Remembering the virtuous life of St. Joseph

Father John A. Kiley

St. Joseph’s name was added in 1921 to the Divine Praises, usually recited after Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, by Pope Benedict XV at the request of the Archdiocese of Quebec. St. Joseph’s name was likewise added to the Roman canon in 1962 by Pope John XXIII in recognition of the spiritual assistance rendered by Mary’s spouse to a Yugoslav bishop who had suffered in a prison camp for ten years. Pope Francis extended the use of St. Joseph’s name to all four canons used in the New Order of Mass. Still, while quite popular in the devotional life of the Church, St. Joseph has understandably lived the shadow of his exalted wife Mary and his illustrious son Jesus.
The Gospel writings of St. Mark do not mention St. Joseph at all. St. John’s Gospel narrative mentions St. Joseph only twice. The evangelist writes, “Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth (1:45).” And again, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother (6:43)?” Now St. John was writing well after St. Joseph would have died, so the mention of his name decades later is quite indicative that Jesus and Joseph were long associated with one another in popular talk. Joseph was not forgotten. And, happy to note, the foster father of Jesus, along with St. John the Baptist, does have two feast days — March 19 and May 1 — an almost unique distinction.
The early Gospel accounts of St. Matthew and St. Luke, proclaimed fondly during the Christmas season, are the obvious narratives that enlighten the believer about Joseph, the “just man,” the “carpenter,” “of the family of David,” the spouse of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. Joseph was clearly a good Jew. He wanted to do the right thing by the Law when he learned Mary was expecting a child. Yet Joseph was also a compassionate man. He chose not to expose Mary to the Law. Joseph was also a selfless man, risking exile in Egypt to protect Mary and Jesus from the fiendish Herod. Joseph was also a practical man, handing a trade onto his son Jesus who himself continued to be known in adult life as a carpenter. Saints Matthew and Luke do offer much information and inspiration in the early chapters of their Gospel accounts regarding St. Joseph, husband, father, worker and believer.
After the angel had revealed to Mary that she was to be a mother, she departed “with haste” to assist her cousin Elizabeth with her pregnancy and then returned home “to her own house.” It was possibly at this point that St. Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. He was understandably provoked, twisting and turning at night pondering his duty toward Mary and toward the Law. Inspired in a dream by God that Mary was not an adulterous woman, Joseph affectionately took her as his spouse and remained protective of her and her child ever after. Again the dutiful and loyal Joseph, accompanied by Mary, responded to the call of the Roman emperor going to his ancestral city of Bethlehem to register in a world-wide census. It was happily here that Jesus was born. According to St. Luke, Jesus was presented in the Jerusalem Temple by both parents 40 days after his birth, eventually returning to Nazareth. But, just possibly, Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Bethlehem for a period of time since, according to St. Matthew, the family was living in “a house” when the Magi arrived, and, also, when Herod chose to eliminate the infant threat to his kingdom, he ordered that boys “two years old and under” be slaughtered, possibly indicating a long sojourn in Bethlehem. Also, a flight to Egypt from Bethlehem in the south makes much more sense than a flight to Egypt from Nazareth in the north, had the family returned home. The holy couple and their child did eventually re-settle in Nazareth and as a couple continued to take Jesus to Jerusalem annually for the Paschal feast. Since Jesus himself was cited as a “carpenter,” and not only as the son of a carpenter, it seems St. Joseph lived long enough to continue his fatherly care into Jesus’ mature years, handing on his own trade to his grown son.
St. Joseph is invoked often as the patron of a happy death. The Church rightly envisions St. Joseph, approaching the end of a virtuous life, consoled by his sinless wife Mary and encouraged his Divine Son Jesus. A happier death would be difficult to envision.