Late last year, Pope Francis released an apostolic letter titled, in Latin, “Patris Corde,” which means “With a Father’s Heart.” In it, he recalls the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church. This anniversary is the reason why Pope Francis proclaimed Dec. 8, 2020, to Dec. 8, 2021, as a “Year of St. Joseph.” So, I thought I would use my column to offer a reflection on the pope’s letter announcing the Year of St. Joseph.
In his letter, Pope Francis wonderfully describes the fatherly attributes of Joseph, attributes that all Christian men should strive to nurture. Fathers can be birth fathers, adoptive fathers and — like me — spiritual fathers. I believe that all men are called to have the kind-hearted, strong and faithful qualities of St. Joseph. He is a gentle and persistent model of manhood/fatherhood for all of us. Pope Francis describes St. Joseph as a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a father who is creatively courageous, a working father and a father in the shadows. But, we must also remember that his greatest partner in life was Mary. Women have a way of drawing out the best of us who are men. Mary, the mother of Jesus, does that for all of us who follow her son.
It is interesting that the pope asserts the experience of living through this pandemic has helped us to see more clearly the importance of “ordinary” people who, though far from the spotlight, exercise patience and offer hope every day. These are the doctors, nurses and caregivers; grocery workers, safety forces and teachers; transit workers, food service workers and postal workers — anyone who has continued in their role helping others during these challenging times. This includes our priests, deacons, lay ministers and church volunteers. Throughout the pandemic, many persons resembled St. Joseph, who quietly did what was expected of him. These are the “saints next door,” as Pope Francis describes them.
Being a “man in the shadows,” there isn’t much written in the Gospels about St. Joseph, but there is enough for us to paint a picture of him in our mind’s eye and to appreciate what sort of father he was. Pope Francis says each of us can discover in Joseph — the man who goes unnoticed — a daily, discreet and hidden presence, an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an important role in the history of salvation. His life is for us a model of holiness. Most of us will work for the kingdom of God in the shadows and without much, if any, notoriety.
It is also very telling that, after Mary, no saint is mentioned more frequently in the papal teachings of the Church than Joseph, her spouse. Joseph knew the story was not about him. His life was not about him. His life — and our life — is always about God. Finding out the part we play in God’s plan for the world is key to our own happiness. We are happy when we do God’s will. God was always at the center of Joseph’s life and the life of the Holy Family.
In St. Joseph, Jesus sees the God who helps us accept our weaknesses — our humanity — because it is through and despite our fears, our frailties and our weakness that most divine designs are realized. God wants to use us, as flawed as we are, for his good purposes.
The Church needs fathers like St. Joseph. Pray for vocations to fatherhood. In a special way, pray for men to answer the call to marriage in the Church and for an increase in men willing to accept the vocation of priesthood and other ordained ministries.