were beguiled and deceived by cleverly spoken words. The heroic and obedient actions of Saint Joseph, accompanied by his evangelical silence, underline the importance of honest and sincere action in the face of the temptation to use beguiling words. The words of Mary, “be it done unto me according to your word,” were necessary for the mystery of the Incarnation. The silent fidelity and heroic action of Joseph were necessary for its protection.
Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church
“Inspired by the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church from the earliest centuries stressed that just as Saint Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, that is, the Church” (Redemptoris Custos, 1). Building upon this constant understanding, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), by an official act, proclaimed Saint Joseph as “Patron of the Universal Church,” during an especially difficult time in the Church’s history. Just as Jesus did not hesitate to place Himself and His Mother under the earthly protection of Saint Joseph, the Church does not hesitate to place herself, as Christ’s Mystical Body, under Joseph’s heavenly protection. In addition, as Pope Paul VI said: “The Church also calls upon Joseph as her protector because of a profound and ever present desire to reinvigorate her ancient life with true evangelical virtues, such as shine forth in St. Joseph” (Discourse, 19 March 1969). As we recall some of the words and actions of recent Popes in connection with Saint Joseph, we also remember that Saint Joseph is the baptismal patron of our present Holy Father. We pray in a special way for him and for the Church entrusted to his care in our own age and ask Saint Joseph to watch over and protect him.
Joseph most faithful
“Most faithful” is one of the ways in which Saint Joseph is addressed in the Litany the Church has approved to be recited in his honor. Again, we are faced with a particularly contemporary need. Fidelity to one’s vocation in life, fidelity to fatherhood, fidelity in being a husband and the silent and often heroic living out of that fidelity are all found in the life of Saint Joseph. We know how necessary that fidelity is for us and for all of society, especially today when all of this is challenged in so many ways.
Just as we find the faithful figure of Saint Joseph at the beginning of the New Testament, so at its end we find a particularly appropriate description of the role he and we are called to live out in our fidelity to the Christian life. In the Book of Revelation, we read: “Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). Tradition has made Saint Joseph the Patron of a Happy Death because it is believed that Jesus and Mary were present as he died. Joseph’s fidelity is also a model which all can follow in this life. Let us pray to him for both intentions: that we might live lives of fidelity according to his example in this life and die peacefully, with the promise of an eternal crown, under his protection.
5 March 2009