St. Joseph: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions

My fascination with St. Joseph begins with a story my wife told me 40 years ago. It’s the story of our first meeting, in a bar off Jericho Turnpike in Mineola, Long Island. She had gone there as a member of a St. John’s University sorority, and I too had gone, a recent initiate into Manhattan College’s own version of Animal House. A Friday night in mid-December: cold, clear, a few stars flickering in the arc of the yellow streetlights. Eileen had gone with a girlfriend.

Over a beer and a Coke she told me a few bad jokes (her father’s specialty, it turned out), and at some point, she says, she signaled her girlfriend that this one was hers. She left to freshen up, but really, as she told me years later, to pray to St. Joseph, thus finishing up the ninth and final night of a novena she had promised the saint because she was looking for a guy with at least some reliability. She was all of 18, I 19.


Over the years, I’ve seen St. Joseph called on to perform all sorts of ad hoc miracles. FriendsCatholic and non-Catholichave buried statues of the saint upside down on their property to help sell their homes. Joseph is asked to secure a job, to settle family squabbles. There’s St. Joseph Aspirinbaby aspirin, orange, candy-likenamed for the saint who was the child Jesus’ protector and guardian. There’s a St. Joseph’s River and a St. Joseph’s in Michigan and another in Missouri. There are the Josephites and the Sisters of St. Joseph, who bathe and feed my wife’s 93-year-old widowed mother in their nursing home. And there are hundreds of Catholic schools and colleges and universities and institutes and hospitals and churches named after this silent saint, this shadow of the Father.

Joseph is one of those figures in the Bible without a speaking part. Not a single word, except for the implied fiat to God’s word played out again and again. What you get instead is a dreamer, a good manthe Bible calls him justsomeone who seems to have paid attention to what God had planned for him. We learn from the elaborate genealogies that Matthew and Luke give us (both different in their particulars) that Joseph (a common enough name in first-century Palestine) was a tekton (in the Greek) or faber (in the Latin), that is, a carpenter or worker in wood or stone, from the hillbilly butt-end-of-jokes village of Nazareth, and that he was somehow descended from the great House of David. Which tells usif it tells us anythingjust how far downhill that lineage had fallen 1,000 years after David ruled Israel. In retrospect one sees it as all part of God’s gracious design, this taking the lowly of this world and raising them to unheard-of new heights. His plan. His way of proceeding. Certainly not anything Herod or Caesar or even we could have dreamed up.

Joseph, engaged to a young girl from the village, finding her pregnant, tries to figure how to divorce her quietly, without exposing her shamethat is, without having Mary publicly stoned to death for the crime of adultery. And then comes a dream, a dream in which Joseph hears an angel telling him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home, that this child is different, that the father of this child is God, working through the Holy Spirit, and that this child is destined to save people from their sins. And Joseph does what the angel has commanded him to do and takes the young woman into his home and becomes the child’s father. Of course there are the jokes at Joseph’s expense one finds in literature: in James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, which is a book about fatherhood (it was the pigeon, Joseph), or in William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, with its image of the pot-bellied/graybeard in Peter Breughel’s 16th-century painting The Adoration of the Kings. But what all such jokes really tell us is that the profane imagination seems balked by the mystery of the sacred, the human imagination falling away from the fact of the divine imagination Wording things as it wills.

For 15 centuriesexcept here and thereJoseph was pretty much overlooked, though you get early (10th century) images of a young man watching over his wife and baby, andhalf a millennium laterJoseph as an old man with a bald pate, a safe-enough figure to guard Mary’s virginity, though it is important to remember that the biblical Joseph was accepted as Jesus’ father in Nazareth, and so must have been a virile-enough figure to stop the wagging tongues of a small village. In time, as the human imagination became more and more interested in the history of the human Jesus, so too did it become interested in the human figure of Joseph. Which was why he was painted byamong so many othersFilippino Lippi, Bondone, Perugino, Bellini, Veronese, Dossi, Giorgione, Andrea del Sarto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Poussin.

Each year on March 19, Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, though here in the United States Joseph is often overshadowed by the festivities surrounding St. Patrick, whether you’re Irish or no. The other important day in the calendar for Joseph is May 1May Daywhen Joseph is celebrated as patron of workers, a memorial set up originally to counterbalance the Communist worker parades on that day, muchI supposeas a December Christmas was instituted to supplant the pagan festivities of the winter Saturnalia. And in the mid-19th century it was Leo XIII who proclaimed Joseph patron of the universal church, a sort of culmination of the saint’s earlier patronage of individual countries, like Mexico, Canada, Bohemia and Belgium.

It is easy to overlook Joseph, much as we overlook those millions of men and women who do their work quietly and well, without the least fanfare, and who for the most part never make the papers. And it is just this sense of anonymity, of invisibility, that attracts me to him: that he was a good provider, that he was chosen to care for God’s only son, to watch over him, teach him, shape him, and to protect and love the boy’s mother. One can only guess what they in their turn did for him. A man without a passport or influential friends, he had to move about in a world without safety nets of any sort (except for those you couldn’t put a finger on), a world of assassins and government killers and psychotics and informants, a world overseen by a foreign power that couldwhen it wanted tomove swiftly to squelch anything that smacked of rebellion or cross-purposes.

For me, then, watching the ways in which my sons confide in their mother, with her understanding and quiet wisdom, and finding myself still aching for all of them, mother and sonseven now, when two of my boys are married and the other is a Jesuit priest preparing for the missionsI appreciate even more Joseph’s unobtrusive, necessary role in salvation history. I think of him teaching his young son how to follow the grain of a piece of olive wood, how to plane it, learning patience, trying to earn a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work to put that daily bread on the table. Or perhaps patiently standing in queue, looking for work. I think of Josephto paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkinsliving in ten thousand places: in the man rising at 2:00 a.m. to plow the deserted snow-clogged roads, the nurse working the night shift and then a day shift, the cop on the lonely beat, the mother with the autistic daughter or paralyzed son, the office worker biting his lip at some slight or racial insensitivity against himself, because he too has bread to put on his family’s table. I think of him as someone with photos of his wife and kid hanging on the wall behind his cubicle, telling me thatas much as he’d like to sell me another carI can still get another couple of years out of the one I’ve got. The thousand daily human gestures of a man going about his rounds each day. But a dreamer too, dreaming dreams in which he hears voices, as once he believed he’d heard a voice that loved and trusted him enough to place a sonand the son’s motherin his faltering, capable and very human hands.

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