The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 54, No 5, Sep.-Oct. 2001

Theology for the Laity

Discovering The Greatness of St. Joseph
Part II: His Unique Vocation and Exceptional Virtue

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

St. Joseph, as the husband of Our Blessed Lady, is the one man in all the Church who was completely at the service of the Incarnation and Redemption. Both proceeded according to the divine plan through Joseph's cooperation. With no other saint, other than Mary, can one find such a remarkable vocation. During the childhood of the Incarnate Son, Joseph provided for His material needs, oversaw His upbringing, protected Him from danger, taught Him the fundamentals of the Jewish faith, and instructed Him in the trade of carpentry. Joseph was the one man in all of history chosen by the Almighty to lead the God-man Jesus Christ from a state of infancy to manhood, such that He would be prepared to undertake the redemption of the world. How astounding this is to contemplate! How immense a responsibility was placed on his shoulders; yet, as we can see from the hints left us in the scriptures, how generously and completely this man fulfilled his vocation. And the first of these hints to be considered is his divine calling to believe in the Son of God already present in the womb of Mary, his betrothed.


In his encyclical on St. Joseph, Redemptoris Custos, “Guardian of the Redeemer,” Pope John Paul II draws to our attention a close connection between the soon-to-be mother and foster-father of the Messiah: both are visited by angels who announce His appearance (Red. Cust. 3). The Gospel of St. Luke provides Mary’s annunciation account, St. Matthew gives us Joseph’s. For Joseph, who is receiving his annunciation well after Mary has conceived God’s Son, and who is unaware of what has taken place, the angel says: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. . .” (Mt. 1:20). There Joseph is introduced to the “mystery of Mary’s motherhood,” which he then understood to be part of God’s plan. Up to this point he had been thinking in human terms of Mary’s pregnancy. But with the message of the angel, he leaves behind a human understanding without hesitation.

This was a path of faith that Mary had already taken months before at her annunciation. Pope John Paul calls her the first among the members of the Church to go down the path of faith in the Son of God. Before all others she was given this opportunity when the angel Gabriel came to her relaying God’s wish that she become the Mother of the Incarnate Word. Not knowing all that this would entail, but trusting in God to make it happen, Mary agrees in faith to follow the angel’s instructions.

But who was next to fully participate in this journey down the path of faith? St. Joseph. What must have been a number of weeks after Mary’s encounter with the angel Joseph has his own. It comes in the midst of much anxiety. He had somehow found out about Mary’s pregnancy. The scriptural account is not clear, saying vaguely that “she was found to be with child. . .” (Mt. 1:18). Was Joseph informed by someone? Did Mary herself let him know? Did he discover it for himself? We have no way of knowing for sure. For St. Jerome, “she was found to be so by none other than St. Joseph, who watched the swelling of the womb of his betrothed with . . . anxious glances. . . ” (Contra Helvidius, 4). Augustine, too, accepts that Joseph discovered the pregnancy through observation (Sermon 51.9). And John Chrysostom provides an even more detailed explanation. He says that Joseph did indeed discover for himself that Mary was with child. Mary, Chrysostom comments, was going to leave this matter up to God to reveal. This was the most prudent way to handle the situation. Had she spoken to Joseph about what really happened herself, how could he be expected to believe her? Such a thing as the incarnation of God in her virgin womb would be too difficult to accept coming from her. So Mary, in a difficult situation herself, seeing her husband’s distress, and yet being in no position to speak to him about it, kept silence and waited for God to intervene (Cf. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 4.8).

This became for Joseph a time of divinely willed darkness, a characteristic, in fact, of both annuncations. For this reason we can be assured that both were occasions of immense acts of faith. For Mary, God gave no information about what would be expected of her as the Mother of God. The angel’s message is little more than, “The promised Messiah, the Son of God, will be conceived in your womb.” For Joseph, God left him for a time in a state of complete ignorance about what was taking place. How long he was in this state we do not know. It seems for perhaps weeks Joseph was in great uncertainty and anxiety. Finally, God sends the angel, and Joseph then receives essentially the same message as Mary: what has been begotten in her is not from man, but from the Holy Spirit.


St. John Chrysostom observantly notes that the appearance of the angel for Joseph’s annunciation happens while Joseph was asleep, in the context of a dream. Chrysostom asks himself why it should be this way and not more openly, in the way the angel appeared to so many others, the shepherds, Zechariah, or Blessed Mary? The answer he finds illustrates well the character of our saint. It was certainly not that St. Joseph was somehow unworthy of a more extraordinary appearance. Rather, Chrysostom explains, "This was a man so ready to believe that he did not require such a manifestation” (Hom. on Matt. 4.10). God, who knew St. Joseph through and through, and loved him with the fullness of His Fatherly affection, was well aware of the strength of his faith, and the ability of St. Joseph to discern the true presence of his angel. God also knew how little it would take to stir this wise and faithful man to action. All that was needed was an angelic appearance in a dream, and Joseph would be able to discern authenticity, and respond with prompt action. “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. . . ” (Mt. 1:24). No longer did Joseph cling to doubts, and without hesitation, changed his plan to dismiss Mary quietly. He accepted completely the mystery of God-made-man, who was then growing in Mary’s womb. As Pope John Paul points out in his encyclical, Joseph at this point had joined Mary on the journey of faith.

And, as Chrysostom so perceptively tells us once again, his faith continued without flaw, as we can see in the way he responds to the angelic warning about King Herod’s plans to kill the infant Jesus. A lesser man would have been plunged into doubts. The angel had previously stated that this child was a savior, and yet here a man with weaker faith might say, “He is unable to save Himself, requiring me to flee with the family to a far off country. Was this not contrary to what had been promised?” So St. John continues: “No, he uttered nothing of this sort, for he was a man of faith. Nor did he inquire the time of the return even though the angel spoke vaguely, saying, ‘Remain there until I tell you.’ Thus, Joseph did not become slothful, but he obeyed and bent his will, and he bore all his trials with joy” (Hom. on Matt. 8.4).


Such fidelity appeared repeatedly in ways unknown to us in this great man who was to be known publicly as the father of Jesus. But here in the fatherhood of Joseph we have a matter that deserves further examination. For his fatherhood was actually something much more than what is communicated in the usual title for Joseph as the “foster-father” of the Lord. This is a term that does indeed relate to us the distinction between Joseph’s fatherhood and the true Fatherhood of God. Jesus was entrusted to Joseph, but not begotten from his own flesh. But, by the same token, Joseph was more than a temporary guardian, called in to oversee the upbringing of a child born outside the context of his own marriage. This is precisely where, in fact, the fatherhood of Joseph is unlike that of a foster-father and his adoptive child. Jesus was born within the context of his marriage with Mary, not outside of it.

What this means is that the marriage of Joseph and Mary was the reason for Joseph becoming something more than just a foster guardian. Of course, we must understand that the betrothal of Joseph and Mary was not simply an engagement in the way we find it in our culture. Unlike engagement for us, a non-legal promise to marry, betrothal in Mary and Joseph’s culture involved a commitment fully binding by law. The wedding ceremony was fundamentally a celebration for the couple as they left their families and took up residence in the same house, a follow up to a formal agreement that had already been made. For this reason, Mary’s conceiving Jesus in the state of betrothal to Joseph we should not look upon as happening outside the context of marriage. Rather, due to the uniqueness of the betrothal stage, a marital relationship was already clearly present. This means that, even though Jesus was not conceived through marital relations between Mary and Joseph, nevertheless it was to this marriage that God gave the Child Jesus. He was not given to some other husband and wife, and adopted by Mary and Joseph. Nor was He given just to Mary, while she was a single woman, such that marriage to Joseph was only an afterthought to protect her honor. But to this married couple, Mary and Joseph, God gave a child. St. Thomas makes this clear in saying that God intended the Child Jesus specifically for them. As with any other marriage, where children are called the “good of marriage,” so too says the Angelic Doctor:

Jesus was entrusted by God to them that they might do all that is necessary for the Child to love, nourish, and educate Him as He moved from infancy to adulthood. Thus, although Joseph was not the one to beget Jesus, he took on essential fatherly roles of guiding and instructing Him. St. Bernadine of Siena, the great fifteenth century Franciscan preacher, has an interesting way of framing this fatherly role. He describes it as a participation in the relationship of the Eternal Father to Jesus Christ, a tremendous lifting of Joseph to a remarkable place in His kingdom. “This holy man had such towering dignity and glory that the Eternal Father most generously bestowed on him a likeness of His own primacy over His Son incarnate” (Filas, Joseph: The Man Closest to Jesus, 229). From this perspective, which does so much to reveal the greatness of St. Joseph’s mission, God the Father had put Joseph on earth to be His instrument in caring for His Son Jesus. Joseph participates in the Fatherhood of God. God acts as Father in and through St. Joseph, and his roles of loving, supporting, and educating Jesus are extensions of the Eternal Father’s love and providence for the Incarnate Son.


The vast array of saints that God has brought forth for the Church have included vocations of all kinds— apostles, martyrs, teachers, priests and religious, men and women both raising families and working in the world. There can be no doubt how Joseph’s caring for the Son of God made man, and the Mother of God, stands out in the midst of all these vocations. It only stands to reason that God would not have chosen someone of only moderate virtue to undertake such a profound responsibility. “Those whom God chooses for an office, He prepares and disposes in such a way that they become suited to it,” says St. Thomas (III, 27, 4). Scripture gives us only hints, but there in only the briefest references we find goodness and nobility of character that we can be sure are only the tip of the iceberg for the true greatness of St. Joseph. Day in, day out, in the most common tasks, he spent himself for the good of Jesus and Mary. And we can be sure this was done in the most exceptional way. As Pope John Paul so insightfully relates, this was a man who “turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house” (Red. Cust., 8). It was not in God’s plan for him to become a follower of Jesus and to be sent out into the world to spread the Gospel, to lead the new Church, or to glorify God through heroic martyrdom. Simple tasks of caring for his family were to be the setting for his great oblation of self. But is not God using St. Joseph to emphasize how pleasing to Him is this oblation of self through common tasks? As Pope Paul VI once said:

Indeed, the one who cared for His Son was not a scholar, nor a great leader, nor glorious martyr for the faith. He was a man doing the most ordinary of daily tasks around the home and shop. For all of us having such lives of ordinary service, God gives us St. Joseph, and tells us through him, “What you have in your lives is enough! Now turn that life, through sacrifice and love, into a thing of the greatest nobility and beauty.”

Joseph's exceptional vocation so generously fulfilled has far from come to an end. As Our Blessed Lord continues to live in the midst of the world's dangers through His Body, the Church, Joseph continues now in his patronage and protection of Christ's Mystical Body on earth. With the trials of the Church in our times, we have ample reason to call frequently upon his powerful intercession:

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