Can Joseph cure the Church of today’s chronic infidelity?
When I was reading Elizabeth Lev’s delightful art history of St. Joseph (for my review with pictures, see Arriving at St. Joseph), I was reminded that back in 1937 Pope Pius XI placed the campaign of the Church against Communism under the patronage of St. Joseph. He did this in an encyclical which was also released on the Feast of St. Joseph:
To hasten the advent of that “peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ” so ardently desired by all, We place the vast campaign of the Church against world Communism under the standard of St. Joseph, her mighty Protector. He belongs to the working-class, and he bore the burdens of poverty for himself and the Holy Family, whose tender and vigilant head he was. To him was entrusted the Divine Child when Herod loosed his assassins against Him. In a life of faithful performance of everyday duties, he left an example for all those who must gain their bread by the toil of their hands. He won for himself the title of “The Just,” serving thus as a living model of that Christian justice which should reign in social life. [Divini Redemptoris, no. 81]
Communism is not yet entirely dead, but its threat to the world was vastly reduced by the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, sixty-nine years after its founding, and 54 years after the Pope’s proclamation.
Interestingly, the period of fifty years has often been suggested by historians as the usual amount of time it takes an ecumenical council to be fully integrated into the life of the Church. However, it is now 57 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, and the Church seems just as confused as she did in the aftermath of the Council in the 1960s.
Which leads me to a question: Which is the higher priority, the world’s relief from an oppressive secular ideology spawned by the Church’s enemies, or the Church’s relief from the oppressive secular ideology operative within the Church herself?
Why, I wonder, have Pope St. Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict or Pope Francis not put St. Joseph in charge of the Church’s effort to cleanse herself from the oppressive worldliness within—not the ordinary worldliness of laziness and personal comfort but the extraordinary worldliness of a professoriate and clergy profoundly infected by (call it what you will) Modernism, liberalism, relativism, secularism? Or better, make it positive: Why not a Josephine campaign to restore Joseph’s most important purpose throughout the Church: The security of the faithful.
Joseph’s main purpose
This proposal may seem odd. Joseph was taken up as a subject by several popes in the twentieth-century. Most recently, not only did Pope St. John Paul II write about St. Joseph in his 1989 Apostolic Exhortation, Guardian of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Custos), but under Pope Francis we have only recently concluded a year of St. Joseph, inaugurated by the Apostolic Letter With a Father’s Heart (Patris Corde). But while all Josephine documents have stressed important virtues of St. Joseph in his care for Mary, Jesus and by extension all those who are suffering and in need, none have focused on what was the supreme duty of Joseph as head of the Holy Family: To make the home and the daily life of the family a safe haven for growing closer to God.
Who can deny that the great purpose of Joseph—his fundamental mission from God and the very necessity of that mission—was to be a bulwark against those who would sully and degrade the beautiful Mary and introduce vicious influences and habits into the life of her Son. Instead Joseph provided family protection and formation as a serious matter of masculine virtue. Even if our culture cannot understand such purposes today, it is difficult theologically to see anything more important about the role of “a Joseph” in the life of Christ.
In this sense, we may at times be forgiven if we tire of hearing about the “tender father” and the “silent but steadfast support”. Once I heard a speaker at a family conference mention the simple importance of seeing a robust man out in the front yard, a bit grubby and shirtless, mowing the lawn. Now, me, I don’t go shirtless. But the very image stamps that home as off limits to predators. Other males think twice about any ill-natured designs on that man’s wife; other kids think twice about messing with his children.
But that same husbandly and paternal role operates throughout the whole scope of the family. Has the wife and mother suffered harassment at work or disrespect at home? There will be consequences. Has one of the children rebelled against parental authority, adopted a bad habit, brought immoral materials into the home? There will be consequences. I remember well the day—I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen—when I was out in the wooded part of our yard with my father, and he told me to do a particular chore. My response was less than perfect. The next thing I knew, he had picked up a stick and was saying: “Don’t you roll your eyes at me, boy!” This, in one form or another and with one person or another, is an important part of what it means to be a father.
Are you shocked? Let us, in this light, consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. Much is made of the father’s daily hope and prayer that the son would return. For anyone who has been even a slightly good father, this goes without saying. But perhaps we forget about the time when the father, looking sadly at his son, spoke in a firm and unyielding tone: “You have your inheritance. Now you must go. Do not come back until your heart is changed.” Are we not desperately in need of someone to exercise just this kind of masculine virtue in the Church today?
Genuine protection of the Church
It is to Joseph in this guise that I claim we must commit the restoration of the Church. It is Joseph who, owing to his genuine familial paternity, holds the key to drawing the hard masculine lines required for familial integrity. It is this Joseph who can lead us in insisting that irreformable wayward Catholics—publicly wayward Catholic religious and lay leaders in both the Church and civil society—must decide between being a faithful member of the family or being unwelcome at home. It is this Joseph who can teach the Church once again how to say with the hard edge of an authentically paternal love: “So be it. Take your inheritance and go.”
The chief benefit of putting Joseph at the head of the campaign to make our common ecclesial home safe again is that it would specifically identify the single greatest problem facing the Church today. It would speak volumes to entrust the human restoration of the Church’s very integrity to the same man who protected the personal safety and integrity of the Blessed Virgin along with the safety and integral human formation of Jesus Christ. Insofar as Mary had a safe space for her motherhood, it was due to Joseph. Insofar as Our Lord had both the human protection and guidance to grow to a mature manhood, it was due to Joseph as well. One can almost hear Joseph insisting that Jesus should love the Lord His God with all His heart, and with all His soul, and with all His mind. One can hear him insisting also that Jesus must learn His trade and be true to its principles, that He might serve His neighbors well.
Joseph would no more accept irresponsible tinkering with the truth or with pastoral care or with the structure of the Church herself than he would accept shoddy workmanship that led to the collapse of a chair...or a house. The idea of building anything—let alone a human life—on a foundation of sand with cheap substitutes for good materials would have been, to Joseph, a willful folly, a reprehensible dereliction of duty, in fact an actual hatred of the one for whom he built, or to whom he spoke. The idea of compromising either his faith or his work to gain greater security, wealth, comfort, influence or fame would find no traction at all in Joseph. Consider Joseph, then, as a model for Catholic clergy, religious, and professors—not to mention the working laity whom he more obviously represents.
Joseph may not have been an intellectual, but he knew whom to hear and therefore what to teach. When he heard, “Hear, O Israel” throughout Moses’ Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph listened first and then he taught. And it cannot be dismissed as a coincidence by the would-be intellectuals of our own day that when Our Lord in His turn answered the question about the greatest commandment, He said not merely that you shall love the Lord your God, but rather literally this: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mk 12:29-30).
Think about this, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord...’”. The first thing the Church and all her members, no matter how intelligent, no matter how prominent, no matter how sophisticated, how high in either the Church or the world—the first thing necessary is precisely to hear, that is, to listen to God. No wonder that when Martha complained that Mary was not helping her with the serving, Jesus replied: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41-42).
Mary was listening to Jesus. Hear, O Israel. Hear, my soul. Hear, O Church.
Joseph the Silent
At the risk of reflecting badly on myself, let me emphasize that Joseph did not multiply words. He knew his proverbs, of course, and he lived them: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prv 10:19). He also knew his Genesis, especially that place in which God warned Cain not to pretend to alter reality: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7). But Cain lusted after human esteem, so he killed his brother much as one kills the truth, denying reality itself when asked to speak of it: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). But we can almost hear Joseph say: O modern ethicist, O modern moral theologian, O modern “Catholic” professor, O modern Catholic “authority”: Thy name is Cain!
I say “almost”, because Joseph always seems to speak more loudly in his actions than in his words. He might not argue with the Catholic world’s wayward teachers; he might simply lead all the students to those who teach the truth, causing the collapse of one university after another, and shifting the balance of intellectual power from Pilate and Herod to His foster Son. He might not rebuke the proud bishops who curry favor through secular accommodation; he might simply lead all the working Catholics (who support the Church) to Egypt—that is, to other dioceses which specifically seek to secure the faith and morals of those entrusted to their care. Suddenly, under Joseph’s leadership, even if the Catholic leaders in a given place could not be brought to fidelity, millions of laity might finally move their resources and their very selves, or at least their hearts...elsewhere.
Attrition through discouragement and a deadened faith might be transformed into that combination of alacrity and sacrifice which characterizes the saints, who will no longer be able to ignore God’s command to hear the truth. Joseph, for his part, was always on the move—always headed under Divine guidance to where he could ensure the safety and integrity of the Word of God.
According to Elizabeth Lev, a new iconographic role for St. Joseph rapidly developed in the fourteenth century. He was increasingly portrayed in the role of Protector of the Church, as he was the protector of Christ Himself, for the Church is the Body of Christ. Joseph also began to appear in art with the hair style and the colors of clothing which had been used for St. Peter in previous periods. During and after the devastating years of the Avignon papacy and the Great Western Schism (when there were first two and then three ecclesiastics claiming to be pope), St. Joseph was increasingly invoked as the protector of the papacy. Pope SIxtus IV added the Feast of St. Joseph to the Liturgical Calendar in 1479.
This development is worthy of meditation. Of all the ways Joseph has emerged in art and popular piety over the centuries, perhaps this one is most needed again today. It is one thing to identify Joseph as the model for our attitudes toward migrant workers, as Pope Francis did, or even to put Joseph in charge of the battle to defeat atheistic ideologies, as Pope Pius XI did. But when an ideological secularism poisons even what passes for Catholic thought among countless bishops, priests, deacons, religious, college professors, lay teachers, Catholic administrators, parish volunteers, and Catholic politicians, perhaps it is time for a pope to get serious and put St. Joseph in charge of security for the household of faith.
Perhaps it is time for the Church to stop chattering about what the rest of the world should do, as if she were just another columnist. Perhaps it is time instead for the Church to join Joseph in rolling up his sleeves, and doing her own job.
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