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Joseph loved Jesus with a Father’s Heart

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Apr 23rd 2021


“With a father’s heart […] Joseph loved Jesus”: so begins the Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, which commemorates 150 years since Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph “Patron of the Universal Church” on December 8, 1870, to emphasize “his central role in the history of salvation.”[1]

Pope Francis speaks from “the abundance of his heart.” In this time of crisis and pandemic, our lives are sustained by ordinary people who do not appear in the headlines yet mark our lives: “Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understand that no one is saved alone. […] How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday ways, how to accept and deal with a crisis by adjusting their routines, looking ahead and encouraging the practice of prayer.” All the people who work, pray and suffer for the common good “can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. […] A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.”[2]

In the course of the Letter, the pope shares with us how important the saint is to him each day. In fact, beginning 40 years ago, he has concluded the recitation of Morning Prayer every day with this intercession: “Glorious Patriarch Saint Joseph, whose power makes the impossible possible, come to my aid in these times of anguish and difficulty. […] 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.”[3]

The prayer expresses confidence, but also a certain challenge to Saint Joseph, who can ask even the impossible of Jesus and Mary. We also know about Francis’ devotion from other sources: first as a bishop, then as a cardinal, and finally as a pontiff, he included in his coat of arms the spikenard flower, symbol of St. Joseph. He began his Petrine ministry precisely on March 19, 2013, the day of the solemnity; and on his desk he has a statue of the saint asleep, under which he tucks notes with any difficult problems to be faced, invoking his help. Finally, albeit at the behest of Benedict XVI, next to that of Mary, he added the name of “Joseph, her spouse” in the Eucharistic prayers of the Missal, as was already present for some time in the Roman Canon.


Saint Joseph was the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus: these are the two fundamental facts that emerge from Scripture. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is called the “husband of Mary” (1:16-19) and a “righteous man” (1:19). In all four Gospels he is called the “father of Jesus” (Luke 4:22; John 6:42; cf. Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3), and he assumed his legal paternity by giving the child the name revealed by the angel (cf. Matt 1:21). Naming is a sign of belonging and also indicates a person’s identity and vocation. Jesus is a Hebrew word for “savior”: “For he will save the people from their sins.”

“Spouse” and “father” define the mission entrusted to Joseph by Providence. He “had the courage to become the legal father of Jesus”[4]. This is a key issue in the biography of the saint, which defines the in no way marginal role he played in history. In Jewish society, those who have no father, and therefore no name, and were born outside of a marriage relationship, have no right to speak in public and are excluded from social life. Without Joseph’s fatherhood, Jesus would not have been able to proclaim the Gospel and carry out his mission.[5] For us today “father” is the one who gives life, not the one who adopts a child, while in the Old Testament the legal father is the true father. Therefore, the genealogy of Joseph determines the identity of Jesus: in the Gospel it is emphasized both by the infancy narratives[6] and by the passages denoting the virginal conception of Mary.[7]

However, the most original feature of the Letter is perhaps the emphasis that the pope gives to the spiritual depth of the saint. Until now, the accent has been placed not only on his fatherhood but also on Joseph’s trade, that of carpenter. Francis, on the other hand, places in the foreground certain qualities, which are normally lost in the background: “Beloved Father, Father in tenderness, Father in obedience, Father in welcoming, A creatively courageous Father” (Nos. 1-5). These are the traits of Joseph’s soul and his spirituality, but also the values that make the saint feel closer to us, almost on the same level as us.

Beloved Father

Saint Joseph is a beloved Father of the Christian people. Francis cites in this regard Saint John Chrysostom, who praises Joseph for placing himself “at the service of the whole plan of salvation” (No. 1), and Saint Paul VI, who reiterates his role of fatherhood, which consists in “making his life a sacrificial service to the mystery of the incarnation and its redemptive purpose. He employed his legal authority over the Holy Family to devote himself completely to them in his life and work. He turned his human vocation of domestic love into a superhuman oblation of himself, his heart and all his abilities, a love placed at the service of the Messiah who was growing to maturity in his home” (ibid.). It is not by chance that many churches throughout the world have been dedicated to Joseph; many religious institutes, confraternities, and ecclesial groups refer to him, bearing his name and honoring him with their spirituality and witness.[8]

Father in tenderness

“Jesus – as he grew in wisdom, age and grace – saw God’s tenderness in Joseph” (No. 2). As God did with Israel, so Joseph taught Jesus “to walk, holding him by the hand: he was for him like a father who lifts a child to his cheek, bending down to him to feed him” (ibid.).

Here the relationship between tenderness and human weakness is original. Francis draws from Evangelii Gaudium: salvation history is fulfilled through our weaknesses and frailties, which are often very difficult to accept.[9] But if this is the salvific perspective, “we must learn to accept our weakness with profound tenderness” (ibid.). This is how the Spirit of God acts in us: while the evil one judges and condemns our weaknesses, the Spirit touches them with affection, brings them to light with gentleness, to the point of making us experience divine mercy.

It is precisely through Joseph’s anguish that the salvific project progresses, where having faith means believing that the Lord can realize his plan even through our frailties: “In the midst of the storms of life, we must not be afraid to leave the helm of our boat to God. Sometimes we would like to control everything, but He always has a more profound gaze” (ibid.).

Father in obedience

When Joseph learns that his betrothed is pregnant, drama looms over the young couple. He decides to send Mary away in secret, not only so as not to create scandal, but because, being a “just man,” he wants to respect God’s plan. In a dream, Joseph accepts the annunciation: “Do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, to you. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20). “By obedience he overcame his drama and saved Mary” (No. 3).

The same happens when Joseph has to flee to Egypt, when he is ordered to go back, when he has to settle in Nazareth. Like Mary at the annunciation, Joseph was able to pronounce his own fiat. And he also teaches Jesus to do the same, that is, to obey his parents (cf. Luke 2:51).

In Israel, the father’s role in the family refers specifically to the education of children. An Old Testament historian writes: “After the first instruction by the mother (cf. Prov 1:8; 6:20), the duty of educating passed to the father. This education included not only instruction in reading and writing and professional training, but also moral and religious instruction.”[10] Joseph therefore teaches Jesus to honor his father and mother, according to the divine commandment of Exod 20:12.

In the hiddenness of Nazareth, paradoxical as it may seem, Jesus learned from Joseph to do the will of the Father. “This will was to become his daily food (cf. John 4:34). Even at the most difficult moment of his life, in Gethsemane, Jesus chose to do the Father’s will and not his own, becoming ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). This is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 5:8) concludes that Jesus ‘learned obedience from what he suffered’” (No. 3).

Welcoming Father

Francis emphasizes the original way in which “Joseph welcomes Mary unconditionally” (No. 4), trusting the angel’s words. Here the pope inserts a note of dramatic topicality: “The nobility of Joseph’s heart makes him subordinate to charity what he has learned from the law. Today, in our world where psychological, verbal and physical violence against women is so evident, Joseph is the figure of a respectful, sensitive man who, while not possessing all the information, decides to defend Mary’s reputation, dignity and life. In his hesitation about how best to act, God helped him by illuminating his judgment” (ibid.).[11]

The path Joseph shows us is not “a way that explains, but a way that welcomes” (ibid.). This welcome suggests a profound interiority, which not by chance recalls the drama of Job, when his wife urged him to rebel against God because of the evil that had befallen him: “If we accept good from God,” Job replied, “why should we not welcome evil?” (Job 2:10). Welcoming is the way in which in life one notices the gift of fortitude that comes from the Holy Spirit. It also induces us to make room for the “contradictory, unexpected, disappointing part of existence” (No. 4).

The angel’s words to Joseph teach us not to accept with resignation but to welcome with hopeful fortitude what we must face and have not chosen. In this context, it is essential to follow the Gospel when everything seems to turn against us. Even if some aspects of life seem to have taken a “wrong” turn and are irreversible, “God can make flowers sprout among the rocks” (ibid.). Christian realism does not throw away anything that exists. Reality, in its mysterious irreducibility and complexity, is the bearer of the meaning of existence with its lights and shadows. Joseph “does not seek shortcuts, but confronts [reality] ‘with open eyes’” (ibid.) and teaches us to welcome others as they are, but having a predilection for the weak, because God chooses what is weak (cf. 1 Cor 1:27), is father to orphans and widows (cf. Psalm 68:6), and commands us to love the stranger.[12]

A creatively courageous father

Pope Francis, alongside the depth of welcome, notes the courage of creativity. And he reflects on it after praising Joseph’s obedience, which is not passive, concerned with carrying out the command received, but that of one who uses his own intelligence, life experience, and the wisdom that has been handed down to him. The pope recalls the vicissitudes of the flight into Egypt, where Joseph “did not hesitate to obey regardless of the hardships he would encounter” (No. 3). And on their way back, when he learned that Archelaus reigned in Judea, he was afraid to return there and decided to go to Nazareth (cf. Matt 2:21-23). Here is creative courage, which is not at odds with obedience, and yet reveals responsibility in the face of new circumstances.

This is the courage that comes from the strength we have within us to face unforeseen difficulties or obstacles that seem insurmountable. But in the face of difficulties, if we do not throw in the towel, we can be ingenious. It is precisely the difficulties that bring out unknown resources in us, that reveal untold riches. The infancy narratives in the Gospels present Jesus seemingly at the mercy of the strong and the powerful. How many times are we tempted to ask ourselves why God does not intervene? Yet God fulfills his plan of salvation: “Joseph is the true ‘miracle’ by which God saves the Child and his mother” (No. 5), because the Lord always saves what matters. In this way Joseph teaches us to know how to turn a problem into a creative opportunity, because he knows how to put trust in Providence before everything else. “If at times God seems not to help us, this does not mean that he has abandoned us, but that he trusts us with regard to what we can plan, invent, find” (ibid.).

Interesting here is the mention of St. Joseph as “patron saint of migrants,” of those who are forced to leave their homeland because of famine, wars, persecution or misery.

The Son and the Mother

In this context Francis takes up a treasured message of Vatican II: “In the divine plan of salvation, the Son cannot be separated from his Mother, from Mary, who ‘advanced in the pilgrimage of faith and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son until she stood at the cross’”(No. 5).[13] Joseph, by protecting the Child and his mother – the image of the Church – becomes their guardian[14]: “The Son of the Almighty came into our world in a state of great vulnerability. He needed to be defended, protected, cared for and raised by Joseph. God trusted Joseph, as did Mary, who found in him someone who would not only save her life, but would always provide for her and her child. In this sense, Saint Joseph could not be other than the Guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history, even as Mary’s motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church.[15] In his continued protection of the Church, Joseph continues to protect the child and his mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the child and his mother” (ibid.). Here, in an original way, the citation from Matt 25:40 is inserted: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

With the conclusion: “Consequently, every needy person, every poor person, every suffering person, every dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every sick person is “the Child” whom Joseph continues to protect. That is why Saint Joseph is invoked as protector of the poor, the needy, the exiled, the afflicted, the dying” (No. 5). And this is also the fundamental mission of the Church: to love the lest, the abandoned, the rejects of society. The Lord is present in each of these people. Joseph teaches us this: to love the Child and his mother, that is, the sacraments and charity, the Church and the poor.

Working Father

In Rerum Novarum, the first social encyclical, Leo XIII highlighted Saint Joseph’s relationship with work. The saint was a carpenter – in Greek tekt?n (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3) – a term that has suggested various attributions: “worker,” “carpenter,” “master builder,” and so on.[16] The saint “worked honestly to ensure the sustenance of his family. From him Jesus learned the value, dignity and joy of what it means to eat the bread that is the fruit of one’s own labor” (No. 6). Francis emphasizes the importance of employment, which today is an urgent social issue, due to the lack of work for young people: work gives dignity to the person, and unemployment is a plague on society.

The pope insists that “work becomes a means of participating in the work of salvation. It becomes an occasion of fulfillment not only of oneself, but above all of that primary cell of society which is the family” (ibid.). A family lacking work is inevitably exposed to conflicts and tensions and to the “desperate and despairing temptation to break up” (ibid.). The crisis that grips society today is not only economic, cultural and spiritual, but is also a sign of the need to rediscover the value and necessity of work, in order to recreate a “new normality” from which no one is excluded. “The work of Saint Joseph reminds us that God himself, in becoming human, did not disdain work” (ibid.) and that Jesus worked until the age of 30.[17] It is essential today that everyone, especially young people, have a job (cf. ibid.).

Father in the shadows

The last section of the Letter has a mysterious title: A father in the shadows. It refers to a Polish writer who narrated in a novel the life of Joseph as the shadow of the Heavenly Father on earth: he follows him, guards him, protects him, never leaves his side and follows his steps.[18] This is the way Joseph exercised his paternity throughout his life, always remaining in the shadows, but assuming the duties of a father, because fathers are not born, they become, and not so much because a child is born, but because they become responsible for and love their children (cf. No. 7).

There is also an observation regarding the world today, where children often seem to be orphans, as if they had no fathers. The same thing also happens in the Church, where there is a need for fathers, that is, people who introduce their children to the experience of life, to the reality in which they must live, so that they may know how to face it with freedom and responsibility. At times it happens that a father almost wants to possess, imprison or condition his child, instead of making him or her free to be capable of facing life’s choices and following his or her own path autonomously.

Regarding Saint Joseph, tradition, alongside the term “father,” adds the adjective “most chaste”: it is not, says Francis, “simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery” (ibid.). The emphasis on chaste love is interesting because it fully respects the freedom of the other. God loves us in this way, “leaving us free even to make mistakes and set ourselves against Him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom” (ibid.). Saint Joseph knew how to love Mary and Jesus in this way; he never put his own interests first, but always preferred the good of his bride and Son. With a characteristic that qualifies his action, he did not do it as “self-sacrifice, but as self-gift” (ibid.). It was his vocation, since every true vocation is born from the gift of self.

Joseph lives his own paternity as a gift: for every child is a gift from God, and gifts are a reality to be cherished, but also in turn to be given, to be shared, to be liberated. In fact, “every child is the bearer of a unique mystery that can only be brought to light with the help of a father who respects that child’s freedom” (ibid.). In the pope’s words, the concept of fatherhood as a spiritual service is clear, as a mission capable of educating, maturing and letting children go free, so that they may walk alone on the paths of life. Joseph knew well that this Son was not his, but the Son of a higher paternity, the Son of God: he had only been entrusted to him. In this way the words of the Gospel were fulfilled: “Call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father, the heavenly one” (Matt 23:9).

It is surprising that the Gospels do not report a single word of such an important saint. Joseph is always silent; he is truly the silent “believer.” While we are told what other characters said in the most diverse circumstances (Mary, Peter and the apostles, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Pilate, Herod and Anna), we are told absolutely nothing about Joseph. It seems that the evangelists are intentionally silent about him: silence in Nazareth, silence in Bethlehem, silence in the flight to Egypt, silence in Jerusalem. It is a dense and full-bodied silence, cloaked in contemplation and mystery: because Joseph’s life unfolds before “God made flesh” and before Mary, who becomes his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt 1:20).

For those of us who often judge a person’s worth by words and brilliant speeches, and not by deeds, there is much to ponder. In life, facts count, and all the more so if they are marked by inner silence. Francis comments, “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”[19]

The purpose of the Apostolic Letter Patris Corde is to increase love for Saint Joseph and implore his intercession for our conversion. Therefore, Francis has declared a special Year of St. Joseph, dedicated to the father of Jesus, to understand the true meaning of fatherhood: it began with the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and will continue until December 8, 2021.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 3, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.3

[1].    Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde (December 8, 2020), “Introduction”. In this article, the numbers in parentheses refer to the paragraphs of the Letter.

[2].    Ibid.

[3].    Ibid. note 10.

[4].    Ibid., “Introduction”.

[5].    Cf. G. Magnani, Origini del cristianesimo. II. Gesu? costruttore e maestro. L’ambiente: nuove prospettive, Assisi (Pg), Cittadella, 1996, 225. See the commentary on Matt 1:16 in H. L. Strack – P. Billerbeck, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus erläutert aus Talmud und Midrasch, Munich, C. H. Beck, 1956, 35; 42 (for illegitimate children). Legal, or putative paternity was quite common in the East (cf. in the Bible the “levirate” law ).

[6].    Cf. Matt 1:20: “Joseph, son of David”; the genealogy in Matt 1:1-17; and Rom 1:3-4.

[7].    Cf. J. P. Meier, Un ebreo marginale. Ripensare il Gesù storico. 1. Le radici del problema e delle persone, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2001, 212. The problem of the illegitimacy of Jesus arose toward the end of the second century with the philosopher Celsus (cf. Origen, Contra Celsum), constituting a parody of the account of the virginal conception in the Gospel of Matthew (cf. ibid., 227).

[8].    The success of Saint Joseph in the history of the Church is much greater than one might think: between 1517 and 1980 172 religious communities were founded under his name or dedicated to him; of these, 51 are male and 121 female (cf. K. S. Frank, “Josef, Mann Marias. Religiöse Gemeinschaften”, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, vol. V, Freiburg – Basel – Rome – Vienna, Herder, 1996, 1001-1003; T. Stramare, San Giuseppe. Fatto religioso e teologia, Camerata Picena [An], Shalom, 2018, 588-602).

[9].    Cf. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), Nos. 88; 288.

[10].   G. Fohrer, “?ιóς”, in Grande Lessico del Nuovo Testamento, XIV, Brescia, Paideia, 1984, 129f. There are many biblical passages that insist on this paternal duty: Exod 10:2; 12:26-27; 13:8; Deut 4:9; 6:7, 20-21; 32:7, 46.

[11].   The quote is taken from Francis, Homily at the Holy Mass with Beatifications, Villavicencio – Colombia (September 8, 2017): cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 109 (2017) 1061.

[12].   Cf. Deut 10:19; Exod 22:20-22; Luke 10:29-37.

[13].   Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, No. 58.

[14].   This is how Saint John Paul II defined him: cf. the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos of August 15, 1989.

[15].   Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 1997, 963-970.

[16].   The term tekt?n properly indicates a “carpenter” or a “producer,” one who manufactures, a construction worker (in the Latin of the Vulgate it is rendered as faber), cf. H. Balz – G. Schneider, Dizionario esegetico del Nuovo Testamento, vol. II, Brescia, Paideia, 1998, 1587f; the term is at the root of “architect.” See also G. Ravasi, Giuseppe. Il padre di Gesu?, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2014, 57-65.

[17].   Cf. A. Spadaro – S. Sereni, “A partire da Gesù lavoratore”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 III 18-31.

[18].   Cf. J. Dobraczy?ski, L’ ombra del Padre. Il romanzo di Giuseppe, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2018.

[19].   Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, “Introduction”.

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