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Go to Joseph!

by Fr. Thomas Crean O.P.


On the feast of the Assumption 1889, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Quamquam Pluries. It was occasioned by what the pope considered the deplorable condition of human society at that time. He wrote: ‘We see faith, the root of all the Christian virtues, lessening in many souls; we see charity growing cold; the young generation daily growing in depravity of morals and views; the Church of Jesus Christ attacked on every side by open force or craft.’ After having recalled the importance in such a crisis of seeking the prayers of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, Pope Leo announced his intention of fostering yet another effective means of obtaining the divine aid: devotion to St Joseph.

   Already in 1870, Blessed Pius IX had declared St Joseph ‘patron of the universal Church’. His successor, Pope Leo, explained the foundations of this declaration. The Church’s devotion to St Joseph, the Pope observes, arises from the saint’s ‘two-fold dignity’. He was both the true spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the foster-father of the Word Incarnate. For these two reasons, says Pope Leo, St Joseph ‘shines among all mankind’, and approaches nearer than any other saint to the holiness of the Mother of God.

   First of all, he was the husband of Mary. Among all the children of men, God chose Joseph of Nazareth as the companion of her who knew no sin. St Joseph naturally provided material support for our Lady. He earned the daily bread. According to the Fathers of the Church, he also protected the honour of the Blessed Virgin; his presence saved the mother from false imputations of wrong-doing. But he must also have provided spiritual aid for Mary. Pope Leo remarks that marriage involves ‘a community of gifts’ between the spouses. Surely our Lady and St Joseph must have encouraged each other in their unique vocations by their respective examples of charity and trust in God.

   He was the foster-father of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. ‘Hence it came about’, says the Pope, ‘that the Word of God was humbly subject to Joseph, that He obeyed him, and that He rendered to him all those offices that children are bound to render to their parents.’ Our Lord, as He grew up, must have imitated St Joseph in many ways, as a boy will imitate his father. Although His physical inheritance was drawn entirely from Mary, Christ would surely have learned His trade from St Joseph, and perhaps His way of speaking and telling a story, or even such things as gait and posture. From St Joseph, we might say, came these last details of the Incarnation.

   As husband of Mary and foster-father of our Lord, St Joseph was the head of the household in Nazareth. Pope Leo explains that this fact is of great importance in understanding the Church’s devotion to the saint. ‘The divine house which Joseph ruled with the authority of a father’, he writes, ‘contained within its limits the scarce-born Church.’ The Church grew from that house in Nazareth. Mary, from being mother of Christ, became also the mother of Christians. Christ, the only-begotten, redeemed a multitude of brothers and sisters. ‘For such reasons’, says the Pope, ‘the Blessed Patriarch looks upon the multitude of Christians who make up the Church as confided specially to his trust – this limitless family spread over the earth, over which, because he is the spouse of Mary and the father of Jesus Christ he holds, as it were, a paternal authority.’

   Pope Leo XIII also recalls how the unique role of St Joseph was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the life of another Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. The book of Genesis tells us his story. Like the St Joseph of the New Covenant, he was exiled to Egypt and instructed by God in dreams. He won the favour of Pharaoh the King. First of all he governed the king’s household, and later, after emerging from prison, he became the support and prop of the entire land, feeding the people in time of famine. This is a beautiful prophecy of the life of our St Joseph. He too governed the household of a King. Later he too was raised up, as if out of a prison, from the place where the just souls were, and became the patron of the entire People.

   For all these reasons, declares the Pope, Catholics of all countries and conditions should seek the help of this outstanding saint. ‘Fathers of families find in Joseph the best personification of fatherly solicitude and vigilance; spouses find a perfect example of love, peace and conjugal fidelity; virgins find the model and protector of virginal integrity.’ Pope Leo indicates that St Joseph has a particular power of uniting those social classes that risk falling into enmity with each other. His example reminds the wealthy where true riches lie; he can encourage those whose families have lost their former status; while working men have recourse to Joseph as ‘their special right’. His life even proves, contrary to the consensus of the ancient world, that there is nothing dishonourable about manual work.

   What form should our devotion to St Joseph take? Leo XIII made this recommendation: ‘it is desirable, before the feast day, that in the principal church of each parish, a triduum of prayer should be celebrated.’ Whether or not this happens in our own parish church, we can make such a triduum privately from 16th-18th March, perhaps accompanying it with some small penances in his honour. St Teresa of Avila remarked that she had never known anyone truly devoted to St Joseph who failed to make great spiritual progress. She added that for many years she had made some request of him on his feast day — and that she always received it.

NB  Pope Leo XIII himself composed a prayer to St Joseph. It can be found on the following internet address:-


Copyright ©; thomas crean O.P. February 2009

The above article first appeared in the Mass of Ages published by The Latin Mass Society and appears with the publisher's kind permission.

Version: 5th February 2009

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