St. Joseph today continues to be a mystery for many Christians. He remains just…
… the older saint that stands behind Mary and Jesus in most Christian art,
… a familiar statue to place in our Nativity sets during Christmas,
…. a pious devotional figure for grandmothers or more “traditional Catholics”…
But if the Son of God was willing to learn from Joseph, surely we all have something to learn from his invaluable wisdom.
This might be one of the reasons why Pope Francis decided to declare 2021 the “Year of St. Joseph” through his Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde, which is worth reading and meditating upon. (It’s actually pretty short!)
Francis invites the world to consider the fact that personal conversion and reconciliation goes hand in hand with the works of justice and mercy in society. Saint Joseph can be a great model for this difficult but necessary work, blending both deep reflection and action.
Here are five lessons St. Joseph wants to teach humanity today.
Lesson #1: Actions Still Speak Louder than Words
St. Joseph speaks a grand total of zero words in the Gospels. He only makes an appearance in two of the four gospels:1 Matthew and Luke. In fact, the Gospel of Mark2 doesn’t mention his name at all and the Gospel of John only has two passing references to Jesus as the “the son of Joseph” (John 1:45, 6:42).
Saint Joseph’s hidden life is his statement. He is the quintessential model of the phrase: “Actions speak louder than words.” He was not worried about announcing to the world everything he did. He was not worried about leaving his “public legacy.”
In fact, if I was St. Joseph, I can easily imagine the temptation to publish “the uniqueness” or even the “blessing” that was my life on social media:
“What a grace to be Stepdad of the Son of God! #Blessed
“I am married to the most beautiful woman in the world!” #MotherOfGod
“Check out my amazing carpentry! #BestCarpenterAlive
He doesn’t spend time talking about his mission. He spends his time living his mission.
St. Joseph can help us combat the “Slacktivism” so rampant in our digital world today where we are more likely to share a post about social change rather than spending our energy on enacting those changes. Joseph reminds us the real work often goes unnoticed.
Lesson #2: The Name “Joseph” is a Reminder that My Life is Not About Me
My own personal devotion to Joseph began during my time in the novitiate. It actually started with a deepening love for “Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia” – the protectress of the Dominican Republic. While this devotional image (to the right) seems to focus primarily on Mary and the Child Jesus, one might miss Joseph quietly in the background. It is precisely his humility, his stepping out of the foreground and into the background, that made me always notice Joseph first in this image.
He is living his name: “Joseph,”3 which etymologically comes from the Hebrew “to add” or “to increase.”
For Joseph, it was not added personal blessings or even added personal sanctity he received to show off to the world, but rather Joseph “increased” glory always for those around him first. In his case – always directing his energy toward Mary and Jesus. His entire life focused on loving the people right in front of him: his wife and his son. In doing something so ordinary with extraordinary love, he fulfilled God’s mission for his life, and helped Jesus fulfill his. This is precisely why he became a model for me of what the ideal Christian life is about: to be a true “person for others” is to give all glory to Christ and Mary.
Is it really a surprise then, growing up with an example of radical service and humility like his father Joseph, that Jesus teaches his disciples that “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the servant of all”?4 As the saying goes: “Like father, like son.” It seems to apply to Jesus at both an earthly and divine level.
Lesson #3: We Are All Called to Embrace Reality—A “Happy Death”
Aside from being patron saint of numerous causes,5 St. Joseph is especially known for being the patron of a “happy death.” 6
While this idea is not explicitly Biblical, it stems back to a tradition that developed over time through Christian imaginary and religious art.7
During this pandemic when so many relatives, friends, neighbors and people of our world are suffering the effects of illness, death and injustices in our health care systems, St. Joseph teaches us something critical about Christian happiness. It is not about avoiding suffering. Rather, it is about embracing whatever reality comes our way in the love and grace of Jesus and Mary. This doesn’t mean we remain complacent with our current state of affairs. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. Remembering that Jesus and Mary are always by one’s side, we have the Christian faith, hope and love necessary to transform our broken world—no matter how ill, old, poor or in pain one might be.
This is precisely the “Christian realism” Pope Francis writes about in Patris Corde:
“Here, once again, we encounter that Christian realism which rejects nothing that exists. Reality, in its mysterious and irreducible complexity, is the bearer of existential meaning, with all its lights and shadows… Nor should we ever think that believing means finding facile and comforting solutions. The faith Christ taught us is what we see in Saint Joseph. He did not look for shortcuts, but confronted reality with open eyes and accepted personal responsibility for it.”
St. Joseph helps us to embrace and transform all our reality. This time with him, Mary and Jesus right by our side.
Lesson #4: We Are All Called to Encounter God’s Loving Justice—Personally AND Socially
During the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis wants to make clear that the work for a more just world is not separate from the interior work of the spiritual life: they are one!
In other words, the Year of Saint Joseph may appear to some as just another typical “Catholic Theme” used by the Church to print more tacky banners, host overly pious retreats and publish more articles only a certain demographic reads. But based on Joseph’s lessons above, I don’t think the saint would mind if we get to the heart of what this year is truly about: “A Year of Radical 8 Conversion for All”, through his intercession and example that always point us to Jesus.
Therefore, using Ignatian terminology, St. Joseph is the prototype for a “Contemplative in Action.” His emphasis on both a deep prayer life and a life of work are exactly what we need to heal a divided world that sees these two sides of our Church—the Spiritual/Liturgical Catholics vs. The Social Justice Catholics— as inherently split. As a good father, Joseph wants to reconcile his children and help them mature individually and collectively in “wisdom, age and favor before God and humanity” (Luke 2:52). This definitely will require us to learn to deal with (many) disagreements, learn from each other’s strengths, improve on our own weaknesses, and this is exactly why we need Joseph’s intercession and example. But to grow always means frequently experiencing “growing pains.”
This is one of the many reasons that I love the wording on the Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary which grants various Plenary and Partial Indulgences during the Year of Saint Joseph. (Yes, you heard right: the Church still believes in indulgences, but it may not be what you think). It interweaves “prayer and good works” 9 into a list of invitations10 for deep prayer in connection with particular social issues affecting our world today.
The work of internal reconciliation with the Lord falls into the plan for God’s social justice, for in the same way that reparations are made for our unjust actions at a systemic and local level, we too must make reparation for those internal injustices we commit in our personal love of God, others and creation.
St. Joseph warns us though not to allow the indulgences to remain mere rituals for the overly scrupulous. May Joseph’s invitation to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the other indulgenced actions lead us to follow Joseph’s lead, whom the Church sees as “the living pattern of that social justice that ought to reign throughout the world.”11 St. Joseph, guides our difficult steps ahead.
Lesson #5: St. Joseph is the Patron of the Society of Jesus. For Real.
Did you know that the first assignment by Pope Paul III to St. Ignatius and his companions was given on March 19, 1539, Feast of St. Joseph?
You may have thought St. Ignatius was the Patron of the Society of Jesus, but he is only one of its founders. Ignatius himself wanted to focus on the centrality of the name of Jesus in the Order. That’s why he wanted it named the “Society of Jesus” and not the “Society of Ignatius.” He must have taken some cues from the humility of Joseph. And while this lesson might seem like pure Jesuit trivia, the significance of this patronage for us Jesuits and all who partner with the mission of the Society has massive implications.
St. Ignatius in all of the Exercises only makes seven12 explicit references to St. Joseph, and all of them in union with Mary. But maybe there is a two-fold invitation that both Ignatius and Joseph wish to make to us today:
- We are called to remain the “Least Society of Jesus” or in Spanish “La Mínima Compañía de Jesús.” This is not a call to live mediocrely, but a call to live that Gospel excellence of radical humility, illustrated so clearly in lessons one and two by Joseph. We are called to be “the most humble!”13 (How’s that for a little Jesuit irony?)
- We are called to spend some time in Scripture with Joseph,14 using that powerful method of prayer known as Ignatian imaginative contemplation. We are invited to take on St. Joseph as our coach, to learn from him by seeing how he acts, loves, serves, prays, observes silence, and any words of wisdom he may want to share with us today.
While there is not a single written word in the Gospel spoken by Joseph, maybe this was to remind us Jesuits and all of humanity, to speak a little less, love a little more and most importantly strive to live the Gospel message everyday.
St. Joseph’s life is the embodiment of that other famous Ignatian quote: “Love ought to be put more in deeds than in words.” 15 St. Joseph is so Ignatian! (A little more Jesuit irony.)
St. Joseph, Patron of the Society of Jesus,
Pray for and with us!
Work for and with us!
Want to know, love and work more closely with St. Joseph this year? Check out: Prayer & Action Resources for Year of St. Joseph 2021
Editor’s Note: This article was updated 0615 03-19-21
- Interestingly, even in the Adoration of the Magi in Bethlehem, the Evangelist Matthew does not mention Joseph, only that “they found the Child, with Mary his mother…” (Matthew 2:11) ↩
- While the Gospel of Mark does not explicitly reference Joseph, it is the only Gospel to call Jesus “the carpenter” or in Greek “tektōn” (Mark 6:3), which can also be translated “artisan”, “craftsman” or today’s version of a “handy-man.” This profession was typically handed down from the father in Jewish tradition. Indirectly, Mark at least hints at Jesus’s earthly father’s profession, corroborated with the other Gospels’ accounts of Joseph being a “tektōn” as well. ↩
- Some suggest the translation of Joseph should be rendered: “May He add.” Implicit in the Hebrew is that the one doing “the increasing” is always God. This is a good reminder for us Christians today who repeat every Sunday – sometimes absent mindedly — during the Gloria: “For You alone are the Holy One.” For all sanctity and blessing always comes from being united to God’s Holiness. ↩
- Mark 10:43-44 ↩
- St. Joseph is also patron saint of the Universal Church, fathers, workers, travelers, unborn children and immigrants and the Society of Jesus. Talk about someone who advocates and accompanies on all sides of the political and spiritual aisle! ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014 comments on Joseph as “Patron of a Happy Death.” ↩
- The Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda, a 17th century Spanish nun and mystic, wrote a very moving account of the “Happy Death of St. Joseph” worth praying over. ↩
- By the word “Radical” I mean, a deep rooted conversion that takes place at the individual and social level: all parts of ourselves (i.e. hearts, bodies, minds and souls) and all parts of our society (i.e. family life, economic life, social life, health care systems, religious liberties, etc). It is time to witness the explicit connection between the two. ↩
- Daniel 4:24: “Atone for your sins by justice, and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor” ↩
- There are about 15 different ways one can receive a Plenary Indulgence during the Year of St. Joseph. I recommend you check them out. ↩
- Pius XI, “Divini Redemptoris,” (1937) ↩
- Spiritual Exercises that mention St. Joseph: annotations 111, 114, 264, 265, 269, 270 ↩
- I think C.S. Lewis got it right when he defined “humility” not as “thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” The rapper Kendrick Lamar also has an interesting definition of “humility” that might be useful for today. ↩
- The Scriptural mysteries of St. Joseph: Betrothal of Mary and Joseph (Matthew 1:18), Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:19-21), Joseph takes Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:22-25), Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:3-7, 15-16), Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21), Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:22-40), Escape into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-50), Hidden Life of Nazareth (Luke 2:51-52) ↩
- Spiritual Exercises 230 ↩