Yesterday the Church recognized perhaps the most silent saint of the Catholic faith, but one of the most important: St. Joseph, the earthly father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I must admit, I’ve never been very devoted to St. Joseph until relatively recently. I’m not a husband or father, obviously, so I assumed I could find little in common with him and little inspiration from his life. But this is definitely not true, as I’ve learned. No matter your vocation or state in life, you can learn something about holiness, self-sacrifice, chastity, and love from St. Joseph.
First, a disclaimer: if you’re not Catholic, you may be wondering about or a little freaked out about all the talk of saints on my blog. I’ll leave the theological depths of this topic to Catholic Answers, here, but we Catholics believe that those in Heaven can hear our prayers, and intercede for us before God. This doesn’t take away from Jesus at all, but is instead akin to asking a friend to pray for you–to intercede for you, to bring your prayers to God. I once read that “the saints are more alive in Christ than we are” (I’m not sure who said this; if you know, please tell me!).
There is a process of beatification and canonization that the Church uses to proclaim that a particularly holy, virtuous man or woman is, in fact, in Heaven with God. These usually require at least three miracles (usually medical miracles), in which that individual was called upon for help, that have otherwise no medical explanation aside from divine intervention.
Like many things in Catholicism, the saints don’t distract us from Jesus but rather help us live and love like Him. Aside from offering prayers for us, we can learn so much from the earthly lives of the saints recognized by the Church. Men and women, priests and religious sisters, mothers and fathers, children, teenagers, and adults, martyrs and people who lived ordinary lives with extraordinary sanctity have become saints. Their writings and the way they lived their faith in their own vocation and place in history serve as a model for us to emulate.
St. Joseph is an interesting saint, though; he didn’t write anything, and there are virtually no recorded words of his anywhere. Our source for St. Joseph is the Gospels and in those, he is depicted as a dutiful earthly father to Jesus, protective husband to Mary, and obedient servant of God.
There are just a few instances when we hear about St. Joseph in the Bible but they’re powerful and reveal the kind of man he was for Mary and Jesus. After Gabriel appears to Mary in the Annunciation, Joseph shows us how to trust God. He is a bit bothered and worried that his wife is going to have a child that is not his and he even considers a divorce briefly; but after the angel appears to him, he is reaffirmed in his role as her protector and trusts God’s ways in giving them the gift of a son concieved by the Holy Spirit.
After Jesus was born, Joseph teaches us obedience when he packs up his family and flees to Egypt in order to keep them safe from Herod on the command of an angel. In this he also says a great deal to fathers and husbands about their role as protectors of their families.
And, as Catholics believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, we ascribe the virtue of chastity to St. Joseph in a special way. I’d always seen St. Joseph depicted as an older, even elderly man and assumed he was such until I recently read a very powerful reflection on him written by Christopher West. In it, he talks about how depicting St. Joseph as much older tended to make people more comfortable with the fact that he and Mary never consummated their marriage, as Mary had made this vow of virginity to God–as West writes, “How could a man with the erotic desires of youth have honored Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity?”
Most people couldn’t imagine this, so St. Joseph has been portrayed as an old man who was “Mary’s guardian more than her husband.” But doing so doesn’t acknowledge the power of “sexual virtue,” of living and loving in a way that is not driven by physical gratification by rather loving like God loves.
Incidentally I came across a quote by Fulton Sheen from World’s First Love (an excellent book by the way which I highly recommend) discussing this very subject:
“But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order to better safeguard the virginity… of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus unconsciously made Joseph a spouse chaste and pure by age rather than virtue…To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to the priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God.
…Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of love, he must have been on fire with love….Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.” || Archbishop Fulton Sheen, World’s First Love
I hope I’m not the only one that deeply appreciates Christopher West and Fulton Sheen’s reflections on St. Joseph. Because just think about it–the virtue and authentic love and chastity required of a young St. Joseph to love his wife in this radical but beautiful way! There’s nothing repressive about it–it shows that Joseph loved Mary so much that he was happy to honor her promise to God.
West puts it this way, quoting St. John Paul II:
As St. John Paul II maintains, we overcome the “difficulty” of Joseph and Mary’s virginal marriage by “supposing that he was not an elderly man at the time,” but by recognizing that “his interior perfection, the fruit of grace, led him to live his spousal relationship with Mary with virginal affection.” And “virginal affection” does not mean “hands off / stay away.” It means, “Come close, let me hold you, let me honor you. I will never violate your promise to God.”
This is why St. Joseph is often referred to as Mary’s “Most Chaste Spouse” and is often a saint that people turn to as a model of chastity, and why he serves a model for the love of spouses. This is where my devotion to St. Joseph comes in–I’ve called on him many times for prayers for the virtue of chastity. As I’ve written before on this blog, chastity is to love as God loves–and what better man to look to as a role model for chastity that he who loved our Blessed Mother in a self-giving, self-sacrificial, and Godly way?
The greatest thing about St. Joseph is that he never says anything in the Bible, perhaps because he doesn’t have to–he just does what his vocation and God call him to do; be it accept Jesus as his son, protect his family from Herod, or love his wife in a self-sacrificial, chaste way.
He is an example of silent and selfless love; by the world’s standards he didn’t do anything incredibly spectacular–he was just a father. A protector. A provider. But everything was in that—helping to raise the savior of the world and serve as protector and most chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As St. John Paul II wrote: “St Joseph was a just man, a tireless worker, the upright guardian of those entrusted to his care. May he always guard, protect, and enlighten families.”
Guardian of virgins, and holy father Joseph
To whose faithful custody Christ Jesus , Innocence
Itself, and Mary, Virgin of virgins, were committed;
I pray insistently and beseech you by these dear pledges, Jesus and Mary,
that being preserved from all uncleanness, I may
With spotless mind,
Pure heart, and chaste body, ever most chastely
serve Jesus and mary all the days of my life.
(Prayer to St. Joseph from the Laudate App)