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.