Category Archives: Catholic Weekly

Articles written by Father Flader

Pope Francis four years on

Pope Francis is the current pope

Pope Francis is now on his fifth year of his papacy. He replaced Benedict XVI four years ago.

Pope Francis recently celebrated the fourth anniversary of his election. What are we to make of his pontificate, which has been marked by both notable achievements and considerable controversy? I offer here a few thoughts which can help to focus our thoughts on this “pope of surprises”. It was sent recently to Catholic newspapers in answer to a question.

In the four years that Pope Francis been in office, I have heard all sorts of things about him: that he is a great pope, a liberal, a heretic or even that his election was not valid. What should I think about him and how should I react to all this?

 I too have heard all these remarks and I can understand how many people are confused over this pope, who has been described as a “pope of surprises”. How should we react?

First, we cannot question the validity of his election. Everything was handled according to the norms for papal elections, no one questioned the validity of the election at the time and we should not do so now. The Holy Spirit inspired the cardinals to give us the pope God wants for us.

Second, Pope Francis has done the world of good for the Church. From the beginning he endeared himself to the Church and the world by his smile, his outgoing manner, his simple lifestyle, his choosing to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican rather than in the papal apartments so that he could be closer to the people, his obvious love for the poor and marginalised, his appeal to mercy rather than the strict enforcement of rules, and so much more.

He is truly popular, not only with Catholics but also with many non-Catholics. When he became the first pope to open an Instagram account in March 2016 he broke all records, gaining over one million followers in under twelve hours. He was Time magazines man of the year in 2013 and many other publications have featured him on their front cover.

Pope Francis has given us some memorable teaching. His first encyclical, Lumen Fidei on the important virtue of faith, came out in June 2013 only a few months after his election. His Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium came in November 2013 and gave great impetus and practical indications for spreading the Gospel more effectively in today’s world, particularly through the joy of our life. Evangelisation, which is central to the mission of the Church – “the Church exists to evangelise”, wrote Pope Paul VI – is vital for the Church at the present time and Pope Francis has made it a central theme of his pontificate.

His second encyclical Laudato si’ on care for the environment, our common home, came in June 2015. It was widely acclaimed and pointed to our need to be responsible stewards of the planet God gave us. This issue too is important at the present time, but many critics seized on certain opinionable statements on which we are free to disagree with the pope in any case, and overlooked the core perennial teaching.

One of the biggest targets for the pope’s critics was his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetita on the family, which came in April 2016. The critics focussed on one particular footnote and a few other statements in Chapter 8, which seemed to open the door to giving Communion to the divorced and remarried civilly, and which have indeed given rise to great divisions among cardinals and bishops. But leaving those statements aside, Amoris Laetitia is a marvellous document on marriage, full of practical hints on how to help couples and families stay together and grow in love in these challenging times. Everyone should read it.

And what to say about the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which helped us experience God’s mercy particularly through the sacrament of Penance and to show more mercy to others?

Is the pope a liberal? You cannot apply political terms like this to any pope. They simply don’t apply. If to be a liberal is to be concerned for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the refugees, the marginalised and the environment, then yes the pope is liberal. But what could be more conservative or traditional than Pope Francis’ repeated references to the devil, to the need for confession, to devotion to St Joseph, Our Lady and the Eucharist, to upholding Catholic teaching on birth control, abortion and the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood?

And Pope Francis is certainly not a heretic. There is nothing to suggest that. He might be unclear at times but he is not a heretic.

What we should all do is heed his constant petition: “Pray for me”. If someone is worried about the direction the pope is taking on a particular issue, or is happy with what he is doing, we can all pray for him. That is the best way to help him.

Sydney Launch of Question Time 3

Question Time 3 cover

Question Time 3 cover

I am happy to invite you to the Sydney launch of my new book Question Time 3, the third volume of questions and answers on the faith published in The Catholic Weekly and other Catholic papers.

Newly ordained Bishop Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, will launch the book at the Mustard Seed Bookshop, 3 Keating St, Lidcombe, on Thursday, November 17 at 7.30 pm.  If you are able to attend please RSVP the Mustard Seed on 9646 9000 and feel free to invite your friends. Supper will follow the launch. I look forward to seeing you there.


What is a Jubilee Year?

Jubilee year in rome

St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, focal point of many jubilees

Now that the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is approaching, to begin on December 8, many people are wondering exactly what a jubilee year is and what the difference is between an ordinary jubilee year and an extraordinary one. Here is an answer.

Jubilee years have their origin in the Old Testament when, at the end of each cycle of seven years times seven, sometimes referred to as a “Sabbath’s Sabbath”, a special year of rest was proclaimed in which the land would be left fallow without being cultivated, slaves and prisoners would be set free, debts would be forgiven and the mercy of God would be particularly evident.

The jubilee year is described in the book of Leviticus: “And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty through the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field” (Lev 25:8-12).

The very name jubilee in English seems to derive from the Hebrew word yobel, which in turn derives from yobhel, meaning ram, since the trumpet referred to in the book of Leviticus, the shofar, was made from a ram’s horn.

In the Church the jubilee year was first observed in the year 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII called for a holy year to mark 1300 years since the birth of Christ. On that occasion the Pope published a Bull in which he granted special indulgences for those who would go to Rome, confess their sins and visit the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. Residents of Rome were to make the visits each day for thirty days, and visitors to the city for fifteen days.

Interestingly, Pope Boniface did not use the word jubilee in that Bull and he indicated that such a special year was to be celebrated every one hundred years thereafter. Nonetheless, before the middle of the fourteenth century St Bridget of Sweden and the poet Petrarch, among others, urged Pope Clement VI, who was then residing in Avignon, to celebrate a jubilee sooner. The Pope agreed and so the next jubilee year was held in 1350.

Rome and its major basilicas remained the focus of the jubilee, even though the Pope did not return to the city for it. Daily visits to the Basilica of St John the Lateran were added to visits to the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul in order to gain the indulgence. In the next jubilee, held in 1390, the Basilica of St Mary Major was added and since then visits to the four major basilicas have been one of the conditions for gaining the jubilee year indulgence. One of the features of jubilee years is the opening of a special door in the Roman basilicas, through which pilgrims pass by way of symbolising their greater access to God’s grace and mercy.

In 1470 Pope Paul II decreed that the jubilee should be celebrated every twenty-five years and this has been the practice ever since, even though in some years the jubilee was not held due to wars and other circumstances. Pope Paul also allowed people from other countries to gain the indulgence by visiting some designated church in their own country, especially the cathedral of each diocese, and this too has remained the custom.

In addition to these ordinary jubilee years there have been several extraordinary ones for special occasions, one of which is the present Jubilee Year of Mercy. Others were held in 1628 and 1629 to pray for peace, 1933 on the occasion of the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s death, 1966 to celebrate the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and 1983 as a Holy Year of Redemption.

So the present Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will begin on December 8, has a long history. It is a splendid opportunity to receive the mercy of God, especially through the sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of Penance, and to show mercy to others.

What is a Synod of Bishops?

With the Synod of Bishops now meeting in Rome from October 4-25, many people are asking what a Synod is and whether it can change Catholic teaching, for example on giving Communion to people who have been divorced and are now remarried outside the Church. Here is an answer to those questions, published recently in Australian Catholic newspapers.

Can a synod change Church doctrine?

Some of my friends have expressed the belief that the October synod of bishops in Rome will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Is this possible? Also, what exactly is a synod?

 The short answer to your first question is no, it is not possible. The answer to your second question will explain why.

The synod of bishops is something relatively new in the Church, having been instituted by Pope Paul VI on 15 September 1965 in the Motu Proprio Apostolica Solicitudo. A month and a half later the Second Vatican Council’s Decree Christus Dominus on the Pastoral Office of Bishops spoke of synods and referred to Pope Paul’s document in a footnote (cf. CD, n. 5).

A series of subsequent documents gave norms for synods and finally the Code of Canon Law of 1983 summarised them in canons 342-348. Canon 342 tells us what a synod is: “The synod of bishops is a group of bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops. These bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline.” As this canon says, the bishops in a synod assist the Pope “by their counsel” in his teaching role. They do not teach in their own right.

In the following canon we find a further answer to your question: “The function of the synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has given it deliberative power in certain cases; in this event, it rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the synod” (Can. 343). Again, the bishops’ role is to recommend, not to teach.

This gathering of bishops from all over the world is convened by the Pope to discuss the proposed topic. Some of the bishops are chosen by their respective bishops’ conferences, some attend because of the office they hold in the Church, and others are nominated by the Pope. Each bishop is given an opportunity to speak for a short, specified time on any aspect of the topic he chooses. The bishops also break up into small groups, normally according to their respective languages, to discuss the question. At the end of the synod they vote on a series of propositions which reflect their views, and these are given to the Holy Father for his consideration.

After the synod some of the bishops who took part are selected to prepare a draft of a document that the Pope might use in preparing his own document on the topic. This document, customarily in the form of an Apostolic Exhortation, is issued by the Pope himself and is a form of ordinary papal magisterium.

In recent times synods have been held approximately every three years. The last one, in 2012, was on the theme of the new evangelisation and was followed by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium in 2013. The one before that on the Word of God was held in 2008 and was followed by Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini in 2010.

The present synod will be the fourteenth ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops. There have also been extraordinary general assemblies, like the one on the family last year to prepare for the present synod, and also special general assemblies, like those of the bishops of the larger regions of the world to prepare for the Jubilee Year 2000.

It should be remembered that the present ordinary synod on the family is not the first one on this topic. The first one was held in 1980 and was followed by Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio. In that document Pope John Paul made clear that those who are divorced and remarried civilly are to be welcomed into the life of the Church but they may not be admitted to Eucharistic Communion (cf. n. 84). Pope Francis will not change that teaching.

What we should all do is pray very much for the fruits of this important synod, which affects all of us very directly.

Same-sex marriage – yes or no?

The issue of redefining marriage to include unions of people of the same sex is very much in the news. Is this move something Catholics can support? What effect will it have on the understanding of marriage? What are the effects on children of having been brought up by two men or two women? I append here three of my recent columns in Catholic newspapers on the question.

Gay marriage – why not?

Now that gay marriage is in the news again, everyone is talking about it and many of my friends are in favour. Can you remind me of the reasons why the Church is opposed to it? Shouldn’t gay people be entitled to the same respect and rights as others?

Marriage is not just a “social construct”, a concept invented by man that can change with time at the whim or even the vote of the people. It is a reality deeply rooted in human nature and it has been in existence from the beginning. All civilisations have had the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman destined to bring forth children.

God created humans male and female and gave them an attraction that leads them to want to spend their lives together, expressing their love among other ways in the act of marital intimacy through which children are born into the world. This was God’s plan for the fulfilment of individuals and for the continuation of the human race. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it up: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC 1601).

Marriage comes from God himself as the Second Vatican Council teaches: “The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws… God himself is the author of marriage” (GS 48). Marriage between a man and a woman is written in human nature, as Aristotle observed hundreds of years before Christ: “Between man and wife, friendship seems to exist by nature; for man is naturally inclined to form couples – even more than to form cities” (Nicomachean Ethics 8.12).

The Australian Marriage Act 1961, in clarifying the terms used in the Act, gives us the traditional definition of marriage: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This definition has stood the test of time. It is founded on human nature.

We cannot change the nature of marriage by an act of parliament any more than we can change the nature of person so as to extend the term to dogs, cats or chimpanzees. Animals, by nature, cannot be persons. Two persons of the same sex, by nature, cannot call their union marriage. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

What is more, as we have seen, marriage is intended by God for the procreation and education of children. Love between a man and a woman naturally tends to bring children into the world. It is naturally fertile. Two people of the same sex, on the contrary, cannot bring forth children from their love. Their union is naturally sterile. If they have children by artificial means or they adopt them, these children will grow up without the complementary care of their natural father and mother, which is God’s plan for their well being. Indeed, studies have shown that children of same-sex couples do not fare as well as those of natural families.

But shouldn’t people with same-sex attraction be shown respect and given the same rights as others? They should always be shown respect, for they too are human beings, children of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. And they can live together if they want and even commit themselves to remain together for life, but there can be no right to call that relationship marriage. Marriage, as instituted by God and written in human nature, is a union of a man and a woman.

If people of the same sex want legal recognition of their union, they already have access to it. For example, the New South Wales Relationships register, which commenced operation in 2010, provides legal recognition for a couple, regardless of their sex, by registration of the relationship.

Looking further down the track, if the definition of marriage were changed by law to include the union of two persons of the same sex, there is no reason why sometime later it might not be broadened further to include more than two persons or a relationship between persons and animals. The best way to destroy marriage is to call everything marriage. When everything is marriage, nothing is marriage. We must do everything possible to protect this institution.

Children of same-sex parents

It seems to me that children of same-sex parents must suffer in some way from not having a mother or father to nurture them and that this would be an argument against allowing same-sex marriage. Is this the case?

There are sociological studies that bear out the truth of what you say and there are also personal testimonies of the children themselves. In this column I will comment on one of those testimonies and in the next I will refer to the results of sociological studies.

Katy Faust was raised by a lesbian couple and is now married with four children. On 2 February 2015 she wrote an open letter to Justice Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the court not to redefine marriage to include the union of two persons of the same sex.

Knowing first-hand what it is like to grow up in a same-sex household and also what it is like to raise children in a natural marriage, she writes that “when it comes to procreation and child-rearing, same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are wholly unequal and should be treated differently for the sake of the children.

“When two adults who cannot procreate want to raise children together, where do those babies come from? Each child is conceived by a mother and a father to whom that child has a natural right. When a child is placed in a same-sex-headed household, she will miss out on at least one critical parental relationship and a vital dual-gender influence. The nature of the adults’ union guarantees this. Whether by adoption, divorce, or third-party reproduction, the adults in this scenario satisfy their heart’s desires, while the child bears the most significant cost: missing out on one or more of her biological parents. Making policy that intentionally deprives children of their fundamental rights is something that we should not endorse, incentivize, or promote.”

She went on to say: “Now that I am a parent, I see clearly the beautiful differences my husband and I bring to our family. I see the wholeness and health that my children receive because they have both of their parents living with and loving them. I see how important the role of their father is and how irreplaceable I am as their mother. We play complementary roles in their lives, and neither of us is disposable. In fact, we are both critical. It’s almost as if Mother Nature got this whole reproduction thing exactly right.”

She says she has a great love for her mother and her partner, but observes: “If you ask a child raised by a lesbian couple if they love their two moms, you’ll probably get a resounding ‘yes!’ Ask about their father, and you are in for either painful silence, a confession of gut-wrenching longing, or the recognition that they have a father that they wish they could see more often. The one thing that you will not hear is indifference.”

With respect to studies showing that children of gay parents actually fare better than those raised by their biological father and mother, she comments: “If it is undisputed social science that children suffer greatly when they are abandoned by their biological parents, when their parents divorce, when one parent dies, or when they are donor-conceived, then how can it be possible that they are miraculously turning out ‘even better!’ when raised in same-sex-headed households? Every child raised by ‘two moms’ or ‘two dads’ came to that household via one of those four traumatic methods. Does being raised under the rainbow miraculously wipe away all the negative effects and pain surrounding the loss and daily deprivation of one or both parents?

“Redefining marriage redefines parenthood. It moves us well beyond our ‘live and let live’ philosophy into the land where our society promotes a family structure where children will always suffer loss. It will be our policy, stamped and sealed by the most powerful of governmental institutions, that these children will have their right to be known and loved by their mother and/or father stripped from them in every instance. In same-sex-headed households, the desires of the adults trump the rights of the child. Have we really arrived at a time when we are considering institutionalizing the stripping of a child’s natural right to a mother and a father in order to validate the emotions of adults?”

This is powerful language based on personal experience. It deserves to be heard.

Studies on children of same-sex parents

A friend recently told me there are studies showing that children raised by same-sex couples actually fare better than those raised by their natural father and mother. Is this true?

Over the years there have been numerous studies to determine whether there is any difference between children raised by two persons of the same sex and those raised by their natural parents. As you say, some of these claim that the children fared better when raised by same-sex couples.

Common sense and a little experience of life would tell us that such findings cannot possibly be valid. Let me quote from the open letter of Katy Faust to Justice Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2015. Katy, who was raised by a lesbian couple, wrote: “If it is undisputed social science that children suffer greatly when they are abandoned by their biological parents, when their parents divorce, when one parent dies, or when they are donor-conceived, then how can it be possible that they are miraculously turning out ‘even better!’ when raised in same-sex-headed households? Every child raised by ‘two moms’ or ‘two dads’ came to that household via one of those four traumatic methods. Does being raised under the rainbow miraculously wipe away all the negative effects and pain surrounding the loss and daily deprivation of one or both parents?”

As regards the sociological studies themselves the American Psychological Association, in a 2005 Policy Brief, cited 59 studies by its members which found that not one of those studies found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. But in an article published in the journal Social Science Research in July 2012, Professor Loren Marks of Louisiana State University analysed those studies and found that “not one of the 59 studies referenced in the 2005 APA Brief compares a large, random, representative sample of lesbian or gay parents and their children with a large, random, representative sample of married parents and their children.” He observed that only four of the studies met the APA’s own standards by providing evidence of statistical power.

Meanwhile, that same issue of Social Science Research published the results of the most  rigorous and methodologically sound study ever conducted on the issue. Carried out by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, it surveyed almost 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 39 from both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The study found that the children of gay or lesbian couples fared worse on 77 out of 80 outcome measures compared with those from biologically intact families.

Among the most important findings were that children of homosexual parents were much more likely to have received welfare, had lower educational attainment, reported less safety and security in their family of origin, reported more ongoing negative impact from their family of origin, were more likely to suffer from depression, had been arrested more often and, in the case of women, had more sexual partners, both male and female.

Children of lesbian mothers in particular were more likely to be cohabiting, almost four times more likely to be on welfare, more than three times more likely to be unemployed, nearly four times more likely to identify as something other than entirely heterosexual, ten times more likely to have been “touched sexually by a parent or other adult caregiver”, more likely to have attachment problems related to the ability to depend on others, used marijuana more frequently, smoked more frequently, watched television for long periods more frequently and pled guilty to a non-minor offence more frequently. Children of lesbian mothers were 75% more likely to be in a same-sex romantic relationship and children of homosexual fathers three times more likely.

An article reporting these findings on the website of the Family Research Council by Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies, concluded: “The myths that children of homosexual parents are ‘no different’ from other children and suffer ‘no harm’ from being raised by homosexual parents have been shattered forever.”

These findings are important and they deserve to be taken into account when considering whether same-sex marriage ought to be legalised.

The feast of Mary, Help of Christians

On 24 May 2015 the Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of the feast of Mary, Help of Christians. The liturgical celebration was transferred to the following day, as the 24th was the feast of Pentecost. The following question and answer explains something of the background of the feast and the power of Our Lady’s intercession. It is question 129 in my book Question Time 1.

I am happy when we celebrate each year the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians on May 24. But I have always wondered why we make so much of this feast, which does not celebrate a great event in the life as Mary as do, for example, the feasts of the Divine Maternity of Mary, the Annunciation, the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. Could you please explain why this feast is so important?

You ask a very good question, and the answer goes back a long way. I shall endeavour to answer it succinctly.

The title “Help of Christians” is an old one that forms part of the Litany of Loreto, which is often said after the Rosary. The Litany has its origin in Marian litanies in the early Middle Ages. In 1558 it was published as “The Litany of Loreto” by St Peter Canisius, and it was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.

In 1571, Pope St Pius V asked the Church to pray the Rosary to Our Lady, under the title Help of Christians, for success in the battle that the Christian navy, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, was waging in the Mediterranean against the Turkish navy. It should be remembered that Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453 and, with control of the Mediterranean, the Turks were threatening Rome itself. Although heavily outnumbered, the Christian navy defeated the Turks in a hard-fought battle in the Gulf of Lepanto, off Greece, on 7 October 1571. The following year the Pope instituted a feast in honour of Our Lady on October 7, first called “Our Lady of Victories” and later “Our Lady of the Rosary”.

In 1683, when Vienna was besieged by the Ottoman Turks, Pope Innocent XI asked the Church to pray the Rosary to Our Lady, again under the title of Help of Christians. The battle against overwhelming odds began on September 8, when the Church celebrates Our Lady’s birthday, and it ended successfully four days later, on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. Thereafter, the military might of the Turks was no longer a threat to Christendom.

In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of France and began to persecute the Church. Pope Pius VII excommunicated him, but in 1809 Napoleon entered the Vatican, arrested the Pope and carried him off in chains to Fontainebleau where he was held prisoner for five years. The Pope managed to communicate to the Church his request for everyone to pray to Our Lady, Help of Christians for his release, promising Our Lady that he would institute a feast in her honour if the prayers were answered. Once again, with the help of the Rosary, the Pope’s wishes were granted. On 24 May 1814, Napoleon abdicated and on that very day the Pope returned to Rome. As his first official act he proclaimed the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, to be celebrated on May 24.

In 1844 the first Provincial Synod of the bishops of Australia, held in Sydney, proclaimed Mary, Help of Christians, the principal patroness of Australia. For that reason the feast has great prominence in this country, and is celebrated as a Solemnity, the highest category of feast. Australia’s mother church, St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, is dedicated to Mary the Immaculate, Help of Christians.

So there is much history behind the feast and every reason to thank Our Lady, Help of Christians, for her loving and powerful care for the Church, both the universal Church and the Church in Australia.

Devotion to St Joseph

Now that the feast of St Joseph (March 19) is upon us, I offer two questions answered in my column in the Catholic Weekly. The one on devotion to St Joseph is question 284 in my book Question Time 2, published by Connor Court in 2012, and the other was published more recently in the Catholic Weekly.

284. Devotion to St Joseph

Can you tell me something about devotion to St Joseph? Some of my friends have great devotion to him but I have never really managed to have much. Is this devotion something new in the Church?

It is only natural to have devotion to the one chosen by God from all eternity to be the husband of Mary, the Mother of God, and the guardian – or, as I like to say, the spiritual father – of Jesus, the Son of God. St Joseph, while a silent and rather inconspicuous figure in the Gospels – he is sometimes called “Joseph the silent” – thus had a very special role to play in the history of salvation.

Even though he was a descendant of the royal family of King David, Joseph was a simple craftsman. He must have felt overawed and even unworthy when faced with the responsibility of taking care of the Son of God and being the head of the Holy Family. He was undoubtedly the person who spent the most time with Jesus, working with him in his workshop and teaching him his trade. St Joseph was always docile to the will of God, responding immediately when God manifested his will to him on three occasions in dreams (cf. Mt 1:20-25; 2:13-15, 19-21).

The liturgy for the feast of St Joseph on 19 March uses Scriptural texts to highlight some of his many virtues. The Entrance Antiphon reads: “Behold, a faithful and prudent steward, whom the Lord set over his household.” The Prayer over the Gifts says that “Saint Joseph served with loving care your Only Begotten Son, born of the Virgin Mary”. And in the Preface we read: “For this just man was given by you as spouse to the Virgin Mother of God and set as a wise and faithful servant in charge of your household to watch like a father over your Only Begotten Son, who was conceived by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Although one of the apocryphal gospels says that Joseph was an old man when he married Our Lady, we like to think of him as young and strong, living in complete continence with Mary by a special grace of God. It is not clear when Joseph died, although he is not mentioned in the Gospels at the time of Our Lord’s public life so it is probable that he died sometime before then.

Devotion to St Joseph developed very early in the history of the Church. It appears to have originated in the East at the beginning of the fourth century, particularly among the Copts in Egypt. Nicephorus Callistus relates that there was a beautiful chapel dedicated to St Joseph in the fourth-century basilica in Bethlehem built by St Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.

In the West the name of St Joseph appears in local martyrologies of the ninth and tenth centuries, and in 1129 the first church was dedicated to him in Bologna. In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Saints Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Gertrude and Bridget of Sweden all had devotion to him.

In the fifteenth century, St Bernardine of Siena and St Vincent Ferrer had great devotion to St Joseph, giving rise to a great flowering of the devotion from then on. In the same century, John Gerson composed an Office of the Espousals of St Joseph, and during the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-84), his feast was added to the Roman Calendar, to be celebrated on 19 March.

The nineteenth century saw a new flourishing of devotion to St Joseph, especially among workers, and in 1870 Pope Pius IX solemnly declared him patron of the universal Church. In 1889 Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Quamquam pluries promoting devotion to St Joseph and, on the centenary of this encyclical in 1989, Pope John Paul II wrote Redemptoris custos. In 1955 Pope Pius XII introduced the feast of St Joseph the Worker, to be celebrated on 1 May. St Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church, of carpenters, travelers, house hunters, and a happy death.

There is every reason to have devotion to this great saint, who has so much to teach us. If Mary was given to us by Jesus from the Cross to be our mother (cf. Jn 19:26-27), then St Joseph can be considered our father. The fourth commandment, “Honour your father and mother”, certainly requires that we honour Joseph and Mary, our spiritual parents.

St Joseph’s dilemma

I have always wondered about St Joseph’s reaction when he discovered that Our Lady was carrying a child which was not his. What were his options and why did he decide to send Mary away quietly? What does this mean?

St Matthew relates the events to which you refer: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your  wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ … When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:18-21, 24-25).

First of all, it is important to understand the marriage customs of that time. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, meaning they were considered legally married. After the betrothal it was the custom for the bride to continue living with her family for about a year, after which her husband would take her to his home. St Matthew tells us that Our Lady and St Joseph had not yet come to live together, so it was within that first year that Mary came to be with child. Joseph would have become aware of this mystery sometime after Mary returned from helping her kinswoman Elizabeth in the three months before the birth of John the Baptist (cf. Lk 1:39-56).

What were his thoughts? While we cannot know for certain because it has not been revealed, we can only imagine that Joseph would have been completely bewildered. On the one hand it was obvious that Mary was with child and the child was not his. On the other hand he would not have thought for one instant that Mary had had relations with another man. He knew her too well to think that. She was so pure, so innocent, so holy. Not for nothing does the Second Vatican Council call her “model of the virtues” (LG 65). All in all, still not understanding, Joseph would have believed that it was more possible for Mary to have conceived the child without a man than for her to have committed a sin.

What were Joseph’s options? Given that he and Mary were betrothed and they had not yet come together, if she indeed had carnal relations with another man she was guilty of adultery and both she and the man were to be stoned to death outside the walls of the city (cf. Deut 22:23-24). Clearly, Joseph would not have contemplated denouncing Mary and having her stoned to death.

But to remain with her and give the impression that the child was his would not have been proper either. Another option was to divorce her publicly, to give her a writ of dismissal, as permitted by the law of Moses (cf. Mt 19:8). But publicly sending away his pregnant wife before they had even come to live together was proclaiming to the world that she had done something wrong and subjecting her to public shame. This too was unthinkable.

The third option was simply not to take Mary home with him to begin their married life together. In this case Our Lady would not be rejected or dismissed, but rather simply abandoned by her husband. If anyone suffered public shame by this course of action it would be Joseph, not Mary. St Matthew tells us that this is what Joseph decided to do: “… her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly” (Mt 1:19).

While this was clearly the best of the three options in that it protected Mary’s reputation, it was still one which wrung Joseph’s heart. Not to be able to spend the rest of his life with the woman he loved and who loved him was something which would have been sheer agony for him.

We can thus understand his overwhelming relief when the angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20-21). Overjoyed, Joseph obeyed and took Mary home with him. By publicly giving him the name Jesus, Joseph was making himself legally the father of Jesus.

Not for nothing does St Matthew call Joseph “a just man”. He is a saint for all to imitate, a model of holiness and of so many virtues.