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St. Joseph: an ordinary man given an extraordinary mission

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During this Year of St. Joseph, the Church is giving special attention to one of its most beloved saints. Pictured is the statue of St. Joseph that stands outside St. Joseph Church in Madison. Photo by Andy Telli

St. Joseph is one of Catholicism’s most beloved saints. 

Through the centuries, Catholics have asked for his intercession and protection. He is the patron saint of workers, travelers and immigrants, families, fathers, expectant mothers and unborn children, craftsmen and engineers, house sellers and buyers.

He is the patron saint of the dying and of a happy death, of the sort he himself experienced in the arms of Jesus and Mary.

He is considered by many as the patron saint of the New World and is the patron saint of a long list of countries, including China, Canada, Korea, Mexico, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Peru and Vietnam, as well as the regions of Carinthia and Styria in Austria, Tyrol in northern Italy and western Austria, and Sicily. Other countries, though they don’t count him as a patron saint, have a strong devotion to St. Joseph, including Italy and Poland.

His name, in many languages, is the most common name for cities and places in the world.

He is the patron saint of untold churches, dioceses across the globe – including the Diocese of Nashville – and of the Universal Church.

The Catholic Church has designated two days in his honor: the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19 and the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1.

And now we have the Year of St. Joseph, announced by Pope Francis on Dec. 8, 2020, the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church by Blessed Pope Pius IX.

All this for a man who is never quoted in the Scriptures.

“The universal appeal of Joseph is that he was this normal guy … called to this amazing mission,” said Joan Watson, director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. “All of us can see ourselves in Joseph,” often more easily than in the lives of Mary or the other saints, she added. 

‘He lived a very normal life’

The Lenten speaker series sponsored by Watson’s office this year is focused on the Year of St. Joseph. Watson gave the first of the four talks, which was entitled, “What’s all the fuss about Joseph?” 

“He lived a very normal life, from what we know,” Watson said. “It’s clear from the gospels that nobody thought he was out of the ordinary.”  She noted that according to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus returned to Nazareth, people were astonished by his preaching and wisdom and asked, “Is he not the carpenter’s son?”

Yet, St. Joseph is a great model for living a life of virtue, Watson said. “That’s our life. Our lives are ordinary, but we’re still called to live lives of virtue.”

Although he’s never quoted in the Scriptures, St. Joseph is one of our greatest teachers through his actions, Watson said in her talk.

In his apostolic letter “Patris Corde” (“With a Father’s Love”) about St. Joseph, Pope Francis reminds us that we don’t need to make a big splash in the world to make a difference, Watson said. The pope reminds us that those who remain hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation, she added.

During her talk, Watson said Joseph must have struggled with the news of Mary’s pregnancy. “We need to look at this time for Joseph as a dark night of the soul, a trial,” she said. “What would I have done in St. Joseph’s shoes?” 

Scripture describes Joseph as a “just man,” and the Old Testament understanding of that phrase was that a just man obeys the Lord, Watson said.

Joseph’s betrothal to Mary was not the same as a modern engagement, Watson said. “It was essentially a legal marriage without living together.”

Under Jewish law of the time, the punishment for a betrothed woman found guilty of adultery was stoning, Watson said. 

“He’s a law-abiding man, but he decides not to obey the law,” opting instead to quietly divorce Mary, Watson said.

As a faithful Jew, Joseph would have known of the prophecy that a virgin would conceive a son, Watson said. “There is where we find Joseph’s discretion and humility,” she said. “He must withdraw to leave Mary free to allow God to work through her. St. Joseph wants to do the will of God above all else.”

That is when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home because it is through the Holy Spirit that she has conceived. The angel tells Joseph to name the child, which gave Jesus his legal identity, Watson said. “You are not to step aside from this mystery. You are to guard this mystery … you have a mission,” Watson said of the angel’s message.

“Think of the selfless love this mission required of Joseph,” Watson said. “He can be that model of how we’re supposed to love our friends and family. … ‘All I want is for them to do the will of God.’”

Obedience and courage

“His whole life was lived not for himself but for the plan of God,” Watson said. “We may not have the words of Joseph in Scripture, but we have his actions. And again and again and again and again he’s obedient. Four times we have dreams commanding Joseph to do something and four times we have obedience.”

Joseph showed his courage, particularly in the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, leaving behind their family, their support system and their culture, Watson said. “Who knows the dangers that were waiting for them on the journey.”

“He didn’t know what the end of the story was,” Watson added. “We read the story knowing the end. … He had to really trust and have faith and have courage.”

“There was every reason for Joseph not to have peace in his life,” Watson said. “But he had it, not because there weren’t struggles in his life … but because he had Jesus.”

“He protected Jesus, he protected Mary, and he continues to protect the Body of Christ, us,” Watson said. “We need protecting. We need to learn courage, we need to learn obedience, we need to be at peace.”

“This is why Joseph is a perfect saint as we emerge from 2020,” Watson said. “Am I willing to let go of my own dreams to follow the greater mission that God asks of me? I think that’s a great lesson for us.”

A continuing devotion

During the Year of St. Joseph, the Church has approved several ways to earn an indulgence. “The Church is making it really easy for us, throwing grace at us,” Watson said. “Really embrace those opportunities.”

And there are many prayers to St. Joseph. Watson encourages people during this year to find one that suits their needs.

Pope Francis has said a prayer to St. Joseph every day for 40 years: “Glorious patriarch, St. Joseph, whose power makes the impossible possible, come to my aid in these times of anguish and difficulty. Take under your protection the serous and troubling situations that I commend to you, that they may have a happy outcome. My beloved Father, all my trust is in you. Let it not be said that I invoked you in vain. And since you can do everything with Jesus and Mary show me that your goodness is as great as your power. Amen.”

The Year of St. Joseph is an opportunity to incorporate St. Joseph’s characteristics in our own lives, Watson said. 

“I don’t think it was given to us for just this year,” Watson said. “It’s an introduction to Joseph … so the devotion can continue.”

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