Dear Saint Joseph,
Given that I share your name and that March 19th is your Feast Day, it is not altogether inappropriate that I write a letter to you. If there was ever a saint that deserved to have a letter written to him, that saint is you. And to tell the truth, I’ve always felt more than a little sorry for you that you should have a Feast Day two days after the Feast of another, and sometimes seemingly even more venerated saint, Saint Patrick. Both of you are of great importance to our faith life; it’s just that if there was anyone who deserved a parade in his honor, it should have been you. (And I’m sure that being the saints that you both are, there certainly is no animosity between you two!)
It has always been somewhat puzzling to me why this was so, that you weren’t treated with greater fanfare; and it is not a little ironic that you who were so central a figure in the beginning of the Gospels and the Infancy Narratives were actually given so little attention than you actually deserved—or earned. Compared to all the other apostles and saints in salvation history that people the liturgical canon, you were never given anything of significance to say—we have no spoken words from you, nothing on record to reflect your views on the momentous events you were a part of. You have come down to us as the “saint of silence.” Indeed, if you don’t mind the comparison (and it is not altogether an exaggeration to make it), you were the original “Quiet Man.”
It is all the more striking when you think of it: so many of the people in the Bible were given a voice, and yet, you were always silent. Even the prophetess Anna, when seeing the child Jesus in the temple, was given the privilege to speak, not you. Even Simeon was given words to say that became immortal. Yet, important as you were at the beginning, you were always in the background. Even when the twelve-year-old Jesus was supposedly “lost,” it was Mary, His mother, who questioned Him with anxiety and not a little fear, though you were present and share those same anxieties and fears. Yet, you were the person who went about his work without fanfare; you cared for Mary and your foster-son, you supported them in every way and yet we know more about them than we do about you. We can only surmise what you went through when you learned about the divine plan that was to unfold. Like Mary, you pronounced your “yes” but your “yes” was just as important, though it was unspoken. Though you did not understand what was happening, you consented to take Mary as your wife and eventually rear the child Jesus as your own. Even when you slept, you could not rest, but for the dreams that tormented you and eventually directed you.
And that is another thing that is striking about you: you could not rest because of your dreams. As a matter of fact, our new pope, Pope Francis—who has a great devotion to you—once had on his dresser in his room in Buenos Aires (and presumably has it now in the Vatican) a small figurine of you in slumber; it is known as “Joseph Sleeping.” It was something I never heard of; yet it is entirely appropriate, given the history of your dreams and what they eventually meant for your holy family. The fact that your sleep was interrupted by dreams—and not very pleasant ones at that—is a very poignant reminder of your humanity as well as ours. You were the workingman of the Gospels and your life was not easy and for some inexplicable reason it was not meant to be. Yet you did not rebel or complain; you just assented to it and gave your life the best of your efforts. You asked for nothing and yet you gave everything. And then, the Gospels moved on and you disappeared from sight, your salvific role having been completed. From then on, the story continued through Jesus and His mother and the Apostles. And then you became “St. Joseph.”
Though we do not know of anything you might have said—for it was not to be recorded—we also do not know what you (like many people of the Bible) looked like. But in every depiction in religious art, whether you are shown as a young man or an old man, you are shown to be in the words of that well overused cliché, “the strong silent type.” But there is something else, too, that those paintings highlight, and that is what is so captivating about you: your tenderness. As hard and dutiful a worker as you were, your countenance radiated that wonderful trait which is usually attributed to mothers, and not often associated with fathers. You were tender with Mary and you were tender with Jesus; you loved them both. You were the first protector of that “domestic church” and in time, Pope Pius IX would declare you the “Protector of the Universal Church” in 1870 and in 1955 another Pius—Pope Pius XII—would declare you “St. Joseph, Patron of the Worker” to deny (in those Cold War times) an alien ideology’s attempt to appropriate the mantle of being the supporter of the working man and woman, which you yourself so exemplified in your own person. And in time, you would become the patron of families, fathers, expectant mothers, travelers, immigrants, engineers, craftsmen and working people in general. In so many ways, all of these elements made up the story of your life.
Of all the depictions of you, there is one that is most affecting; and that is one which shows you on your deathbed attended by the two people you cared for in your life: Mary and Jesus. This painting by Alonso Cano (who incidentally, was born on March 19, 1601 and died on September 3, 1667 at both times in Grenada, Spain)—known the “Spanish Michelangelo”--has you looking up at Jesus, with Mary attending you at your bedside. The look on your face reflects only your love and concern for them—like the husband and father you were. Even at that moment, no words needed to be spoken. Your whole life spoke for you and in that respect, you personified what St. Francis often liked to say: that if you can’t preach the Gospel, use words. You “preached” with your person, quietly, and with dignity, with forbearance and with hope—and you did that even to the end. And it is no wonder that your intercession is called upon for us for when our own death comes.
So little is written about you, St. Joseph, yet what little we know about you says so much and perhaps that is enough. Perhaps the simplicity of your life is your message after all; that it is, in effect, your “Gospel” for everyone who lives, loves, and works. You taught us that life is not easy, but it is of worth, and is of value. Yet you labored on and love was the driving force behind all that you did. You simply did what you thought was best and put your faith in the God of your ancestors. And on that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, when you stood beside the cradle with Mary, you held up your light to illuminate the Light that came into your lives, and you stood in the background, silent and knowing—and loving. And that is something worth venerating.