St. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, whose Father is God alone, and yet he lives his fatherhood fully and completely. He is often overshadowed by the glory of Christ and the purity of Mary. But he, too, waited for God to speak to him and then responded with obedience. Luke and Matthew both mark Joseph’s descent from David, the greatest king of Israel (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38). Scripture has left us with the most important knowledge about him: he was “a righteous man” a “just man” (Matthew 1:18).
Joseph was a compassionate, caring man. When he discovered Mary was pregnant after they had been engaged, he knew the child was not his but was as yet unaware that she was carrying the Son of God. He planned to divorce Mary quietly according to the law but he was concerned for her suffering and safety. Joseph was also a man of faith, obedient to whatever God asked of him without knowing the outcome. When the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything he owned, all of his family and friends, and fled to a strange country with his young wife and the baby. He waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to go back (Matthew 2:13-23).
We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, (more likely a builder), a man who worked to provide for his family. Joseph wasn’t a wealthy man, for when he took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Mary to be purified he offered the sacrifice of two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons, allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb.
Joseph revealed in his humanity the unique role of fathers to proclaim God’s truth by word and deed. His paradoxical situation of “foster father to Jesus” draws attention to the truth about fatherhood, which is much more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. Joseph was keenly aware, as every father should be, that he served as the representative of God the Father.
The Gospel, as we know, has not kept any word from Joseph, who carries out his activity in silence. It is the style that characterizes his whole existence, both before finding himself before the mystery of God’s action in his spouse, as well as when — conscious of this mystery — he is with Mary in the Nativity.
On that holy night, in Bethlehem, with Mary and the Child, is Joseph, to whom the Heavenly Father entrusted the daily care of his Son on earth, a care carried out with humility and in silence.
Joseph protected and provided for Jesus and Mary. He named Jesus, taught him how to pray, how to work, how to be a man. While no words or texts are attributed to him, we can be sure that Joseph pronounced two of the most important words that could ever be spoken when he named his son “Jesus” and called him “Emmanuel.” When the child stayed behind in the Temple we are told Joseph (along with Mary) searched frantically with great anxiety for three days for him (Luke 2:48).
As Pope Benedict has taught us:
What is important is not to be a useless servant, but rather a “faithful and wise servant”. The pairing of the two adjectives is not by chance. It suggests that understanding without fidelity, and fidelity without wisdom, are insufficient. One quality alone, without the other, would not enable us to assume fully the responsibility which God entrusts to us.
What great words for St. Joseph, because in Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. Joseph is a “just man” (Mt 1:19) because his existence is “adjusted” to the word of God.
Joseph, the “foster-father” of the Lord reveals that fatherhood is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children. Real fathers and real men are those who communicate paternal strength and compassion. They are men of reason in the midst of conflicting passions; men of conviction who always remain open to genuine dialogue about differences; men who ask nothing of others that they wouldn’t risk or suffer themselves. Joseph is a chaste, faithful, hardworking, simple and just man. He reminds us that a family, a home, a community, and a parish are not built on power and possessions but goodness; not on riches and wealth, but on faith, fidelity, purity and mutual love.
How could I speak of St. Joseph here in the Crèche Museum of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal without saying something about the dreamer and architect of this magnificent place, Brother André Bessette, the Canadian Church’s newest Saint.
Brother André wanted Saint Joseph honoured on this mountain. In 1890, he took a young student with him on one of his regular Thursday meditation walks. Taking the student up to the mountainside across the street from the College Notre Dame, he told him, “I have hidden a medal of Saint Joseph here. We will pray that he will arrange the purchase of this land for us.” For six years he persevered in prayer for that intention, and in 1896, his prayers were rewarded. The Holy Cross Congregation purchased the land and Brother André put a statue of Saint Joseph in a little cave on his chosen site. Placing a bowl in front of the statue, he planned on collecting alms from Saint Joseph’s petitioners, alms which would be used to build a chapel.
What started out as a fifteen-by eighteen foot chapel in 1904 became a minor basilica in 1955, and was completed — interior and all — in 1966. In his lifetime, the shrine became big enough to warrant having a full-time guardian, a job to which Brother André was appointed in 1909.
The piety that St. André had toward the Patron of the Universal Church was simple and childlike too:
When you invoke Saint Joseph, you don’t have to speak much. You know your Father in heaven knows what you need; well, so does His friend Saint Joseph. … Tell him, ‘If you were in my place, Saint Joseph, what would you do? Well, pray for this in my behalf.’
To the people who came to him with their troubles — and thousands did — the friend of Saint Joseph recommended the use of sacramentals, like Saint Joseph’s oil or a Saint Joseph medal. Most of all, he recommended persevering and confident prayer, usually prescribing a novena to his powerful benefactor. Because he learned how to pray with fervour, persistence and joy as a child and young religious, Brother André was able to urge people to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God’s will.
He admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the Sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor’s care. He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humour. At times, he wept along with his visitors as they recounted their sorrows. As he became known as a miracle worker, Brother André insisted, “I am nothing … only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”
God our Father,
You gave Brother André of Montreal,
your humble servant, a great devotion to St. Joseph
and a special commitment to the sick and the needy.
May the example of his life and ministry inspire us to ever-greater works of charity, in generous service to our brothers and sisters in need.
Give us the strength to surrender ourselves to Your will,
and to be instruments of your loving mercy.
Help us to follow Brother André’s example of prayer and love,
so that we too may come into your glory.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network
(CNS photo/archives of St. Joseph's Oratory)