Last Sunday we celebrated a popular saint’s feast day. Most people can recall that St. Patrick’s feast is celebrated on March 17. However, not as many Catholics recall that St. Joseph – under the title, husband of Mary – is celebrated by the Church today, March 19.
Sometimes St. Joseph gets lost amid the shamrocks, the corned beef and cabbage and other secular trappings of celebrating St. Patrick, but the foster father of Jesus is truly worthy of honor and celebration.
The Church honors St. Joseph in a very special manner. Pope Pius IX, presiding over the first Vatican Council, solemnly decreed on Dec. 8, 1870 that St. Joseph would be venerated as the patron saint of the Universal Church. The same pope also dedicated the month of March to St. Joseph, much in the same way that May is dedicated to Mary and June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
It is easy to see why Pius IX would ask Joseph’s protection over the Church. After all, it was God Himself who chose Joseph to be the protector of Jesus and Mary. When Jesus lowered Himself to become man, He entered this world as a helpless infant, totally dependent on Joseph for His earthly sustenance.
Joseph’s sacred duty of protecting the Holy Family has been extended to the entire Church.
Little is known of the historical Joseph. The only mention of him in the Gospels is in Matthew – the first and second chapters and 13:55 – and in Luke – again, the first and second chapters, and in 4:22. We know that Joseph was born into the House of David, that he was a carpenter, and that he was betrothed to Mary at the time of Jesus’s birth.
Church scholars surmise that Joseph was unknown of and unheard of except by those Galileans with whom he lived and worked. They have theorized that to most of the Apostles, Joseph must have been personally unknown, and that could explain why they refer to him only in passing, or in vague remarks such as “Joseph was a just man.” It is gnerally believed that Joseph died several years before Jesus began His public ministry.
While there was some devotion to St. Joseph in the early Church, there was basically little widespread devotion to St. Joseph before the 13th century.
Scholars have suggested that there was little attention to Joseph in the early Church in order to emphasize the perpetual virginity of Mary. But, it is easy to assume that Mary dearly loved her husband and that they shared a holy, pure and perfect marriage. Joseph was with his spouse at the Nativity, at the Epiphany and the presentation in the Temple. It was he who spirited the Holy Family to safety during their flight into Egypt. He also shared Mary’s worry when Jesus, at the age of 12, was lost for three days in the Temple and was later found talking with the teachers there.
Devotion to St. Joseph really began to grow in the 13th century, with such noted devotees as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Bernardine of Siena and St. Isidore. But, it was St. Teresa of Avila who was most active in spreading devotion to Joseph. She dedicated the motherhouse of her reformed Carmelite order, and every convent she established, to St. Joseph, and recommended devotion to him in her writings.
“He who cannot find anyone to teach him how to pray, let him take this glorious saint (Joseph) for his master, and he will not wander out of the way,” St. Teresa wrote in her biography.
In this archdiocese, there are several parishes dedicated to St. Joseph. The Society of St. Joseph (Josephite) priests and brothers serve here and operate their St. Joseph Seminary in Northeast Washington. Several women’s religious orders named in honor of St. Joseph also serve here. In addition to being patron of the Universal Church, St. Joseph is also invoked as the patron of a happy death, and of fathers, bursars, procurators, manual laborers, carpenters, the married, exiles and the afflicted, those suffering illness, travelers and virgins.
While other saints – Patrick and Valentine, for example – have more popular devotional celebrations, St. Joseph should not be discounted. He is very much a model for average people. Joseph lived an ordinary life. He was a father, husband and workman. His example shows that our own everyday experiences present us with the opportunity to live holy lives. He shows that holiness can grow as we live out the vocation God has called us to live.