When St. Pius X officially sanctioned the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909, he acknowledged him to be both the Patron of the Dying and the Protector of Holy Church. It was Pope Pius IX who first invoked him under the title of Patron of the Universal Church and he did so because dedicated his life to safeguarding the two most important members of the Church, Our Lord and Our Lady. Tradition also names him Patron of the Dying because he died the most blessed of all deaths in the presence of the same two whom he had so vigilantly protected during his earthly sojourn. But it is the title that bridges St. Joseph’s dual patronage, Terror of Demons, which constitutes his most active roles in the lives of individual Christians. There is a danger of seeing the litany as merely a catalogue of things that St. Joseph can do; the carpenter who is the jack of all trades. These last three titles have an interconnectedness that stocks our personal arsenal in times of great trial. In truth, they arm us for the greatest of trial each of us will face, death.
All of the spiritual masters of old suggest that we reflect upon death regularly, not just to know about it, but to remember it. They do so not just because it helps keep things in their proper perspective, but because it is the moment when our souls are in the greatest peril of being lost. During our lives, the great majority of us see the devil as the Cheshire Cat but for all of us he will reveal himself fully as the prowling lion intent on the ruin of our soul (1 Pt 5:8). When his time is short, his wrath is greatest (Rev 12:12).
Why the Battle is So Fierce
Why this time of trial is so severe may not be entirely clear so that by adding some clarity we can steel ourselves for those inevitable moments. Through His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). But He did not take away death, but instead freed us from “the fear of death” (Heb 2:15). Death itself is the last enemy to be destroyed (c.f. 1Cor 15:26) and still remains the playground of the Devil. Just as in the rest of life, the devil is given power because it provides matter for our growth in the theological virtues. On the cusp of death our faith and hope are sorely tried and through their fervent exercise provide a growth in our desire for God, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, which is much better” (Phil 1:23).
By freeing us from the fear of death Our Lord not only gives us a share in His victory but empowers us to make the victory our own. Thrust into spiritual combat with the devil, the faithful are enabled to defeat the “strong man.” Our Lord’s victory on the Cross does not merely defeat the devil, but destroys him (c.f. Heb 2:14). That is, He renders Satan’s power at the time of death ultimately ineffective. To be defeated by the Word made flesh is one thing, but to be defeated by hairless bipeds is quite another. Satan’s destruction comes about because he can no longer bind severely handicapped human creatures. Through the mysterious action of grace each of us can truly say that the victory is mine.
Armed for the Final Battle
The Church was given the power to arm the faithful for this final battle through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Council of Trent says that among the effects of the Sacrament is the power to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Session 14). While the Sacrament bestows this power ex opere operato, the effect within the individual believer depends upon his subjective disposition to receive the grace.
By anticipating the fronts on which the attacks are likely to occur, we can be better prepared for the ensuing battle. It is our faith and hope that are put to the test during this final battle and so we need to examine how these two virtues are tried—faith through doubt and credulity and hope through despair and presumption. In his book, Spiritual Combat, the 16th Century author Dom Lorenzo Scupoli examines these four areas and gives some tips to make us battle ready.
In his attacks against faith he will attempt to stir up anxiety about what is to come by planting the seeds of doubt about the faith of the Church in our minds. The battle is not however to have a ready defense so as to argue. Our Lord’s temptation in the desert reveals the Devil to be a liar and a sophist and able to twist and distort even the most blatant of lies. Instead we must have the interior habit of faith—a firm clinging to the truth of all that the Church teaches. The more ingrained that habit is, the stronger will be our defense. In any regard we are to offer no pearls to the demonic swine. As Scupoli says, “if the subtle serpent demands of you what the Catholic Church believes, do not answer him, but seeing his device, and that he only wants to catch you in your words, make an inward act of more lively faith. Or else, to make him burst with indignation, reply that the holy Catholic Church believes the truth; and if the evil one should ask in return, ‘What is truth?’ you reply, ‘That which she believes.’”
The devil will also tempt us towards credulity through false visions. Knowing the likelihood of an attack on this front, we should turn away from any visions in humility by seeing ourselves as unworthy of visions. Even if they turn out to be true, God ultimately is pleased with our humility and therefore will not hold it against us. Instead acts of trust are to be made in the mercy of Jesus and the prayers of Our Lady and St. Joseph.
The second front by which the demonic sortie is likely to come is by attacking hope. Our past sins will be thrown at us all with the goal of despairing for our salvation. Humility and trust in the blood of Christ are the weapons of choice. Remembrance of past sins is a grace when it is accompanied by sorrow for having offended God and humility. But when these thoughts unsettle you, they come from the Wicked One. True sorrow is a gift of the Sacrament of Confession and will bear great fruit in this time of trial. Genuine humility, borne out in the crucible of the humiliations of life is a steady shield. To the extent that we develop these virtues now, they will be ready at hand in the time of trial.
Scupoli says that presumption is the final battle arena. In the face of despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits. In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “base yourself ever more and more in your own eyes, even to your last breath; and of every good deed done by you, which may come before you, recognize God Alone for its Author. Have recourse to Him for help, but do not expect it on account of your own merits, however many and great be the battles in which you have been victorious. Ever preserve a spirit of holy fear, acknowledging sincerely that all your precautions would be in vain, if God did not gather you under the shadow of His wings, in Whose protection alone you will confide.”
The logic of the Litany of St. Joseph now comes into view. If he is to be the Patron of a Happy Death, he necessarily must be a Terror of Demons. It is his prayers specifically during our battle that make him the Terror of Demons, chasing them from us by the power of his mere presence. By captaining the final battle of the members of the Church Militant, he is there to usher them into the Church Triumphant making the Church truly universal. By fostering our own personal devotion to St. Joseph, we too may come to share in his inheritance.