Only by denying the obvious can one fail to see that the collapse of our society is really about the collapse of the first society, the family. This collapse is directly related to a paradigm shift in which the husband and father has become superfluous, an add-on at best. It is no coincidence that at the same time devotion to St. Joseph has grown cold. Conventional piety and conventional wisdom make strange bed-fellows. The popular understanding of the Holy Family would have us believe that St. Joseph too was simply an add-on to the Holy Family; his presence not vital, but pretense, a mere keeping up of appearances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being irrelevant this not-so ordinary Joe remains the most powerful heavenly intercessor next to his wife. It may just be that by restoring St. Joseph to his rightful place within hagiography that this righteous carpenter can help to build a Catholic society once again.
Partial blame for the loss of popular piety might be laid at the feet of tradition itself. Joseph has often been described as the foster or adopted father of Jesus and this might be partly to blame for diminishing his role as Patron and Protector of the Church. One certainly cannot fault the reason for referring to him as such—insurance meant to protect the Divine origin of the man Jesus Christ and the virgin birth that accompanied His entrance into the world. Insurance should not diminish his greatness however. Referring to his “adopted” or “foster” father uses a relatively common occurrence—adoption—to describe something that is utterly unique—the Virgin Birth. There is a certain accidental quality to becoming an adoptive father. A woman who already has a son enters a marriage and the man takes the son to be his own. But there is nothing accidental about Joseph becoming the father of Jesus. From eternity God pre-ordained that Jesus would be conceived and born from within the marriage of Mary and Joseph. Jesus was not given just to Mary, but, like all children, was given to Joseph and Mary as husband and wife. St. Joseph was the right guy in the right place at the right time. As proof of this, it was his humility (and not thoughts of infidelity as conventional wisdom again would have us mistakenly believe) that caused him to doubt whether he was worthy of so high a calling (c.f. Mt 1:19).
The Mission of St. Joseph
“The right guy in the right place at the right time” put in more theological terms means that St. Joseph had a very specific mission from God; one for which He equipped the Guardian of the Redeemer. Now we begin to catch a glimpse of the cause of his greatness. As we attempt to “rank” the saints, we do so according to their proximity to the author of grace Himself, Christ. Our Lady is the highest of all the saints because she was given grace commensurate with her role as Mother of God. Her relationship to Christ was utterly unique as His Mother for she is the only person who shared the same flesh with Him. It is for this reason and this reason alone that she is “full of grace.” Related, although not to the same degree, is St. Joseph. His relationship to Christ as His earthly father and all that entails, including safeguarding the Boy and His Mother, affords him greater dignity than all the saints, save one. As Pope Leo XIII put it,
“Joseph shines among all mankind by the most august dignity, since by divine will, he was the guardian of the Son of God and reputed as His father among men. Hence it came about that the Word of God was humbly subject to Joseph, that He obeyed him, and that He rendered to him all those offices that children are bound to render to their parents. From this two-fold dignity flowed the obligation which nature lays upon the head of families, so that Joseph became the guardian, the administrator, and the legal defender of the divine house whose chief he was. And during the whole course of his life he fulfilled those charges and those duties” (Quamquam Pluries, 3).
The Pope’s point regarding Jesus’ obedience toward St. Joseph is important especially because it might be easy to overlook the implications of this. For Our Lord to be obedient to Joseph means that Joseph must have received specific divine illumination never to lead Our Lord astray. In other words, Our Lord would always obey him because he was enlightened with a supernatural prudence and animated by divine charity. This is why many Church Fathers have suggested that St. Joseph received the grace of impeccability at some point. In a certain sense it would be fitting that a man whom God the Son made Himself subject to would be preserved from error. One can hardly imagine living with Jesus for many years, serving Him with a paternal love and not being completely freed from all sin.
A Powerful Intercessor
It is Jesus’ obedience to St. Joseph, the perfect obedience of son to a father that makes St. Joseph a powerful intercessor. Our Lord refuses nothing St. Joseph asks for. But this is not the primary reason why we should go to Joseph like the sons of Israel did. It is St. Joseph’s sanctity, his plentitude of grace that puts Him closest to God and ranks him as the most powerful of saints, save one. His intercessory power is so great because he is so powerfully united to God that he knows only His will. Even his way of asking, because of who it is that is doing the asking, brings more glory to God.
If all human fatherhood is an image of God’s fatherhood, then St. Joseph’s is the most glorious of all. The Father chose him to be His representative on earth; giving to him in a very real way His fatherly authority over the Son. Joseph’s fatherhood most perfectly resembles God’s fatherhood because they have the same son, united to Him by love; a love that Joseph showed by his toils and sacrifices. In an analogous way, all Christian fatherhood can find a model in St. Joseph. In Baptism a child becomes a child of God and God then transfers his royal right to each father. With St. Joseph families can find a steady refuge, especially fathers.
Given the vital role that St. Joseph played in the first coming of the Lord, we should expect that he will play an equally important role in the second coming. One of the ways in which he will do that is by healing and strengthening families, especially those that turn to him during these tumultuous times. St. Joseph, pray for us!