Although the Italian people date back at least to Roman times, the country identified today as Italy only traces back about a century and a half. Before 1870 Italy consisted of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, including the island itself and most of southern Italy; just north of that were the Papal States, encompassing much of central Italy from Rome up toward Venice; and then northern Italy, a mixture of dukedoms, principalities and small kingdoms, much under the sway of Austria and France. In 1861 these assorted Italian states gathered around the royal House of Savoy with Victor Emmanuel II as first monarch of the whole peninsula. In 1946, by a constitutional referendum, the Kingdom of Italy became the Italian Republic known today.
In retrospect, Italian unification in the mid-nineteenth century certainly made sense. But unification was not well received in all quarters. The Pope lost territory that Roman pontiffs had traditionally, if somewhat legendarily, ruled since the era of Constantine in the fourth century. Pope Pius IX was not at all pleased; nor were his successors. Pontiffs from Leo XIII until John XXIII remained “prisoners of the Vatican,” never stepping foot outside the Vatican walls for about a hundred years. Pope Pius XI did reach an agreement with the Italian government in 1929 when some financial compensation was offered for the lost Papal lands and the Vatican became a sovereign state.
In the meantime, however, the universal Church daily offered prayers for the restoration of the Papal States to their historic ruler. From 1884 to early 1965, the Leonine Prayers were prescribed for recitation by priest and people after Low Mass. The name “Leonine” derived from the fact that they were initially introduced by Pope Leo XIII to be offered for the defense of the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See. But the shock and regret at losing the Papal States resulted in more than these final prayers at Mass. On December 8, 1870, the Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated a decree announcing the decision of Pope Pius IX to declare St. Joseph to be the patron of the Universal Church, raising St. Joseph’s feast, still on March 19, to the rank of a solemnity. Following a lead from the fathers gathered for the first Vatican Council and from the popular devotion already accorded St. Joseph by the Catholic people, Pope Pius IX could find no better patron for the worldwide Church during those “troublesome times” than the protective spouse of the Virgin Mary and the fatherly figure of Jesus Christ’s early years.
In 1889, Pope Leo XIII further intensified his predecessor’s reliance on St. Joseph by publishing the “October Prayer to St. Joseph” and decreeing that it should be prayed throughout the Universal Church during October devotions celebrated for many years in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary. Both Pius IX and Leo XIII reasoned since God the Father had determined that St. Joseph would be the head of the first Christian household — Mary and Jesus — so now St. Joseph should continue in that office for the worldwide Christian household, the Universal Church. “As the Blessed Joseph ministered to all the needs of the family at Nazareth and girt it about with his protection, so he should now cover with the cloak of his heavenly patronage and defend the universal Church of Jesus Christ.”
Happily following the lead of his predecessors, Pope Francis on December 8, 2020, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, extolled St. Joseph in an Apostolic Letter making 2021 the Year of St. Joseph, hoping “to increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.” Pope Francis concluded his exhortation renewing the Church’s reliance on St. Joseph with a brief prayer intended to be offered by God’s faithful people in honor of this New Testament patriarch. Pope Francis’ prayer reads: “Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To you, God entrusted his only Son; in you, Mary placed her trust; with you, Christ became man. Blessed Joseph, to us too, show yourself a father and guide us in the path of life. Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage, and defend us from every evil. Amen.”
Pope Francis cited St. Joseph as “a beloved father…a tender and loving father…an obedient father…an accepting father…a creatively courageous father…a working father … and a father in the shadows.” The Church’s political turmoil in the nineteenth century found solace in the protection of St. Joseph. The Church’s secularizing turmoil in own day should likewise find the Christian people “turning to Joseph.”