Saint Joseph: Living affirmation of our human nature
The eternal Word of God, made flesh, is the Lord of the universe and the Lord of history. We believe and we know that God’s eternal wisdom is a match for the mystery of iniquity, and we are confident that He provides the means in every age, to counter the errors and evils of the time. On our part, we must recognise both error and evil for what they are, and make use of the providen- tial gifts that God has given.
Since the work of the evil one is neither true nor reasonable, we do not expect it to progress in logical steps, and since God does raise up saints, we know that evil does not always progress or triumph, even in the short term. God’s work, on the other hand, is both true and infinitely wise. We must trust the wisdom of God’s provision for us to progress in the way that it is made known to us in the Church in response to changes in the world.
Devotion to Saint Joseph, and our under- standing of his place in God’s revelation, has developed greatly over the past few centuries. It finds a particular importance in our own time against the backdrop of grave errors concerning the human person, the sexes of male and female, the sanctity of life, both at its beginning and at its end, the right ordering of procreation, and the created reality of marriage.
Development of devotion to Saint Joseph
By way of exception, the Coptic Church celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph from about the fourth century, probably in recognition of the flight to Egypt, but generally it grew up later, gradually becoming popular from around the tenth century. In the late fifteenth century, it was introduced at Rome and then spread widely. During the three centuries after the Council of Trent, there was a steady increase in the solemnity attached to the celebration of St Joseph in the sacred Liturgy.
Blessed Pius IX in his Apostolic Letter In- clytum Patriarcham (1871) summarised the steps taken by his predecessors since the Council of Trent. In 1621, Gregory XV ordered the feast to be celebrated in the universal calendar, Clement X in 1670 raised it to a double of the second class. In 1714, Clement XI added a proper Mass and Office, and Benedict XIII in 1726 added Saint Joseph to the Litany of Saints. In 1847, just a year after his election as Pope, Blessed Pius IX himself extended the sep- arate feast of his patronage to the whole Church as a second-class double. Later in his reign, Blessed Pius IX suffered the in- vasion of the papal states by the forces of Victor Emmanuel and became a prisoner of the Vatican. It was in this context that he prayed “for the overthrow of all evils in these lamentable times”, and during the first Vatican Council, proclaimed Saint Joseph as Patron of the Catholic Church, having raised his principal feast on 19 March to the rank of a first-class double.
With the encyclical letter Quamquam Pluries (1889), Leo XIII began a process, which continues today, of Popes offering reflections on Saint Joseph’s life and spiritual influence. Speaking of St Joseph being the spouse of Our Lady, the Pope said that he was not simply her life’s companion, but also, by virtue of their marriage, a sharer in her sublime dignity. In relation to the Church, he pointed out that the Holy Family, the household which St Joseph governed with fa- therly authority, contained in itself the Church at its beginning. Pope Leo affirmed that as a consequence, St Joseph regards all Christians of the Church throughout the world as confided to His trust and pa- ternal authority. This is a deeper understanding of St Joseph than is often presented in purely scriptural approaches, but it prophetically helps us to appreciate the particular value of the Holy Patriarch in our own time, when marriage, the family, spiritual and doctrinal authority, and even our crea- tion as male and female, are called into question or even regarded as something hateful to defend.
The twentieth century saw the Popes refer to Saint Joseph in answer to the question of political turmoil. The classical Latin term for “revolution”, used by Cicero, is res novae: Pope Leo XIII headed his encyc- lical on revolution Rerum Novarum. In the wake of the first world war, Pope Benedict XV in Bonum Sane (1920) spoke of a widespread dedication to earthly goods alone, which as a consequence led to class hatred (“mutuas- classium inimicitia”) and societal convulsions which were devastating large areas of Europe. He was referring to the communism which had grown as a consequence of the recent Russian Revolution. Pope Benedict XV offered Saint Joseph as the patron for those who earn their bread by labour, so that they “learn to consider passing current events in the light of future things that last eternally.”
After the second world war, Pope Pius XII followed up on the concern about communism. In 1949, the Holy Office issued a decree stating that it was not licit to join communist parties, that those who did so were forbidden from Holy Communion, and that those who pro- moted such parties or their errors, incurred excommunication re- served to the Holy See. (AAS 41  p.334) On 1 May 1955, speak- ing to the Association of Italian Christian Workers, he warned them against the errors they would encounter, especially the “atrocious slander” that the Church is the ally of capitalism against the workers. He proposed the same remedy as Pope Benedict XV: prayer to Saint Joseph. He followed in the long path of increasing veneration for him by announcing that he would institute the celebration of St Joseph the Worker as a feast for May Day. (AAS 47  p.402-407)
At Vatican II, on 10 November 1962, Bishop Petar Čule of Mostar, pleaded for the inclusion of the name of Saint Joseph in the Roman Canon. The bishop had spent a number of years in prison under the communists in Yugoslavia, during which time he suffered serious injuries. Cardinal Ruffini asked him to cut short his speech, joking that it was holy and pious, and that he hoped that there were many saints in Yugoslavia. At the end of the session, the Cardinal gave rise to laughter in the hall by concluding the Angelus with an invocation of Saint Joseph. Three days later, Saint John XXIII made a surprise announcement, adding the name of Saint Joseph to the Canon. The announce- ment did not meet with universal applause; nevertheless, Saint Joseph has remained in the Canon, and in 2013 Pope Francis added his name to the other Eucharistic Prayers of the modern Roman Rite.
Waiting for the development of doctrine
In 1989, for the centenary of Quamquam Pluries, Saint John Paul II wrote the Apos- tolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos. Last year, Pope Francis issued the Apostol- ic Letter Patris Corde, marking the 150th anniversary of Quemadmodum Deus. Both popes offer extensive commentary on the of human life has been violated at its be- ginning by widespread abortion, and at its end by the spread of euthanasia. The very nature of humanity as male and female is now under serious challenge in many coun- tries including our own by the promotion of the idea of transgenderism. At the time of writing, some NHS Trusts have given the lu- dicrous instruction that mothers should be referred to as “birthing people.”
This wide-ranging assault on the nature of the human person created by God is met head-on by the figure of Saint Joseph. We could deal individually with each of the evils listed and ask for Saint Joseph’s prayers or look to his example, but we can also look at the place of Saint Joseph in the plan of God and find in him the answer to all of them at once in the providence of God.
Theoretically, it might once have been a puzzle why the figure of Saint Joseph was even necessary. Our Lady could have Scripture passages relating to Saint Joseph and highlight his virtues. For example, Saint John Paul emphasises the sanctification of everyday life and the union of active and contemplative life modelled in Saint Joseph, while Pope Francis focusses on his refusal to look for shortcuts or for facile and com- forting solutions.
At the same time, since the Council, the working of the mystery of iniquity has been seen particularly in those areas of life which have a relevance to Saint Joseph’s manhood, his fatherly care, and his nature as a chaste husband. In those decades, a radical fem- inism has grown up which damages the relationship between men and women. The right ordering of procreation has been devastated by contraception. The sanctity without needing him to be a foster-father. To say that Saint Joseph was important to give security to the family, or to provide material sustenance was perhaps all that we might have thought of in the past. Now that our very human nature is called into ques- tion in various ways, Saint Joseph comes into his own as part of the providence of God in a more fundamental way.
Within the Faith Movement, we have always argued that the division of the sexes was part of the eternal plan of God for the incarnation of the Word. In order that God may become truly man while remaining truly God, it is necessary that The Woman, chosen from before all creation, and preserved free from original sin, should co-operate with God for His conception and birth. The division of the sexes means that there are also men in creation. The second Adam, Jesus Christ is a man, the Son of Man, the eternal High Priest, and the one in whose priest- hood men share until the Second Coming.
What I wish to suggest here, is that in addition to the male priest- hood, the division of the sexes also makes necessary, in the same plan of God, the provision of The Husband. As an archetype, Saint Joseph is husband for the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster-father for Our Blessed Lord. The “birthing person” is a woman, created as such, and she flourishes in marriage, with a man who is himself created to be a man. Saint Joseph is chosen to be husband and foster-father in accord with the design of God’s creation.
The family is not an arbitrary construction, it is the way that God has chosen for us to be, so that ideally children can flourish with parents of both sexes. Certainly, there are mothers who manage without, for one reason or another, but the current cultural experiment in which the presence of a father is considered dispensable “for any just cause” is palpably disastrous. Now, even the very nature of the human person as male and female is under attack. Not only that, but a person may fall foul of the law even by questioning transgenderism. Saint Joseph stands as the ultimate negation of these societal self-harms.
It is indeed providential that the Church has venerated him with ever greater solemnity. If, as I believe to be more obvious now than ever, God has led the Church to develop such increased veneration in response to the evils of the day, it would be a shame if we failed to take notice. The special Year of Saint Joseph runs until 8 December, so there is still time to observe it with greater fervour.
Were the matter to have been raised in first century Palestine, Saint Joseph would have been sure of his pronouns and those of his wife and foster-son. He knew how to fight for the survival of his family, and not their destruction at the hands of a tyrant or in the course of a medical termination of life. His affection and love for his wife was properly ordered and followed the natural law. It was fitting for Popes to underscore his protection of the Church when it was being attacked, and his solidarity with workers at a time of growing communism. He is now an ideal focus as patron or protec- tor of the whole human family and of the authentic expression of human nature created by God, male and female, for the Incarnation, for the family, and for the population of heaven.
Fr Timothy Finigan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Southwark.