Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ten Things I Didn’t Know About Joseph

The bio of St. Joseph detailed in the Gospels is slender, as I wrote yesterday. There are, give or take, seventeen facts known about the foster father of Jesus and the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These facts you probably know, most anyway.

So to fill out 96 pages on St. Joseph, as French-Canadian theologian Jacques Gauthier does in St. Joseph: Man of Faith, a writer has to focus on the cult of the saint—the traditions and devotions that have arisen around the man in two thousand years of Catholic history.

Protestants of the sola scriptura school can scoff at these, but I find them compelling. They are effectively the result of meditations on the quiet man who stood by and protected the child Jesus and his Mother—meditations by the community of saints. These seem worth heeding, at least to me.

So what did Gauthier’s book teach me about the cult of St. Joseph? Here are ten notable items:
  1. No one really knows what to call Joseph. Was he the adoptive father of Jesus? Was he the legal, putative, or foster father? “The reality surpasses these categories,” writes Gauthier, “because Joseph’s fatherhood is unique in history.”
  2. The words GO TO JOSEPH, in Latin ITE AD JOSEPH, seen over statues and on church lintels worldwide, do not refer originally to St. Joseph. They are from Genesis 41:55, where Pharaoh instructs his famished people to go see the man, Joseph, son of Jacob, for food. 
  3. Some of the traditions about St. Joseph were first promulgated by non-canonical early writings like the Protogospel of James. Written in the second century AD, this text, popular in its day, says that Joseph was an elderly widower at the time he was betrothed to Mary and that Jesus’s “brothers” referred to in the Gospels were Joseph’s sons by his earlier marriage. The Protogospel of James is also the source of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. 
  4. St. Bernard, the Cistercian, and St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite, were two of the first saints with devotions to St. Joseph. St. Teresa advised making Joseph one’s teacher of prayer, or spiritual director: “Let the one who does not have a teacher of prayer take this glorious Saint as his director; he will not risk going astray.”
  5. Theologian Jean Gerson (1363–1429) and St. Bernardine of Siena gave theological foundation to the veneration of St. Joseph. “Their efforts culminated in the establishment of the feast of Saint Joseph in 1479 under the reign of Pope Sixtus IV. The month of March would also be dedicated to him.”
  6. Another Teresa, Thérèse of Lisieux, composed a poem “To Our Father Saint Joseph,” with the lines: “Like you in your solitude / We serve Mary and Jesus. / Their pleasure is our only aim. / We desire nothing more.”
  7. Like St. Brother André Bessette, Thérese of Lisieux acquired a devotion to St. Joseph from her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, who have themselves been proposed for sainthood and are now considered Blesseds by the Church. 
  8. In a long paragraph, Gauthier describes the “French school of spirituality” in which both Thérèse and Brother André were rooted. This group “took a keen interest in the humanity of Jesus and in devotion to the Holy Family and Saint Joseph.” Many of the early missionaries to French Canada took part in these devotions, leading to many villages with the name St-Joseph. In 1870, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Joseph the patron saint of Canada. 
  9. Several recent popes have written thoughtfully about Joseph, including: John XXIII, who left behind several prayers to the saint; John Paul II in his exhortation Redemptoris custos (Guardian of the Redeemer); and Benedict XVI in his angelus for December 19, 2010. 
  10. Official litanies of St. Joseph were approved by Apostolic decree in 1909. “The series enumerates Saint Joseph’s glorious titles, his virtues, and the various patronages that he exercises for our benefit.” Gauthier adds: “A litany is a tiny liturgy in itself that can help us to enter into the mystery of the Communion of Saints.”
I propose that meditating on St. Joseph, as the church has done for two thousand years, is another way of entering into this mystery. 

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