Last year, on December 8th, Pope Francis decreed a special year dedicated to St Joseph for the global Catholic Church. It marks the 150th anniversary of St Joseph being declared patron of the universal Church in 1870. The man who was given the task of caring for and watching over Mary and Jesus, would now care for and watch over the whole Church. In doing so, he would serve as a model for the dignity of human work.
The idea of the dignity of human labour has a long history in religious thought. It can be traced all the way back to the Book of Genesis when God commanded humankind to care for the earth and be productive – to participate in God’s own creative work by becoming the Stewards of Creation.
In Praise of Workers
The decree was accompanied by a letter from the pontiff, titled Patris Corde (“With a Father’s Heart”). In this Francis compares Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, to the many unheralded essential workers keeping society afloat in times of social distancing and remote working from home. “St Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation”.
On Saturday, May 1st we celebrate the feast of St Joseph the Worker. Joseph is the only saint to have two feast days; the other is observed on March 19 and commemorates his role as the husband of Mary. This honour indicates the significance of Joseph in the Calendar of Saints and indeed I would argue that despite his low profile, he is the most important saint of them all.
A Man among Men
Although Joseph belonged to the same family as David, the great King of Israel he was a poor man and a hard-working carpenter. He was the one man among all men chosen by God to aid Mary in helping Jesus grow to manhood. Joseph accepted this responsibility without questioning God, cherishing instead faith in the word and will of God. Indeed, Joseph is a man of few words, but always ready to fulfil whatever task is required of him.
The fact that he does not appear in Jesus’ public life, or at his death or resurrection has led many historians to speculate that he may quite possibly have died before Jesus began his public ministry. This has also led to the impression that he was an elderly man – a fatherly figure, much older than Mary – which of course may not be true at all.
Before the Annunciation took place Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which in Jewish custom is equivalent to a marriage contract. When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he decided to divorce her quietly. This is a clear indication of the kind of man he was and foreshadows his role as Protector of Jesus and Mary. Had Joseph denounced Mary publicly, as he had every right to do under the Torah Law, she would have been stoned to death for adultery. Later his foster son, Jesus would intervene to stop another woman from suffering the same fate.
When an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, telling him not to be afraid to marry Mary as the child to be born was the “Holy One of God”, Joseph continued to care for her good name, her dignity, and her life.
A Second Father
How important it is to remember that Joseph was at Mary’s side when Jesus was born, comfort and support as well as being the first man to witness the moment when God broke into human history. We cannot doubt that the choice of who would care for Jesus as his father on earth was one of the utmost significance. The little child in Nazareth would live under the influence and guidance of this man and would most certainly follow his example. He would share in his play and his studies, and in his work as a carpenter Joseph would spend many hours teaching his skills to his young son.
In his heart, Joseph knew what his neighbours did not, namely that this little boy was in fact the Son of God. He kept this great truth with him all the days of his life, a mystery he could never have imagined. He was entrusted with the two most priceless gifts God had to bestow, Jesus and his mother. How precious indeed must he be in the eyes of Our Father.
Saint Joseph also has a special place in the heart of the Holy Father. Indeed, Francis has helped to spread devotion to the statue of the sleeping St Joseph. This depicts a man peacefully sleeping on his side, his haloed head on a pillow. He is wearing a green tunic that enfolds his reclining body. His top armrests on his side; his lower arm is laid out beneath him. Francis has this statue on his desk and when he has a problem, he writes it down and places it under Joseph’s pillow. He says he knows that the saint will work it out for him in his dreams.
Remember us, St Joseph,
and pray for us to your foster child.
Guard and protect the Church on earth,
until its time is fulfilled.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan