The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 44, No 2, March-April 1991

Theology for the Laity

St. Joseph, a Man of Faith

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

The Sacred Scriptures give us very few details of St. Joseph. With the exception of a few references relating to the birth and early years of the Child Jesus, the Scriptures are silent about this great saint who had such an important role in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word. Even more than Our Lady, Joseph remains in the background, with not a single word of his recorded for posterity. Truly, he is Joseph the silent.


Theologians tell us that when God chooses one for a particular office or mission, He provides that person with all the graces necessary to fulfill that role worthily. Since Joseph was chosen by God to be the head of the Holy Family, the graces showered upon him must have been beyond what we can conceive. After the Blessed Mother, there was no one more closely associated with Our Blessed Lord than his foster father, St. Joseph. Many theologians do not hesitate to declare that this humble carpenter surpassed in grace and beatitude all the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Law, John the Baptist, the apostles, and all the martyrs and doctors of the New Law. "Of all the saints," says Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, "Joseph, standing among the angels and saints, is highest in heaven next to Jesus and Mary." (Love of God & Cross of Jesus, II, p. 367.) Pope Leo Xlil bears this out in his encyclical on St. Joseph "Quamquam Pluries:"


At some point before Mary became espoused to Joseph, she had, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made a vow of virginity, and was convinced that it was the will of God. How, then, and under what mutual understanding could she become espoused to Joseph, having made that vow? St. Augustine explains the nature of the exchange of marriage vows between Mary and Joseph as follows:

Since God decided that His son should be born of a Virgin within legal wedlock, the virginity of Joseph, the acceptance of Mary's purpose to remain a virgin, and the jealous care Joseph exercises over this treasure - are all part of the mosaic arranged in heaven from all eternity for the Incarnation of the Divine Word. As Bossuet so beautifully expressed it: "If angelic purity is Mary's treasure, this treasure lay in the keeping of the just Joseph."

This was a true marriage, says St. Thomas (111,29,2), "because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh . . . For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph:"

This divine message confirms and sanctions the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and makes official the rights of Joseph over the Child born in this marriage through the operation of the Holy Spirit. By telling Joseph to give to the new-born Child the name of Jesus (Mt. 1:21), the angel recognizes Joseph in his official capacity as head of the household, with all the responsibilities that flow from that. As we shall see, it was to Joseph and not to Mary that on several occasions the angel makes known divine decisions.


St. Joseph is sometimes referred to as the legal father, or the foster father, or the adopted father of Jesus, but all of these titles fall far short of the reality. It was not merely a guardianship with limited responsibilities. "God," wrote St. John Chrysostom, "had decided to give to Joseph all that might belong to a father without forfeiting his virginity," and that included "a father's heart" to care for this Child. When we speak of Joseph as foster father, "it must not be interpreted," wrote Fr. Frederick Jelly, O.P., "as though Joseph were merely the adoptive father of Jesus. Jesus was a member of Joseph's own family, truly the Son of his real wife," having been born in that family of the Holy Spirit. Joseph was the legal father of Jesus, an important fact in establishing the descent of Jesus as "Son of David".


St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether it was fitting that Christ should be born of a virgin who had contracted a real marriage. In answer to this he states that it was fitting for a three-fold purpose:

  1. for the sake of the Child- lest he be rejected by unbelievers as illegitimate; and in order that -in the customary way- his geneology might be traced through the male line, and that he would have protection during his childhood.
  2. for the sake of the Mother- to keep her from being judged as an adulteress, and stoned by the Jews. Too, it served to protect her in difficulties and persecution that began after the Savior's birth.
  3. for our sake: because Joseph is a witness to Christ's being born of a virgin; and because it was fitting that we should find in Mary the perfect model of virgins, wives and Christian mothers.


If any characteristic seems to stand out in St. Joseph, it is complete confidence and abandonment to God's will, a trust that was rooted in a deep faith that was continually being strengthened by suffering and anguish caused by painful obscurities that surrounded the great mystery of the Incarnation. The following incidents bring this out:

  1. Mary's virginal conception: Joseph's faith and trust was painfully put to test first of all when he remained in ignorance of the secret of the virginal conception, which Mary's humility kept hidden from him. The anxiety aroused by this mysterious maternity tortured his soul, until an angel put an end to his anguish by commanding him to take Mary as his spouse, "for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." (Mt. 1:20) In his simplicity of heart, he believed without hesitation, and received Mary into his home.
  2. The birth of Jesus: Caesar's edict obliged Joseph and Mary to leave their home in Nazareth just as the time drew near for the birth of her Child. They make no complaints but obey with promptness and simplicity. With a profound faith, they see God's will in the command of the emperor and go, trusting that God will provide. Finding no room in the inn of Bethlehem, they are forced to take shelter in a cave used as a stable. The heart of Joseph was pained at not being able to provide better quarters; yet, since God's greatest work was to be accomplished in such wretched surroundings, Joseph and Mary embrace wholeheartedly the divine will.
  3. The flight into Egypt: An angel warned Joseph to "take the Child and His Mother and flee into Egypt" to save Him from those who seek His life. There was no time to make suitable preparations for so long a journey and for an indefinite period. In spite of the great inconveniences and dangers of the journey in exile in a strange land, he arose in the middle of the night and without delay carried out the order, trusting fully in the providence of God.
  4. The return to Israel: After the death of Herod, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream with the command to return with the Child and His Mother to the land of Israel, for those who sought the death of the Child were dead. On returning, Joseph learned that Archelaus, the son of King Herod, was king of Judea; and being warned again by an angel in a dream, he obeyed without question and took the Child and His Mother to the region of Galilee, and settled in Nazareth outside of the territory of Archelaus.


In the above-cited incidents, four times Joseph was enlightened by an angel as to the will of God in trying circumstances. Joseph neither hesitated nor made objections, but believed, and fully trusting in the Providence of God, carried out the Lord's will.

To make his will known to us, God does not send an angel as he did with Joseph; rather he makes use of His Church. For us too, the way God points out will at times be difficult and obscure, where human reason alone cannot fully comprehend. In such cases, we would do well to pray to St. Joseph for that "obedience of faith" that demands the surrender of mind and heart to God's message made known through His Church. (Vat. Coun. 11, Decree on Rev. n.5; Vat. Coun. 1, Decree on Faith, n.3)

This humble submission of mind and heart to the official teachings of the Church brings the mind of man into contact with the mind of God, who shares his truth through the humble obedience of faith. It was through this interior submission that the great mystery of the Incarnation was gradually revealed more fully to St. Joseph.

Like many of us, Joseph too led a life that involved fatiguing and disturbing activity. Yet, this "obedience of faith", (Rom. 1:5) which kept his mind and heart ever open to and submissive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, enabled him to lead a life of inner recollection in the midst of his fatiguing labors and disturbing situations.


As did Mary and the apostles, Joseph lived at the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; but since Joseph died before the public life of Jesus when his teaching and the rites of the New Law were given to the world, he did not live under the New Law that Jesus would establish. Yet, he did experience this great contrast: in the Old Testament the relationship between the Israelites and God was one dominated by fear of the Most High, of a God who was inaccessible, and who at times decreed death for some who came too close (Gen. 19:12). However, with the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the Most High God would take human flesh in the womb of Mary, the spouse of Joseph, who would be His foster father. After the birth of Jesus, Joseph would hold in his arms the thrice Holy God whose very name the Israelites would not dare to pronounce.

And that intimacy of Joseph with the Divine Word made flesh was not only one of physical closeness. With the growth of the divine gifts of faith and love with which Divine Providence prepared him for this exalted mission, there was an intimacy of soul, a silent contemplation that filled his heart with adoration and thanksgiving and wonder at the mysterious ways of God. Pope Pius Xl, in a discourse on the feast of St. Joseph in 1928, commented:


St. Joseph is a saint whom all can take as a model and patron, for his sanctity was achieved (under God's grace) in the ordinary circumstances of life. It is through those daily circumstances that one's faith and trust is put to test. There are times in the lives of all of us when God seems to work in a hidden manner, when our limited intelligence cannot comprehend His ways. It is then that we need a deep faith in the guiding hand of divine Providence, that God's wisdom and love is allowing this to happen. We need a firm confidence that He can bring good out of every situation, that "to them that love God, all things work unto good ." (Rom. 8:28)

That fact that St. Joseph was a carpenter in the village of Nazareth has made him a model and patron for working people. The belief that he ended his life on earth in the intimate and consoling presence of Jesus and Mary has inspired devotion to him as patron of a happy death. Because he was head, protector and provider of the Holy Family, he has been declared the patron of the universal family of God which is the Church. Because of his justice and prudence, his faith, obedience and patience, he is a special inspiration and patron for fathers of families. Because of his life of silent prayer and reflection, he is a special patron for those seeking a deeper interior life. Papal documents and the Litany of St. Joseph hail him also as patron of the poor, of those in authority, of travelers, of those in exile, of virgins, etc.


He whom Jesus obeyed on earth, still holds a marvelous power of intercession over the Heart of Jesus in heaven. He who watched over the Holy Family in Nazareth, now from heaven watches over Christian families who in faith and trust seek his assistance. In the sixth chapter of her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila wrote:

I can find no better words with which to end these reflections than those of the same saint of Avila who did so much to spread devotion to St. Joseph.

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