The Catholic Thing
Fathers and Sons Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 25 March 2013

I’m a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in a suburban community in New York. We have a lovely church with several thousand parishioners, which is why we have six resident priests, a deacon, and seven Sunday Masses, at least four of which are often SRO.

There is a statue of St. Joseph behind the altar. He holds the infant Jesus – in this depiction, the Savior is about six-to-ten-months-old. And the apse is filled with angels, because as our pastor told me: “I love angels.”

Angels played an important role in the life of Joseph. They were the link between his previously quotidian existence and the miracles to come. When he discovered that his teenage soon-to-be wife was pregnant, “he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (This, of course, goes to the heart of the Church’s teaching on divorce, since the situation Joseph thought he was in is the only one Jesus would later allow as grounds for a divorce: adultery committed during a betrothal.) But an angel gave Joseph understanding, as Matthew explains: “Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. . . .”

           St. Joseph and the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni, c. 1635

And twice more an angel would speak to Joseph.

The second and third times had to do with Herod: flee to Egypt; return to Israel. Knowing by then not to doubt these messengers, Joseph first saves the savior from Herod’s swords, and then, upon the tyrant’s death, returns Jesus to the nation through which salvation will come to the world.

During the great eras of Christian painting, which for 1500 years meant Roman Catholic or Orthodox art, depictions of Saint Joseph – often with the infant or boy Jesus and in portraits of the Holy Family – were among the most common motifs in sacred art. (A few of my favorites illustrate this column: by Guido Reni, John Everett Millais, and Georges de la Tour.)

Joseph is often portrayed as white-haired and elderly, especially when we see him at work as a carpenter (the Millais is an exception: Joseph is bald with dark, dangling payos). In pictures of the Nativity his hair may be black, but the age difference between him and Mary is usually evident and pronounced.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais, 1850

One thing that until recently never registered with me about Joseph is his silence. He plays such a significant role in God’s drama, yet he has no lines – not in Scripture anyway. We hear from Christ’s mother, His aunt, uncle, and cousin, but never from his earthly father. As Pope Francis put it in his homily upon receiving the pallium and the Fisherman’s Ring, Joseph is (as all fathers must be) a protector:

How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. . . . As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.

Every father – especially so the father of sons – learns that there are times when simply being there – cheering, explaining, scolding, but often silent – is at least half the job.

In the New York City playground where my sons cavorted as tots, they would often stop in the middle of frolicking and run to me. They would touch my hand or lean against me breathless before running back to whatever game engrossed them. It was if I were a battery charging station – but not a boost to their energy, which was boundless, but to top-off their souls. Daddy’s here; we’re safe.

Compared to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, my wife and I and our sons (now grown men) have lived like aristocrats. When His parents presented Jesus to the temple, their offering was not a lamb but a couple of birds – a poor folks’ sacrifice. When we presented our younger son to the temple of higher education, we laid out six figures. But I think the boys know their principle education – courtesy of the parents – was gratis, as love always is.

         Joseph the Carpenter by George de la Tour, c. 1645

My sons touch base less often now, but that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? They have grown strong.

At the end of his inaugural homily (celebrated simply as the Feast of St. Joseph), Pope Francis said:

Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!
I’ve never been able to grasp why some fathers are abusive towards or competitive with their sons.

And we recall that, despite his humble estate, Joseph was of royal lineage, descended as he was from King David, himself a humble shepherd. There is in this something of what C.S. Lewis was getting at in The Chronicles of Narnia, namely that each of us, no matter how humble (and we are dust after all), is offered a crown if we follow Christ, which we do when we are strong in love.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 25, 2013
I share the homily I preached last Tuesday - the feast of St Jospeh:

It is time to rehabilitate St. Joseph. What do I mean by that? There was a time – still alive in the memories of most of us here – that St Joseph had an esteemed role to play in the lives of Catholics. But it seems that St Joseph receded into the background of our lives and devotions.

If there ever were a time when we needed the intervention of St. Joseph, this is probably it. We all know the qualities associated with Joseph: hardworking, devoted to his spouse Mary, protector of the holy family, mentor to Jesus in his formative years, steadfastness, obedience to God’s will, etc, etc. It is no wonder that he is called the Patron the Universal Church.

My guess is that the diminishing esteem for Joseph’s role in salvation history had a lot to do with what has happened to family life in the past half century. I need only mention the highlights of this: divorce, absentee fathers, marital infidelity, children who don’t know who their father is, men plagued by pornography, how men’s role in the family is held up for ridicule, men who are abusive to their children and spouses. I could go on and on.

The role of the father needs a good deal of rehabilitation in our society. Why is this so critical? For one very good reason and it is this: fathers have the unique role of conveying to children an image of God. If your father is absent, unfaithful to your mother, abusive, stern, punitive and his role is not esteemed by society what do you think a child’s sense of God as father is going to be? On the other hand if your father is present in your life, a stable influence, a moral leader in the family, someone who cares for and loves your mother, hardworking, protective, reliable, available to let you know when you have made a mistake but forgiving when you do, what do you think that child’s image of God is going to be?

As a parish, we need to ask ourselves how we are supporting fathers and fatherhood among our parishioners. Are we doing anything to shore up the important role of the father in our families. If not, let’s get going.
written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
When I read this, I thought of Joesph Ratzinger, a holy father.
written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
Amen Deacon Ed.
written by Maggie-Louise, March 25, 2013
Thank you for an excellent column and thank Deacon Ed, also. However, the good Deacon ran all around the the issue without ever getting to its core--feminism. There is hardly a social or cultural problem and/or abomination in the United States today (and that includes the diminished devotion to St. Joseph) that can't be traced right back to the source--feminism.

Obesity in children? Women are too tired to cook real food at the end of a hard day's work.

The feminization of men? Obvious.

Teenaged girls posting nude photos of themselves on the internet? Their fathers have been driven out of the house and were not there to teach their daughters what self-respect and Christian self-love is. Daughters no longer see themselves reflected in a loving father's eyes--or his disapproval when the skirt is too short or the neckline too low.

This failure to call a spade a spade is seen in all the media. The media (and most men) are terrified of offending the feminist lobby.

Social security going broke? Maybe it's because women would rather have careers--any career--than to stay at home with their children. And don't talk about the cost of living. I remember when a father's salary we enough to support his family. When mothers went to work, it didn't take long for the economy to catch up with the two-income family, but it was the two-income family that came first.

And, of course, the serpent approached Eve, not Adam. She swallowed the lie--then and now. Will we never learn?
written by Richard L. Giovanoni, March 25, 2013
The item about St. Joseph (Mar 25) Contains the words "soon to be wife". This is wrong. Joseph and Mary, by the Law were married at the time of the bethrothal. See Deut 22: 20ff as well as the teaching of St. Thomas. Also Pope JP II in REDEMPTORIS CUSTOS No. 18 and Benedict XVI in his last bool THE INFANCY NARATIVES pg. 34. Note that the official translation in the liturgy says "take Mary your wife..." You do a great diservice to think that God would have His Son concieved outside of marriage.
Richard Giovanoni
written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
And Amen Maggie-Louise.

The forces besetting us are the idolatry of power...the call of God is imitating the total self gift of Jesus.
written by yaya, March 25, 2013
"This, of course, goes to the heart of the Church’s teaching on divorce, since the situation Joseph thought he was in is the only one Jesus would later allow as grounds for a divorce: adultery committed during a betrothal"

Is a betrothal the same as marriage? I thought it was similar to an engagement. Ending an engagement is not the same as a divorce. I thought there was no divorce? The "chastity" that Christ refers to when answering the pharisees is the marriage itself; i.e. the marriage was never valid in the first place hence the existence of annulments. If a marriage is validly done and consummated it cannot be ended regardless of what either parties do (except die of course).
written by John Michael, March 25, 2013
Maggie-Louise; A thought provoking post. My compliments.
written by Manfred, March 25, 2013
The Feast of St. Joseph in Italy also serves as Italy's Fathers' Day. (You see, in a secular society such as the U.S.,Father's Day, Mother's Day, Martin Luther King Day are creations of the Government). In Italy only the Pope is referred to as Papa. When a term of endearment is directed at one's own father, the term is pronounced "Papaa" with the accent on the second syllable. The Italian word for father is babbo with babbino as a term of affection (cf. Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro). Obviously, there will not be a Fourth Commandment in the secular world much longer for how are we to honor our Father and Mother when we are conceived in vitro, or via surrogate or my name is Heather and I have two Mommies? (This is not going to end very well, is it?)
written by Erin Pascal, March 26, 2013
Wonderful article! This article shows how great St. Joseph was as a leader of a family, a husband of a wife, and a father of a son. He is a very good example of what a leader, a husband, and a father should be like. He was there guiding Jesus and Mary every step of the way and never gave up. Thank you for sharing!
written by Frank, March 26, 2013
"A father makes all the difference." -Roy Hobbs
written by Gary Knight, March 28, 2013
I always love to reflect on the huge role plaid by saint Joseph in the highest mystery, the hypostatic union of God with Man; the incarnation and its place in the world. Not sure where I read it, but Joseph is the only creature next to Mary with an intimate share in this highest honour, this 'order of sanctity' -- which is above even the angels. I think the 'triumphalistic' sound of that claim explains why so many priests silently reject it. But really, no wonder that among his many titles of true devotion, Joseph is called 'terror of demons' - a fatherly protector whom we need more than ever today. I was honoured to write an article on Joseph for his May 1 feast a couple of years ago in HPR; and there's so much more one could say: things like "if it's true to say 'to Jesus through Mary' [and it is], then how much more: to Mary through Joseph" ; or "no-one in existence has greater devotion to Mary than Joseph; for true devotion to Mary, learn from Joseph"; and in case anyone is puzzled how to go to Joseph given none of his words in scripture, remember he is patron of the Interior Life .. a fact well known by Carmelites from of old. Just yesterday I was moved to remark in email to a friend the following insight which I'm sure comes from a sermon by Catherine of Sienna (and which ends with a momentary reflection on his deep humility, the mark of perfection) "It's a great marvel isn't it, that God gave this just man the exalted role of father to us all who are brothers and sisters in Jesus. The very fact that God the Father, 'jealous' against any false god is not the least jealous of Joseph's headship of the holy family, and of all Christian families; that the Holy Spirit entrusted to Joseph the greatest treasures both created and uncreated: His own spouse and Divine son; and that this Son honoured Joseph fully in the commandments, in obedience and learning. It gives us only a glimpse at how wonderful is Joseph's patronage. I'm sure Joseph will never 'get over it' himself !" You will perhaps wonder, when I meditate on the fact that in Jesus' real presence of the sacrament and I see Mary as the reality behind the monstrance, where is silent Joseph? He's the church or chapel edifice itself: the roof and domus; pew and kneeler: the caring hands that cup us in this sacred space. He is the frame, or tilma itself which supports the living image of Mary our Mother. Together with pope Francis, let's look forward to May 1 this year in a big way, bringing together in our hearts such deep regard for the worker and patron of North America and the universal Church, and this holy patroness of the Americas.

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