Let us think of a beautiful saint, Joseph the foster-father of our
Lord, Joseph the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus and our mother.
Some saints and other holy persons have left many volumes of writings
and letters which tell us about their activities and their inner life.
Cardinal Newman, one of the greatest writers of English prose, and
probably the greatest religious mind in the history of England, left
over forty volumes of his written books and over thirty volumes of his
letters and diaries, with more volumes still to be published. A great
deal, then, is
known about him and still being discovered.
St Joseph left us nothing in writing of
course, and we are told very little about him in the Gospels. What we
do know from the Gospels relates to our Lord’s infancy and boyhood. The
implication of this is that St Joseph led what could be called a very
ordinary life, one which in its range of activities was like that lived
by countless others in every age. He did not stand out in any unusual
way. He was not a synagogue president. There is no mention of him being
a town or village leader. He did no notable things that brought him to
the attention of the wider country. When our Lord began his public
ministry his fame spread far and wide in Galilee and in Judea. Not so
with St Joseph. He was a humble carpenter, the head of a small family
involving the care of a wife and child. Inasmuch as there is mention in
the gospels of the brethren (i.e., relatives) of our Lord, Joseph may
have been part of a wider family circle of brothers and sisters, our
Lord’s uncles and aunts and their children our Lord’s cousins. Whatever
of that, it is plain from the Gospels that in terms of his activities
Joseph lived an ordinary life very like that of the rest of his
townsmen and of countless others in every time and place.
But in the sight of God that ordinary life was full of grandeur.
We know this from traces given to us in the Gospels, and especially
from the mind of the Church which develops in understanding from age to
age under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. The Church’s insight
into what is revealed (explicitly or implicitly) is not restricted to
the barest statement
of a few Scripture texts. Under the guiding impulse of the Spirit of
God, the Church progressively sees more and more of what has to have
been the case, granted what God has revealed. Her mind on the
person of St Joseph is manifest in her liturgy, in the writings of the
saints and theologians especially (but not only) of the last thousand
years, and notably in papal teaching of the past two centuries. The
Church's teaching is that Joseph the foster father of our Lord was a
immense holiness, and a most worthy husband of his all-holy wife.
Neither Mary nor Joseph, of course, compared in holiness with Mary’s
divine Son. But Joseph was a saint of the highest order, and the modern
popes have taught that after Mary his wife he is the very greatest of
Many theological reasons can be offered to explain this
conviction of the Church. God confers grace proportioned to the office
for which that person is selected - as was the case with our Lady
herself. To the degree that something approaches its source, so it
participates in the effect of that source. Now, with the exception of
our Lady, no one approached Christ the source of grace more closely
than did St Joseph. Joseph’s intimacy with Jesus, apart from our Lady’s
intimacy with him, was never equalled, and never will be. Imagine the
intimacy between Jesus and Joseph! So too no one
has had the intimacy with our Lady - apart from our Lord himself - that
Joseph had. Imagine the holy intimacy between Joseph and Mary his wife!
For all these reasons the firm
mind of the Church is that the holiness of Joseph is second to none
after Mary herself.
These are the bald facts. But what are we to make of them?
Is there any key to understanding Joseph’s sanctity and how he reached
it? After all, there was nothing very unusual about his life. But then,
of course, there was nothing very unusual about the life of Mary
either. During all those years in Nazareth, there is no record in the
Gospels of the people there having any inkling that the three holiest
people of all time, holier than the angels and saints, dwelt humbly and
quietly among them. They certainly did not realize that Jesus was God
What must have distinguished Joseph was not, as I have already
said, notable and exceptional deeds done for God. There are many saints
who have done extraordinary things for God. Consider the work of Thomas
Aquinas, brilliant, extensive, altogether ground-breaking in both
philosophy and theology. I mentioned Cardinal Newman earlier - the same
thing could be said of him. They stood out for not only their holiness
but their extraordinary intellectual achievements, published for
posterity to see. We can mention
extraordinary missionaries, extraordinary mystics and agents of change.
There were founders of great institutes and movements for holiness and
apostolate. Their achievements were out of the ordinary. But St
Joseph’s life was not like that. His deeds did not stand out beyond the
ordinary. His life was made up of ordinary activities, as was the life
of Mary his wife, the mother of Jesus. Yet after Mary, he was and is
holier than the other saints.
So what was the secret of St Joseph’s holiness? Of
course, he was called to and given a unique gift of intimacy with the
Son of God, his foster-child. No other union with Jesus (apart from
that of Mary his wife) could ever have been like it.
But apart from that gift given to him, what was it
that he did on his part in order to be faithful to the gift and to grow
holiness that consists in love for God? It must have been the degree
of love with which he did the ordinary things that filled up his life.
His love for Jesus and Mary was utterly pure in its character, purely
directed to God and his glory. He did his ordinary duties with an
extraordinary degree of love for God our Father, for Jesus and for
Mary. Inasmuch as he was preparing and protecting our Lord for the
mission of saving mankind from sin (for the angel had told him that
Jesus would save his people from their sins) he fulfilled his duties
out of a great love for mankind too. Mary our mother was conceived free
of original sin and not the slightest trace of sin touched her soul. St
Joseph did not have the privilege of being conceived free of original
sin, but he was clearly led by the Holy Spirit in a wonderful way, but
hidden within the round of his ordinary and unspectacular duties. That
must have been the secret. He fulfilled all his ordinary
responsibilities towards Jesus and Mary with an extraordinary love and
devotion. One can only imagine the loving care with which he fulfilled
them, the loving care that informed every detail of his duty. This is a
powerful lesson for all other disciples and lovers of Jesus who are
called to live very ordinary lives. It means that every life can be a
life full of hidden and humble grandeur. No matter what be our calling,
we can aspire to be very pleasing to God.
Joseph is then our model in the ways to attain sanctity.
He made of his ordinary life something hidden but very great before God
by cooperating with the gifts of grace he had been given in view of his
vocation. If we cooperate with the gifts of grace we have been given in
view of our vocation, we too will be led to holiness. This holiness
will come above all from fulfilling our our duties to God, to others
and to ourselves with the purest love
we can manage. It will come if we offer up the countless difficulties
of every day as a gift of love to God. Thus we sanctify the day, thus
we sanctify our work and ourselves, and thus we sanctify others.
Moreover, just as St Joseph was the guardian and protector
of Jesus and Mary, the Church has declared St Joseph to be the guardian
and protector of the Church and of all the Church’s members. St Teresa
of Avila called him her father and lord, and St Josemaria Escriva in
like manner called him this too. He is our protector above all by his
prayers. St Joseph, pray for us. Blessed Mary MacKillop used to say, Go
to Joseph. He intercedes for us as our heavenly father, as Mary is our
heavenly mother. We are Mary’s children, but he is her husband. How
our Lord must look up to Joseph still, as he must to Mary his
mother as well, for he surely continues in heaven to be the model Son
he was. As
Mary’s prayers to her Son on our behalf are irresistible, so would be
the prayers of Joseph. He, then, is our intercessor and heavenly
protector. So, go to Joseph. Mary and Joseph were the first Christians,
they are the greatest Christians. Let us strive to be like them.