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St. Joseph's Role in the Spiritual Life

by Basil Cole, O.P.


In this article Rev. Basil Cole provides an excellent look at the role St. Joseph has in the spiritual life, clarifying many common misconceptions about the "Guardian of the Redeemer." He explains that including special devotions to St. Joseph in one's prayer life will undoubtedly lead to an increase of faith in Christ and deeper spiritual growth.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


56 – 62

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, March 2007

The week of October 15, 1989, I was very nervous because I was teaching a new course on the mission of St. Joseph at the Angelicum in Rome. My sacred sources were "dated," since nothing significant about Joseph had been written by the papal magisterium in many years, although some significant works had been penned by the Dominicans, Frs. Timothy Sparks, O.P. and James Davis, O.P. and the Jesuit, Fr. Francis Filas, S.J. My anxiety turned to joy, however, when at the end of the week, Pope John Paul II promulgated his Apostolic Letter, Redemptoris Custos (hereafter RC) or in English, Guardian of the Redeemer, which was rich in content and even solved several disputes among the Fathers of the Church and theologians that had occurred over the centuries concerning the life and virtues of Joseph. Today, some eighteen years later, RC remains largely unknown throughout the Catholic world, much like St. Joseph himself. Here I will attempt to give a few insights into this apostolic letter so that others may be prompted to seek it out and read it. Further, I will try to show how integrating devotion to Joseph in one's prayer life will help us progress in the spiritual life.1

Introductory considerations

St. Thomas Aquinas gives us three very important theological principles that can help in interpreting not only the life of St. Joseph, but also the lives of the saints as well. The first is that when God chooses someone for a special mission in the Church, he always prepares that person with many graces, and sometimes gifts of nature to fulfill that task (ST III 98, 5 ad 3). From this we may draw the conclusion that since Joseph was to be the head of the Holy Family, a ministry much higher than being a priest or pope because Joseph was immediately in charge of Christ himself and married to Mary, he had to be capacitated with exceptional graces for these purposes. It is argued by many Josephine scholars that Joseph, while not immaculately conceived, was sanctified in the womb by the grace of God like John the Baptist and Jeremiah.

The second insight of Aquinas that helps us understand Joseph's holiness is that the more one approaches the principle of grace, the more one receives the effects from that principle (ibid., 5; see also II-II 1, 7 ad 4). In Joseph's case, this would mean receiving an ocean of grace because Joseph lived with Jesus, the head of the mystical body as well as Mary, the Queen of heaven and earth, the sinless one. From this it follows that Joseph would have been inundated with grace throughout his life thus enabling him to live and merit not only his own salvation but also the salvation of others. This is the source of his special role in heaven as patron of the Universal Church.

As a third rationale, St. Thomas teaches that the virtue of devotion, an aspect of the virtue of religion being a willingness to serve God more readily, comes about as a result of meditation and contemplation. Principally pondering and gazing concerns itself with the divine nature itself as containing the infinite attributes and properties of the three-personed God (ST II-II 82, 3 ad 2). Secondarily, however, devotion arises from thinking lovingly on Jesus Christ, and his life and death. Therefore, reflecting on the mystery of Joseph aids one to think about Christ, and then helps one grow in devotion to the Triune God.

From these three Thomistic keys, we can more easily understand why Joseph is so important in understanding the nature of the hypostatic order, or that personal assumption of the Second of the Blessed Trinity in a marriage.

Joseph the unknown

Throughout the pope's teaching on St. Joseph in RC, it becomes clear and evident that the Holy Father, John Paul II, interprets Matthew and Luke as history, not merely memories of a community that has embellished the life of Joseph. While it is certainly true that very little is said about Joseph in the Gospels and he does not personally utter a word in the gospels, it is reasonable to conclude that the authors, both human and divine, wanted to communicate the "good news" of Jesus Christ and thus did not focus excessively on the persons who helped shape his early life. Nevertheless, the Holy Father is convinced that reflecting on Joseph's role in salvation history the whole church "will be enabled to discover ever anew her own identity within this redemptive plan, which is founded on the mystery of the incarnation."

The hypostatic union of the Redeemer was intrinsically dependent upon Mary's consent and very body, for the Word assumes a true human nature in her womb. Therefore, we can say it was also extrinsically necessary, given God's chosen plan of salvation, that the incarnation depend upon someone who would act as a loving father for the God-man and a loving husband for the Mother of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the consequences of all this so very wonderfully:

531 During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labour. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God, [221] a life in the community. From this whole period it is revealed to us that Jesus was "obedient" to his parents and that he "increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man." [222]

532 Jesus' obedience to his mother and legal father fulfills the fourth commandment perfectly and was the temporal image of his filial obedience to his Father in heaven. The everyday obedience of Jesus to Joseph and Mary both announced and anticipated the obedience of Holy Thursday: "Not my will . . ." [223] The obedience of Christ in the daily routine of his hidden life was already inaugurating his work of restoring what the disobedience of Adam had destroyed. [224]

533 The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life: The home of Nazareth is the school where we begin to understand the life of Jesus — the school of the Gospel. First, then, a lesson of silence. May esteem for silence, that admirable and indispensable condition of mind, revive in us . . . A lesson on family life. May Nazareth teach us what family life is, its communion of love, its austere and simple beauty, and its sacred and inviolable character . . . A lesson of work. Nazareth, home of the "Carpenter's Son", in you I would choose to understand and proclaim the severe and redeeming law of human work . . . To conclude, I want to greet all the workers of the world, holding up to them their great pattern their brother who is God. [225]2

Was Mary unwedded when she conceived the Word incarnate?

Quite often preachers today speak of Mary as an unwedded woman because she was only engaged to Joseph at the time of her consent at the annunciation. The Pope in paragraph 18 accepts the common teaching of some Jewish historians that marriage had two stages: the legal and true marriage would be celebrated, and after a certain period of time, the wife would come to her husband's home. With this understanding, Joseph is seen already to be Mary's husband at the time of her pregnancy. Betrothal did not mean "merely engaged" but legally married. This will be very important when it comes to the question of Joseph's doubt.

The problem of Mary's pregnancy

Theologians have often wondered how Joseph discovered Mary's pregnancy. The Holy Father clearly opts for the notion that it was "visible to the people and to Joseph." If so, why does he choose to "divorce her quietly?" Much ink has been spilled over this question; some even opined that Mary had committed adultery! John Paul however teaches that Joseph "decided to draw back so as not to interfere in the plan of God which was coming to pass in Mary" (20). Therefore, in order to allay the personal anguish of Joseph who knew something was beyond his comprehension, it was necessary that he too receive, like Mary, a personal annunciation: "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:20-21). Matthew then recounts that Joseph did "as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took his wife" (Matt. 1:24). The Holy Father indicates that this was Joseph's clearest "obedience of faith" and the pope references this to Romans and the Second Letter to the Corinthians.

It becomes evident, after a minimum of reflection, that Joseph is the first "to share in the faith of the mother of God and in doing so he supports his spouse in the faith of the divine annunciation" (5b). In the same paragraph, RC asserts that "the incarnation and the redemption constitute an organic and indissoluble unity." What this will mean is that somehow, yet in a more distant but still real way, Joseph also saved us under Christ even though he was not present for the saving action of Christ's passion and death.

It is also clear that Joseph is not a foster father in the strict sense, but rather he is adopted by God himself to be the juridical father of Jesus. This is why RC teaches that it would be wrong to assert that Joseph is merely an apparent or substitute father (21a): "Rather, it [his fatherhood] is one that fully shares in authentic fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family" (ibid.). Moreover, the Pope, citing a discourse of Paul VI reminds us that although Joseph did not give his genetic makeup to his Son through authentic conjugal intercourse, he nevertheless gave Jesus "by a special gift from heaven, all the natural love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father's heart can know" (8c). In other words, his fatherly authority over Jesus required a corresponding love. Parenthetically, since Joseph had this special ministry over Jesus, one can easily conclude that his ministry was higher than that of the ecclesiastical hierarchy for Joseph was head of the Head of the mystical body and Mary Mother of the Church. God on earth obeyed him and was in part formed by him.

Concerning Joseph's relationship to his virginal wife, RC has some very important words to say about marital love, which deserves to be cited in full:

"Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife" in to his home (Mt 1:24); what was conceived in Mary was "of the Holy Spirit." From expressions such as these are we not to suppose that his love as a man was also given new birth by the Holy Spirit? Are we not to think that the love of God which has been poured forth into the human heart through the Holy Spirit (cf. Rm. 5:5) molds every human love to perfection? This love of God also molds — in a completely unique way — the love of husband and wife, deepening within it everything of human worth and beauty, everything that bespeaks an exclusive gift of self, a covenant between persons, and an authentic communion according to the model of the Blessed Trinity.

"Joseph . . . took his wife; but he knew her not, until she had borne a son" (Mt 1:24-25). These words indicate another kind of closeness in marriage. The deep spiritual closeness arising from marital union and the interpersonal contact between man and woman have their definitive origin in the Spirit, the Giver of Life (cf. Jn 6:63). Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man. And this love proved to be greater than this "just man" could ever have expected within the limits of his human heart (19b&c).

What the Holy Father has asserted is really an exposition of St. Thomas's dictum that grace builds upon nature, and does not destroy, but perfects it. The Pope asserts that the most chaste Joseph had all the affection of a husband for his virginal wife, just as he earlier asserted he had all of the affection of a father for a Son, who was not his own. Only the grace of the Holy Spirit can accomplish this in a person. This obviously gives us a powerful incentive to pray more often to the Holy Spirit and learn to depend upon him more than self.

What about Joseph's faith?

The document makes mention that "Joseph is the first to share in the faith of the Mother of God and that in doing so he supports his spouse in the faith of the divine annunciation . . . It is a path along which — especially at the time of Calvary and Pentecost — Mary will precede in a perfect way" (5b). Likewise, "from the beginning, Joseph accepted with the 'obedience of faith,' his human fatherhood over Jesus. And thus, following in the light of the Holy Spirit who gives himself to human beings through faith, he certainly came to discover ever more fully the indescribable gift that was his human fatherhood" (21 b). More profoundly, the Holy Father sees Joseph's faith as absolutely fundamental in his life:

One can say that what Joseph did united him in an altogether special way to the faith of Mary. He accepted as truth coming from God the very thing that she had already accepted at the Annunciation. The Council teaches: "The obedience of faith' must be given to God as he reveals himself. By this obedience of faith man freely commits himself entirely to God, making 'the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals,' and willingly assenting to the revelation given by him." (DV 5) This statement, which touches the very essence of faith, is perfectly applicable to Joseph of Nazareth.

Was Joseph married before his marriage to Mary?

The idea that Joseph was married before he entered into a marriage with Mary has its origin in apocryphal or false gospels. Portraying Joseph as an old widower made it easier for ordinary people to understand how he would keep Mary's virginity intact. Also, a second marriage would help interpret the texts in the New Testament that indicate that Jesus had brothers. These ideas were popular throughout the early and medieval Church as seen in the various mystery plays where Joseph is portrayed as a grumpy old man sometimes given to drink. Similarly, he is often depicted in art as an old man.

It was the teaching of Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure among others that Joseph made a vow of virginity together with Mary, implying that he was neither married before nor had other children. Rather, early on in the history of theology, a lesser-known idea emerged from biblical study that in Jewish times, it was quite common to call one's cousins "brothers and sisters."

While RC does not answer our question explicitly, it does assume that Joseph was not previously married, and even more, that he was truly a virgin. Here RC makes its own the words of Paul VI:

We see that at the beginning of the New Testament, as at the beginning of the Old, there is a married couple. But whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth. The Savior began the work of salvation by this virginal and holy union, wherein is manifested his all-powerful will to purify and sanctify the family that sanctuary of love and cradle.

Again quoting Paul VI, RC states of the dedication to the Virgin Mary:

The total sacrifice, whereby Joseph surrendered his whole existence to the demands of the Messiah's coming into his home, becomes understandable only in the light of his profound interior life. It was from this interior life that "very singular commands and consolations came, bringing him also the logic and strength that belong to simple and clear souls, and giving him the power of making great decisions — such as the decision to put his liberty immediately at the disposition of the divine designs, to make over to them also his legitimate human calling, his conjugal happiness, to accept the conditions, the responsibility and the burden of a family, but, through an incomparable virginal love, to renounce that natural conjugal love that is the foundation and nourishment of the family" (26a).

The infancy narratives

It was rather fashionable in previous decades to claim that the infancy narratives were merely creative accounts of the faith communities of the various evangelists thus explaining the variations among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Biblical exegetes would often claim that these narratives were similar, if not identical, to the first three chapters of Genesis, and as a literary form were part myth — part history. Nevertheless, RC adopts these narratives as historically true, namely, the census, the birth, the circumcision, the conferral of the Name, Presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, and Jesus' stay in the temple, and the support and education of Jesus at Nazareth. No one can be accused of strict fundamentalism in accepting these ideas as history given the text of RC. When a Pope interprets sacred Scripture in a non-solemn way, one can presume that such an interpretation is safe to follow, since he possesses a higher light than a theologian's light of the science of theology.

Conclusions for spirituality

While RC reminds us that there is a kind of primacy of the interior life, it clearly indicates that for Joseph he was "in daily contact with the mystery 'hidden from ages past,' and which 'dwelt' under his roof . . ." (25a). If each act of Christ's human actions caused grace for us either by merit or by a certain efficacy, then floods of graces had to be given to Joseph, not only for his mission as minister to Jesus and Mary, but also for his daily spiritual life in general. Joseph's fatherly love was also influenced by Jesus' filial love, which in turn prevailed upon the fatherly affection of Joseph. Each minute spent with Jesus was like receiving a continuous Holy Communion. Thus, Joseph's contemplative love of divine truth overflowed into his life of selfless love for his wife and son, and reciprocally, his mission-driven life overflowed into his contemplative life.

Because of these factors, Josephologists assert that St. Joseph deserves not simply dulia or the ordinary respect and reverence due to the saints and angels but proto-dulia because he is probably the highest of the saints and angels, after his wife, by reason of his closeness to Jesus and Mary. In some sense, all holiness of the New Covenant flows from this marriage as the recipient of the Incarnation. In some ways Joseph participates in the dignity of Jesus and Mary, which in turn evoked many graces for his life. Leo XIII wrote in the encyclical letter Quamquam Pluries that Joseph protects and defends "with his heavenly patronage the Church of Christ" (28b). Given the fact that he guided and protected the holy family, the logic of things is such that in heaven he would do precisely the same for the mystical body of Christ on earth.

Therefore, the more we love, revere and honor him, the more we dispose ourselves to receiving many graces from his Son through Mary. Just as Jesus and Mary depended upon him, we by praying to Joseph imitate them. His intercession for us increases as we love him, and so he facilitates our growth in the life of the Spirit making it somewhat easier as we surrender to his role here as our patron. Devotion to him does not lessen our love for Mary and Jesus, but rather supplements and increases it. True devotion to Joseph does not end with him, but rather offers us new possibilities of loving his Son and Mary even more. RC reminds us that the great mystic, St. Teresa of Jesus, promoted devotion to St. Joseph precisely because she wanted to become an authentic contemplative (25a).

Every Catholic is called to develop the contemplative dimension of the Christian life. Perhaps most of us will never become mystics who experience many of the truths of faith but we can all become ordinary contemplators of our faith with the help of reason and grace, and grow more deeply in union with Jesus according to our specific vocations. St. Joseph is just one of those foundations that will enable us to grow toward a deeper Christ centered spirituality.

End notes

  1. Revised version of an earlier article Pope John Paul and Saint Joseph: Guardian of the Redeemer, in The Dominican Torch, 4:1 Winter, (2006): 14-18.
  2. 221 Cf. Gal 4:4; 222 Lk 2:51-52; 224 Cf. Rom 5:19; 225 Paul VI at Nazareth; 5 January 1964: LH, Feast of the Holy Family, OR.

Reverend Basil Cole, O.P., is currently a member of the pontifical faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., where he teaches spiritual and moral theology. He is the author of The Secret Enemies of the Priesthood (Alba House, 2006). His last article in HPR appeared in December 2004.

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