Christians have always been devoted to St. Joseph. But the Church as a whole adopted this devotion relatively late. Not until around 1480 was a feast of St. Joseph placed on the Roman calendar. Not until 1726 was his name even included in the Litany of the Saints.
During the 19thcentury, that time of the Industrial Revolution, the Communist Manifesto, the first public atheistic movements – the dawn of our “modern” world – the devotion really took off, so much so that the old Catholic Encyclopedia says, “No devotion, perhaps, has grown so universal, none seems to have appealed so forcibly to the heart of the Christian people, and particularly of the laboring classes.” Devotion to St. Joseph in the universal Church is, therefore, a sign of the times: it marks our age.
When we view the devotion in this way, we see that it has two notes. First, Joseph is invoked as the Patron of the whole Church, especially in times of extreme crisis. Second, he is loved as a model for the Christian family, especially the father as a guardian. These two notes are derived from the same source. When Joseph was guardian of the Holy Family, the “domestic church” and the Church simply were one and the same. He protected this earliest Church by fleeing Herod, but then guarded, instructed, and supported those in his care.
The first note takes priority in the pronouncements of popes in modern times. Thus Pius IX writes in 1870, “As almighty God appointed Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob, over all the land of Egypt to save grain for the people, so when the fullness of time had come and He was about to send to earth His only-begotten Son, the Savior of the world, He chose another Joseph, of whom the first had been the type, and He made him the lord and chief of His household and possessions, the guardian of His choicest treasures.” (Quaemadmodum Deus)
Like his “type,” then, Joseph in our time saves us from perils, which are far worse than famine: “And now therefore, when in these most troublesome times the Church is beset by enemies on every side,” Pius continues, “and is weighed down by calamities so heavy that ungodly men assert that the gates of hell have at length prevailed against her, the venerable prelates of the whole Catholic world have presented to the Sovereign Pontiff their own petitions and those of the faithful committed to their charge, praying that he would deign to constitute St. Joseph Patron of the Church.”
Leo XIII in 1889 continued this theme, in his great encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, Quamquam pluries: “During periods of stress and trial – chiefly when every lawlessness of act seems permitted to the powers of darkness – it has been the custom in the Church to plead with special fervor and perseverance to God, her author and protector, by recourse to the intercession of the saints – and chiefly of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God – whose patronage has ever been the most efficacious.”
“Venerable brethren,” he counsels fellow bishops, “you know the times in which we live: they are scarcely less deplorable for the Christian religion than the worst days, which in time past were most full of misery to the Church.”
Just as the Church has appealed to Mary in the past for help, so it should do so now. Why? Because of the closeness of the bond of marriage: “it may not be doubted that Joseph approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses so nobly all created natures.”
Exactly 100 years to the day after Leo wrote his wonderful encyclical, John Paul II wrote his own reflection on devotion to St. Joseph, the Apostolic Exhortation, “Guardian of the Redeemer” (Redemptoris custos). We think of John Paul as writing social encyclicals to memorialize developments in Catholic Social Thought, but he did something similar for devotion to St. Joseph.
He does not deny the threat to the Church and quotes, near the end, the prayer to St. Joseph which Leo XIII had offered, “Most beloved father, dispel the evil of falsehood and sin . . . graciously assist us from heaven in our struggle with the powers of darkness. . . .and just as once you saved the Child Jesus from mortal danger, so now defend God’s holy Church from the snares of her enemies and from all adversity.”
Of course, as one would expect, he says some words, relatively few, on “work [as] the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth.”
But although he was as alive to the threats of communism and modern ideologies as anyone, his focus (this was 1989!) is on “the Church in our day in light of the Third Christian Millennium.” He is less concerned with attacks from without than with the need for renewal within: “[Joseph’s] patronage must be invoked . . . not only as a defense against all dangers, but also, and indeed primarily, as an impetus for her renewed commitment to evangelization in the world and to re-evangelization in those lands and nations where . . . religion and the Christian life were formerly flourishing and . . . are now put to a hard test.”
Joseph is such a patron, the Saint Pope explains – taking up the theme from Leo XIII – because he is the great saint of marriage – he is everything that he is, only because he was married to Mary. Also, in a beautiful passage, he explains why Joseph is the great saint of interior life:
Why should the “fatherly” love of Joseph not have had an influence upon the “filial” love of Jesus? And vice versa why should the “filial” love of Jesus not have had an influence upon the “fatherly” love of Joseph, thus leading to a further deepening of their unique relationship? Those souls most sensitive to the impulses of divine love have rightly seen in Joseph a brilliant example of the interior life.
*Image: Holy Family with St. Joseph by Raphael, 1506 [State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia]