I understand that when this year of St. Joseph is done, I should have a deeper, more constant, more fervent devotion to St. Joseph. I understand that I should have spent time meditating on his role and his life, so as to be more familiar with him, and, going forward, to be a closer child and associate.
But how should devotion to St. Joseph change my character? How should it correct how I embrace the faith and approach this task of being a Catholic in the contemporary world?
Do these questions have an urgency with you, as they do for me? Do you sense that there is something maybe harsh and raw, some kind of tone of desperation perhaps, at least, a serious incompleteness – or for others, something dangerously superficial and ignorantly optimistic – about Catholic life in general today, which is in serious need of repair?
I don’t say that anyone in particular assessed the need and prescribed the cure – except maybe the Successor of St. Peter, with the spiritual intuition of his office. But rather that if there is such a need, and St. Joseph is plausibly the cure, then we’d be ignoring the Holy Spirit to ignore this important fact.
Let’s begin with happiness. When I look at St. Pope John XXIII’s remarkable Apostolic Letter of 1961, Le Voci, “For the protection of St Joseph on the Second Vatican Council,” I am struck by how naturally the Holy Father speaks of happiness and contentment (Italian: felice) in relation to St. Joseph. He says, for instance, of Pius XII, who instituted the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker: “Pius XII also took the same fundamental tone as his predecessor in many speeches, all of which were so beautiful, vibrant, and happy.” The “law of labor,” which St. Joseph shows us and to which all of us are subject, “is for all a ‘law of honor, peaceful life, and a holy, immortal prelude to happiness.’”
But how many Catholics do you know today whose manner would first be described as beautiful, vibrant, and happy?
Then, there is serenity, regarded as inseparable from silence. Here, the message is that we can expect our most important work in this life to be unseen and not broadcast. “St. Joseph. . .has a mission to fulfill, but who passes collected, silent, almost unnoticed and unknown in all humility and silence, a silence which was broken, however, by a shout, crying, ‘Glory forever!’”
In devotion to St. Joseph, these marks of happiness and serenity become connected: “Always be our protector. Let your inner spirit of peace, silence, work, and prayer in the service of Holy Church always cheerfully enliven us.” And these in turn are connected by John XXIII with the purpose of the Second Vatican Council: “To bring its task to a happy end, the Ecumenical Council only requires the light of truth and grace, disciplined study and silence, serene peace of minds and hearts.”
Then, there is sweetness (Italian: dolcezza). We are all familiar with the note of sweetness from the closing line of the great Marian hymn, Salve Regina: O clemens! O pia! O dulcis Maria! Perhaps like me you will shed a tear when you sing this line, which is itself so sweet. But an emotion is not a character trait. To be known for crying when singing is not to be known for gentleness and sweetness of character. But St. Joseph was gentle, and devotion to him is meant to soften someone’s character, making it appealing, softly receptive of what is good, and appealingly “sweet.”
Happiness, serenity, and sweet attractiveness – these seem a good start, and necessary corrections. But I end with two observations about these traits in our present condition.
First, they lie at the root and inspiration of the Second Vatican Council: therefore, we cannot reasonably expect the Council to attain its purpose without them. Here is how John XXIII put it in 1961:
The voices that come to us from all the points of the earth, in an expression of joyful expectation of hope for the happy success of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, continually stimulates Our spirit ever more to take advantage of the willingness of many simple and sincere hearts to turn with tender spontaneity to invoke heavenly aid, an increase in religious fervor, and clarity of direction for all that the conclusion of the council assumes and promises to increase the inner life of the Church and the social and the spiritual renewal of the world.
And so here we encounter, at the appearance of the new spring of this year and at the threshold of the sacred Pascal Liturgy, the gentle and amiable character of St. Joseph, the kingly husband of Mary, so dear to the hearts of souls who are more sensitive to the attractions of Christian asceticism and its expressions of religious piety, reserved and modest, but much more pleasant and friendly.
Second, these character traits are not likely to be attained by sheer acts of will but rather by habits of resting in the joyful consideration of Catholic truth, and by keeping clear of serious sin – graces which the Church has constantly sought from St. Joseph. Indeed, John XXIII refers to the famous prayer of Leo XIII to St. Joseph, “whose sweetness suffused much of Our childhood,” which includes these lines:
Defend, O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family, the chosen off-spring of Jesus Christ. Keep from us, O most loving Father, all blight of error and corruption. Aid us from on high, most valiant defender, in this conflict with the powers of darkness. As you once rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril, so now defend God’s Holy Church from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity. Shield us ever under your patronage, that, following your example and strengthened by your help, we may live a holy life, die a happy death, and attain to everlasting bliss in Heaven. Amen.
*Image: Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Jusepe de Ribera, 1630-35 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]