The National Catholic Review
Wisdom borrowed from St. Joseph

St. Joseph seems to have been a man of few words but plenty of action. The brief stories that mention him in the Gospels leave us with a vivid impression of a strong, supportive man who revealed his feelings and beliefs more in what he did than what he said. Over the years, I have come to appreciate this humble carpenter who always seems to stand a short distance from center stage. As a foster father he fostered many great traits in his son, Jesus. Through my prayer and reflection I have witnessed four wisdom principles in St. Joseph, the patron saint of fathers, workers and of the universal church.

Every difficult family situation is best met with compassion. “Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19).

The story of Mary’s unexpected and highly unusual pregnancy is so well known that it is hard to appreciate how scandalous this news would have been to Joseph. Few would have blamed him if he had “exposed her to shame.” But the penalty for proven adultery at that time was stoning, and Joseph chose to exercise compassion. He planned to divorce her quietly, rather than “hold her in her sin.” The grace to choose compassion opened up room for God to work in this situation and that made all the difference, not just for Mary, but for all of us.

In my own life as a dad, I recall times when I’ve acted from righteousness and times when I’ve acted from compassion. Compassion always trumps righteousness because compassion flows from human connection rather than separateness. Compassion demands that I see the one in front of me—my wife, a daughter, a co-worker, even myself—as a person and not an object deserving of an object lesson. Thank you, St. Joseph, for your example of compassion.

Expect God to speak to you. And be willing to listen. “Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her’” (Mt 1:20).

Joseph must have been used to listening for the voice of God in his life. Other men would have slept through such a dream or chalked it up to bad falafel. But Joseph listened, and then he acted decisively on what he heard, taking Mary into his home and later, at the urging of another dream, pulling up stakes and moving his young family far from Herod’s reach. I am always inspired by these examples of Joseph’s attentiveness and readiness to take action.

There were a few times while raising our daughters when my wife and I found ourselves bewildered as to what our next best step for them might be. And these words came to us one day—almost as if in a dream: “Love them through it.” We have recalled these words countless times regarding not only our daughters, but also with other family members and friends—and with each other as well. Thank you, St. Joseph, for inspiring me to listen for and act upon messages from God.

Practice your religion; it will help you discover who you are and why you are here. “According to the law of Moses they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Lk 1:22), and “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Lk 2:41).

Joseph is a great example of how practicing one’s religion can be life-giving and crucial to discovering one’s truest identity and purpose. When Mary and Joseph presented the child Jesus in the temple, they encountered Simeon and Anna, two holy people who spoke of Jesus’ great role in human history and predicted how all of their lives would be extraordinary.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus was “lost” in the temple, the family witnessed a deepening of Jesus’ understanding of his identity and his destiny. By observing the practices of his Jewish faith, Joseph experienced God doing what God always does: inviting us to open our hearts, realize who we belong to and discover our purpose in the world.

My family’s religious experiences surely pale in comparison to what happened for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but a few moments are memorable. During a parish renewal my wife and I signed on for six weeks of small-group faith sharing—which continued on for almost 10 years. Two of those faith sharing gatherings stand out especially. When our older daughter was preparing for first reconciliation and first Eucharist, the group invited her to join us as each person shared generously and passionately what the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist meant to them. They repeated this precious gift when our younger daughter prepared for her first Eucharist. Thank you, St. Joseph, for opening my heart to the value of religious practice.

We are all here to do some work. “I must be in my Father’s house” (Mt 2:49).

This statement of Jesus in the Temple is often translated, “I must be about my Father’s work.” I’m sure St. Joseph understood Jesus’ sense of urgency. When I meditate on Joseph, I think of a life spent building things, solving problems and restoring broken items to usefulness. St. Joseph is known as the patron saint of workers, so it is not surprising to me that his son’s teachings were full of references to work: “A sower went out to sow”; “A man built a tower”; “A woman came to draw water from a well.”

Parenting children is work. Often it is hard work—physically, emotionally and spiritually. How consoling it is as a parent to have the tools of the carpenter at my disposal—compassion, attunement to God’s word, life-bringing religious practices and an awareness that God too is at work in the world and at work in me. And, as my wife and I have discovered, the parenting continues even when the children are raised and out of the house. Thank you, St. Joseph, for inspiring me to embrace the work of being a father, whether near or far.

Tom McGrath is vice president of new product development at Loyola Press, author of Raising Faith-Filled Kids and editor of Seasons, a faith resource for parents of children in middle school, both from Loyola Press.


Donald McCrabb | 6/13/2015 - 7:32pm

I appreciate this reflection on fatherhood by contemplating the life and love of St. Joseph. As a community of faith, however, I believe it is time to claim Joseph as the adoptive father of Jesus, not his foster father. The Gospel of Matthew makes it very clear - Jesus is a Son of David because Joseph was of the lineage of David. Perhaps in a different era, "foster father" implied a stronger relationship. In our culture, it implies a temporary relationship without full legal and moral responsibility for the child. Adoptive fathers - everyday Dads who have full legal and moral responsibility for their son or daughter - can find in St. Joseph affirmation, inspiration and strength. St. Joseph, pray for us!

Bruce Snowden | 3/20/2014 - 3:16pm

Truly a beautiful story on St. Joseph, “A Father’s Faith,” by Tom McGrath, offering good example to young and older parents, grandparents too, on how to live faithfully in good times and bad, as “Super Dad, St. Joseph” did! I just love St. Joseph my Confirmation Patron.

Oh yes, parenting never ends, sometimes even in very senior years, and may lovingly require uprooting to move hundreds of miles away, setting up home with daughter, or son and family, pooling resources to financially help the child or children. As the love songs says, “If this isn’t love, the whole world is crazy!” Or as the Gospel reminds, there is no greater love that to “give up” ones very life (style) helpingly. Yes, what great love! Talk about heroism! This is becoming a pretty common experience now-a-days . May St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, of which the Domestic Church, of home and family, is part, pray along with his parents, grandparents and family, for parents and their children grinding slowly in very difficult times.

Cindy Morse | 6/14/2013 - 6:48am

Wonderful story -thank you. I have always admired Joseph and pray to him often. I am curious about the picture presented in this story - can someone give me a little information about this - I would love to get a print if that is possible. Thank you

Kathy Sullivan | 6/16/2013 - 1:47pm

The art work looks like that of Brother Mickey McGrath, not sure if he is related to the writer.

James Knipper | 6/21/2013 - 11:39pm

Yes! That is the beautiful artwork of my good friend Brother Mickey McGrath....America simply forgot to give him credit!! HHis new website will be ready in September, but you can reach him at

Nancy Walton-House | 6/12/2013 - 10:46am

Great article and useful for parents of children at any age. Reflecting on my arduous and painful journey with our internationally, trans-racially adopted son that began when he was 12, I recognize the practices that helped me stay open to relationship with him when he was ready at 24. I am a witness that compassion, prayer and listening to God, leaning heavily on my Ignatian Spirituality practice and community and doing the work paid off. Parenting is very challenging work and it is the most important work I've ever done. I've learned a lot from it and grown a great deal. I am very glad I had the opportunity to parent even in acutely painful, challenging circumstances.

John Swanson | 6/11/2013 - 1:56pm

Enjoyed the article. A comment that stuck with me is, "the parenting continues even when the children are raised and out of the house." So true. My three children are all over the globe, and yet I still try to parent. No one ever told me that I would be a parent forever. Loyola Press has some great materials for faith and family issues with smaller children, but none for how to be a parent with older children. [Perhaps a new niche.] This is what I am trying to figure out as Father's Day is coming up.

ed gleason | 6/7/2013 - 1:05pm

"“Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19).'
This pasage is why St Joseph is the patron of Retrouvaille, a Catholic program for troubled marriages.. The Holy family was the model for troubled marriages.

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