by Michael R. Heinlein December 4, 2020
This Dec. 8 commemorates 150 years since Blessed Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph to be patron of the universal Church. At the time, Pius IX wrote that the Church was going through “most troublesome times … beset by enemies on every side, and … weighed down by calamities so heavy that ungodly men assert that the gates of hell have at length prevailed against her” and “besought his intercession in times of trouble.” Although it was 1870, the declaration could have been written today. Perhaps what is old is new again, or maybe it’s just that there is nothing new under the sun. Either way, St. Joseph is a patron for our times, and this anniversary should not go unmarked.
More important than marking the anniversary, however, is the opportunity to contemplate the ways in which St. Joseph’s witness and intercession can be most fruitful and effective at this point in our history. St. Joseph, as our patron, keeps us safe by showing us the way. Because our own cooperation with God’s will is necessary for our salvation, St. Joseph’s witness of his own cooperation with God is a model the Church needs right now. At a time when the domestic Church needs to be strengthened, the universal Church needs to be healed and reformed, and the coronavirus is plaguing the world, St. Joseph is here for us. Here’s how.
Part I: St. Joseph can help protect and bring life to our domestic churches
In 21st-century America, the family is facing significant challenges. This nucleus of society has been neglected, rejected and redefined until it has become nearly unrecognizable. But because, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, “the future of humanity passes by way of the family,” the way we live in relationship to Christ and to one another within our families — the domestic church — can help reverse the tide.
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But we cannot do it alone. We need the help of the Blessed Trinity, of the Blessed Mother and of the saints in heaven — including, in a special way, of St. Joseph. As patron of the universal Church, a father and a husband, St. Joseph is a powerful witness to and example for the domestic church, known as the “Glory of Domestic Life.”
When our families are truly living as the domestic Church, our homes are a place where God and others are loved. Christ, too, was a member of the pattern for the domestic church, and he learned the ways of love in the home of St. Joseph. He also learned from St. Joseph, at least in part, what obedience and sacrifice look like and how one should live life by embracing both. These are no small lessons, as these very themes are at the heart of our salvation. For Christ, in total obedience to the Father, laid down his life for mankind in the greatest act of love that set us free.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus could have entered into the saving events of Holy Week without reflecting on various scenes from his own life when St. Joseph unknowingly helped his son prepare to submit to his passion and death. When the Lord beckons us to take up our own crosses daily — something we first learn to do in our own families — we might turn to St. Joseph for inspiration and assistance.
As guardian and protector of the Church — including our domestic churches — St. Joseph offers us many virtues worthy of consideration and emulation. In doing so, we can strengthen family life and allow the family to truly be the place where our children can learn what matters most, just as Jesus himself did under St. Joseph’s care.
St. Joseph is called “most just,” which means, among other things, he excelled in the virtues. In fact, he did so, as our Catholic tradition tells us, more than any saint aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Joseph was, therefore, a man of great faith. And his faith was the arbiter for his own decision-making, as he was ever-attentive to God’s voice.
We see this in Scripture where we learn that Joseph, after learning Mary was with child, remained faithful to her. But even though St. Joseph responded to the revelation of God’s plan through angelic dreams with obedience, and took Mary into his home as the Lord commanded, it does not mean that the way forward was smooth. There would have been talk, ridicule and condemnation. Joseph, though, responded immediately and firmly.
Knowing St. Joseph’s deep fidelity, God was able to entrust to him with the most precious of missions — to be the foster father of the incarnate Christ, and to thereby change the world. That did not mean it was easy.
And so, at a time when the domestic Church is facing significant obstacles to its flourishing, it is important to recall St. Joseph’s patronage. With the help of St. Joseph’s example and prayers, we can ask ourselves: How can we be more attentive to God’s will for us and, like St. Joseph, be moved to righteous action? How can we, too, be people of greater faith?
Foster-father of Jesus
St. Joseph taught Jesus the ways of life and faith pertaining to the Jewish practice of his day and, as such, Jesus was formed well. Under the watchful eye of St. Joseph, Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Lk 2:40). In the same way, parents today are called and obliged to be, in the context of the domestic church, the first evangelists for and catechists of their children. This cannot be understated.
Scripture tells us that after three days of panicked searching, St. Joseph and Mary found Jesus, then 12 years old, in the temple in Jerusalem. There, he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). When considering that familiar episode from Jesus’ life, we might naturally focus on his parents’ anxiety or how Jesus was single-hearted in his mission, even from a young age. But his presence in the temple might also offer an opportunity for us to reflect upon the effectiveness of Mary and Joseph’s formation of their son. Their teaching and example — the archetype for a vibrant and authentic domestic Church — prepared him for that moment.
In an age when young people are leaving the Church in droves, St. Joseph’s example can help strengthen parents, emboldening them to be effective, coherent and loving disciples who are forming the future of the Church. As in the home of the Holy Family, certain guiding principles can shape our approach, including pursuit of virtue, simplicity of life, adherence to teachings of the Church and religious practices.
Emulating St. Joseph in everyday moments
In the daily moments of family life, St. Joseph serves as a model for any family truly wishing to build up its domestic church. When trust might be lacking among family members, or when it is hard to communicate the truth in charity, we can emulate St. Joseph, who offers us a model of acting upon God’s word. Our families would likely look different — truly the domestic Church wherein God dwells — if we approach difficulties and troubles in the manner of St. Joseph. Consider:
- What might God be speaking to us in moments of difficulty among our families?
- What actions can we take to allow God’s word to bear fruit?
Becoming a ‘watchful defender of Christ’
One of St. Joseph’s titles is “Watchful Defender of Christ.” This is the same Christ that made each of us members of his own body in our baptism. Consider:
- What can St. Joseph offer parents as they assume greater responsibility to watchfully defend Christ, who is alive in our children?
- What must we be watchful about?
- What must we defend?