In this year of St. Joseph, let’s at least do justice to St. Joseph. Mere justice is the starting point of love and devotion.
In some earlier columns, I argued (here) that we don’t do justice to St. Joseph if we take him to have doubted Mary’s fidelity. We certainly don’t do justice to him either if we think (here) that he had relations with her after Our Lord’s birth.
So in this column, I want to challenge the assumption that it is enough to call him a “foster father.”
We often refer to St. Joseph as the “foster father” or “guardian” of our Lord. Echoing Scripture, we maybe even say that he was “reputed” to have been Jesus’s father. Many saints and popes have used similar expressions, which are true, so far as they go. But they fail to get at the fullness of St. Joseph’s paternity.
As a father myself of a large family, this is a matter close to my heart. I address St. Joseph in prayer as “my father,” and I take him to be an example of fatherhood for myself. But could he have been in some sense “less” of a father than I am? (I mean “as father.” Clearly in virtue he is stupendously greater.) Can a student be greater than his teacher? These are shocking ideas and must be false.
I find that to grapple with this question well, you need to turn to an earlier generation in the Church, when families were intact, and biological paternity was taken more seriously. By contrast, we are disposed to agree too quickly that adoptive fatherhood exhausts fatherhood.
In part, this is because the authority of fatherhood is being attacked across the board, especially the authority of God as Creator. Also, people do not want to appear to be criticizing broken families, where children are not raised by their biological mother and father together. We have partly good motives too, insofar as we want to insist that raising a child is as important as engendering it.
Whatever the reasons, we too quickly accept that it’s enough to call St. Joseph a “foster father.” Yet an earlier generation was unhappy with this title. I began to understand this truth reading a marvelous devotional book by a French Dominican, Michel Gasnier, Joseph the Silent. First published in 1960 in Paris as Trente Visites à Joseph le Sliencieux, it was translated into English two years later.
“The style of the book,” wrote a contemporary reviewer, “is luminous and eloquent, as one would expect from an author whose works have been crowned by the French Academy and from a speaker whose eloquence has brought him invitations to preach in pulpits throughout France as well as in foreign countries.” Scepter Press has brought out this difficult-to-find book in a new translation for the Year of St. Joseph.
In his chapter on “Joseph’s Fatherhood,” Fr. Gasnier quotes Bossuet, who adapted a maxim from St. John Chrysostom: “God gave Joseph all that belongs to a father without loss of virginity.” He refers to a Congress held at the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, Canada, August 1-9, 1955, which enthusiastically adopted the expression “virginal father” to refer to St. Joseph. Indeed, such is the invocation at the start of a popular Prayer of Consecration to St. Joseph: “O Glorious Patriarch and Patron of the Church! O Virgin Spouse of the Virgin Mother of God! O Guardian and Virginal Father of the Word Incarnate!”
Fr. Gasnier maintains that “virginal father” is the better expression. “It is not easy to qualify Joseph’s paternity with precision,” he writes, “because it represents, if one may so express it, a paternity utterly unique in history; something so special, so original as to demand a new vocabulary capable of attributing a proper title to its function.”
What are Fr. Gasnier’s arguments? He points out that an adopted child is originally a stranger to at least one adoptive parent and possibly a ward of the state. But “From the moment he became incarnate in Mary, lawfully and divinely fruitful, he belonged at the same time to Joseph, since husband and wife, according to the order established by God are one, and hold their goods in common.”
It is no small matter to insist that Joseph and Mary were truly “espoused” (Douay-Rheims) when she conceived, and not merely “engaged,” as some paraphrase translations put it. (Mt 1:18)
Joseph moreover had an active role in Jesus’s conception, because of his love for Mary’s virginity: “The Man-God was the fruit of Mary’s virginity. . . .And Joseph, reverencing that virginity, prepared the way as it were for the Holy Spirit to make possible her miraculous fecundity. . . .Both, by common consent, had offered it to heaven as an acceptable gift. And both in return had received in equal measure a son, the fruit as it were, of their virginal union.”
Then too God “transferred his rights” as Father to Joseph, as signified in the angel’s words that Joseph would give the child his name, as if to say, “to you, God transmits his rights. . . .You will have a truly fatherly love for him, and you will exercise all the rights of a father over him.”
Joseph was even the father of the Redeemer “by blood,” because the blood that really counts in this regard is that of the mature man who offered himself on the Cross, and yet “Jesus will eat the bread earned by Joseph’s toil. . . .It is by means of the food bought with the price of Joseph’s toil that Jesus’ veins will be filled with that Precious Blood which he will spill to the last drop on Calvary.” Joseph’s sweat becomes the Lord’s blood.
Who could possibly be a better witness in this matter than Mary? In a moment of distress, she speaks of Joseph’s paternity as equal to her own maternity: “Behold,” she says, “your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” (Lk 2:48)
*Image: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt, 1860 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England]