Francis and Joseph

The most enduring image I have from the now famous papal interview is not something the pope said but something the pope has – a sleeping St. Joseph. I’ve never seen such a statute, but it makes much sense and gives me further insight into the spirituality of this dear man we call Papa.

The fact that the pope has that statue among his few possessions leads me to believe that he has devoted some thought to the mystery of St. Joseph’s sleep. Something about that pose has struck him and now serves as a daily reminder to him. I’ve not read what it is; perhaps he has not yet spoken about this. But I can imagine and reflect on it.

The Gospel recounts that St. Joseph received his mystical experiences via his dreams, in other words, while he is sleeping. I have always been struck by that and wondered about it. 

When I first read of the pope’s statue and tried to picture it, Psalm 127 came to mind:

Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city,
in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil –
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.
Certainly sons are a gift from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb, a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them.
He will never be shamed
for he will destroy his foes at the gate.

St. Joseph Sleeping by Arnolfo di Cambio, c. 1300

God gives to his beloved in sleep! I’m surprised that I’ve never thought of Psalm 127 before in connection with St. Joseph. This psalm corresponds so perfectly to this just spouse. As protector of Mary and Jesus – hence the protector of the infant Church – he is the guard who keeps watch, and yet he sleeps! His ability to sleep is an acknowledgment that it is the Lord Who guards the city; the Lord who builds the house. And the Lord rewards this trust by warning Joseph at the proper time while He is sleeping. We can put our trust in God!

And what of his quiver? The pure heart of this celibate who sacrificed physical paternity out of love for God, bears fruit as his quiver is miraculously filled with the Son of God – the most clear example in history that “sons are a gift from the Lord.” He will not be alone at the gate; Jesus will be at his side.

Surely anyone who has been given a great responsibility has experienced what Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” We often see our presidents graying in office. Great responsibility can mean great stress. 

The same is true of a bishop. And a pope. He is charged with confirming everyone in the faith. Yes, he has the support of the college of bishops of which he is the essential member; but is there a greater responsibility on earth than the one laid on the shoulders of the pope? 

In that interview, the pope tells of his first response to being elected. He put it in terms of Caravaggio’s representation of St. Matthew, “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. . .It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine. Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”

Who has not had that experience?  It’s so human. Francis knows that unaided he is not up to the task and yet he accepted it. And he seems serene in that acceptance. This can only mean that he has absorbed the lesson of Psalm 127. He knows the Lord is the builder and protector of the Church over which he serves as that “sweet Christ on earth.” God is in charge.

There is a lesson for all of us in there.  We worry so much these day about the condition of the world, but the Holy Father reminds us of the proper attitude: “The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is – these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.”

The Holy Father is reminding us that the church is not in her final stage, but rather on a pilgrimage of faith though which she will continue to grow and develop. Retreat is not an option, nor is seeking refuge in a previous stage of her life – “pure conservation” – the answer to the uncertainties of the pilgrimage. Her doctrines develop more deeply precisely through that engagement with the world she encounters on her pilgrimage.  

Yes, God is our refuge and He “is to be encountered in the world of today.” Blessed John Paul II exhorted, “Be Not Afraid!” Perhaps when we are tempted to fear, we can bring to mind Psalm 127 and an image of the pope’s statue of Joseph, sleeping peacefully.

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.