Theological Reflections on Saint Joseph

It is one of the tasks of theology to bring into sharper focus the portrait of Saint Joseph. Theology does this by showing his place of importance in the life of Christ and in the life of Mary.

It is to be remembered that theology does not “philosophize” on the data of revelation and thus arrive at purely human reflections. Theology does more. For theology is the systematic and scientific reflection, aided and assisted by divine faith, on the truths revealed by God in public revelation to his Church.

Faith seeks understanding, according to Saint Augustine, and it is not content with a superficial knowledge of the word of God. But the understanding it seeks is a deeper insight into the significance of God’s self-communication.

In the case of Saint Joseph it would be possible to stop short after reading the biblical narrative of his place in the life of the Redeemer. But would there not follow from this a lack of appreciation, realization, evaluation of the Saint’s role in God’s plan? Without serious reflection and consideration how can faith grow and develop beyond the conceptual grasp of a small child’s appreciation? Study of the theology of Saint Joseph is necessary and legitimate because Sacred Scripture speaks of Joseph as a man specially called by God to perform a singular and meaningful task for our Redeemer and His Mother. It is important, therefore, that theology meditate in living faith on the place of this man in salvation history and the role he is called to fulfill in the life of the Church.

Leaving aside the technical questions that are dealt with by learned writers of Josephology, the following points are important in a true theology of Saint Joseph.

1. The divine call of Saint Joseph

When it was eternally decreed that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was to become man, not only the substantial factors of the Incarnation were determined by God, but likewise all those persons, places, and things that would bring about this mystery. After Mary, Saint Joseph was the most important personage among these.

God chose the one who was to be His Mother and He also chose the one who was to be her husband and consequently His father. It was not by chance that he received these honors, but by the express Will of God.

2. The immaculate conception or prenatal sanctification of St. Joseph

The question has often been raised whether or not Saint Joseph, like Mary, was privileged by God to have been free from original sin from the first moment of his existence. Surely if there is reason to suspect that God bestowed this favor on any soul besides the Blessed Mother, the most logical one, and the only one, who comes to mind is Saint Joseph. This is prompted by the fact that he was truly married to the Mother of God and that he had a singular paternal relationship towards Christ. A strong logical case could be built up to show how fitting it would be for Saint Joseph to have been accorded such a privilege.

Nevertheless, reason no matter how compelling, is not sufficient to prove that God actually granted this or that favor to a particular saint. We can only have certitude when it is guaranteed by Scripture of the Magisterium of the Church. Scripture says nothing of such a privilege and more important still is the fact that the Magisterium of the Church seems clearly to rule out the possibility. In 1953 Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter <Fulgens Corona> had this to say about the Immaculate Conception of Mary: “Mary obtained this <most singular privilege>, never granted to anyone else, because she was raised to the dignity of the Mother of God”20 .

There is agreement among theologians that the words of Pius XII are to be taken literally; in fact, they teach that it would be rash or temerarious to hold that any other person, no matter how exalted, has been favored with this privilege. The devotion to Saint Joseph would not be helped, but immeasurably damaged, if it departed from this clear statement of the Magisterium: devotion to Joseph, like all other devotions, must be based on truth and not empty sentimentality.

Saint John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb. Is there not reason to believe that Saint Joseph must have been accorded a similar privilege? Some have not hesitated to reply in the affirmative, but the majority of theologians see no reason that justifies the claim. Once again, the only way in which we can be sure of the prenatal sanctification of Saint Joseph would be through an explicit affirmation of Sacred Scripture or the teaching of the Church. Since we would look in vain for such approval in either of those sources, the only prudent conclusion we come to is that Joseph was not sanctified until after his birth.

In simple terms it comes to this: Saint Joseph was born with original sin on his soul and was not cleansed from its stain until the time of his circumcision, as was the case with every other Jewish boy of his time.

3. The virginal marriage

Theologically speaking, there can be no doubt about the marriage of Mary and Joseph. It was not a fictitious marriage. The marriage was real; it was also a valid marriage. As we have already seen, the marriage existed from the time of the exchange of the marriage rights and not from the time of the solemnization of the wedding ceremony. The only reason for again insisting on this point is to make clear that Christ was born (though miraculously) in wedlock. Had Christ been born out of wedlock, the people of the time would have considered Christ to have been an illegitimate child, and they would have suspected Mary of being guilty of fornication. Their reputations would have been darkened in the eyes of men and this would have seriously harmed the cause of the Redemption. Later in His life, the scribes and pharisees sought in every possible way to throw discredit upon the Messiah. They surely would have resorted to this argument, had it been available. When Christ said to them: “Which one of you will convict Me of sin?”21, we know that no one could accuse Him of any fault.

When did Mary and Joseph decide to remain virgins? Was it before they took their marriage vows that they made this extraordinary agreement of being joined in wedlock and yet never making use of their marital rights? Or was this mutual agreement reached only after the marriage had been contracted? We do not know anything of the specific circumstances that attended such an agreement, we know only of the constant tradition of the Church dating back to the earliest times that, enlightened by the grace of God, Mary and Joseph made this agreement and remained faithful to it always.

4. The fatherhood of Saint Joseph

Naturally the most cherished title possessed by the holy Patriarch is the privilege of being called the father of Jesus, which comes to him as Mary’s husband. When this holy couple contracted marriage they had no idea it would be blessed with such fruitfulness, being ordained by the gracious providence of God to receive the Son of God, the Redeemer and Saviour of the world.

Mary and Joseph were both parents of the Child, but in different ways. Mary by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit became His mother in the full sense of the word. Truly she was the Mother of God, the Redeemer, because she clothed Him with flesh from her own maternal substance. Because of her physical motherhood a metaphysical relationship was established between Mary and Christ in virtue of which she could say that He was her child and, in turn, He could say of Mary: truly this is My Mother. Of all the creatures of God no one is more intimately related to Christ than His Mother.

The fatherhood of Joseph and the motherhood of Mary are both due to the miraculous intervention of God. The Divine Motherhood is unique in all of history. What is unique and distinctive about Joseph’s fatherhood will become clear only after we have considered the following points: (a) the general concept of fatherhood; (b) false kinds of fatherhood attributed to Joseph; (c) the description of his fatherhood that best accords with the teaching of Revelation.

a) The general concept of fatherhood

Fatherhood in the sense is brought about by physical generation whereby life is vitally transmitted by the father to his child. This type of fatherhood is fatherhood in the ordinary sense and can be described as and fatherhood. The relationship arising between the father who transmits life and the child who receives that life is a permanent and indissoluble one. Once established, this relationship endures in time and in eternity.

Paternity establishes two different bonds. The first, produced by the generative act, can be called since the father communicates something of his own physical substance to form the body of his son. But paternity establishes a relationship of a higher and more elevated nature, which is the most noble aspect of human fatherhood, namely, the bond of human affection. Sinibaldi writes:

Paternity would not be worthy of esteem, except for the excellence of the moral bond, of which it is the natural principle, just as it is of the physical bond. If the physical bond could exist of itself separate from the moral bond, human paternity would not be above that of the brute animal. On the other hand, if the moral bond could exist without the physical, it alone would suffice for true paternity, because it is more beautiful, more perfect, and more sublime. The heart can supply for the physical bond and establish another closer tie, like to that which proceeds from the natural order of fatherhood.22

We call a man father in the sense when he adopts a child that is not the fruit of his own marriage and bestows upon that child all the love, affection and privileges that he would accord to the child if it were his natural son. In these cases a strong, personal bond of affection arises that can be spoken of as a , but , type of fatherhood. Cases are not unknown when the father, in the moral order, feels closer to an adopted child than to his own flesh and blood.

b) False kinds of fatherhood attributed to Saint Joseph

It would be contrary to the teachings of the deposit of faith to claim that Saint Joseph was the father of Jesus Christ in the and sense of the word. This is the clear belief of the Church expressed in the words of the Apostles Creed: “I believe… Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” Those who deny the supernatural order hold the opinion that Joseph was the natural father of Christ. Nevertheless there have not been wanting pious authors, moved not by any type of malice but rather by an excessive and exaggerated love of Saint Joseph, who have speculated on the possibility of the Holy Spirit miraculously and without prejudicing the virginity of Mary or Joseph, taking a bit of the virile semen of Joseph to bring about the conception of Christ. This would make Joseph the father of Christ in a but manner. The Church has proscribed such speculation as being destitute of any real foundation; and, in addition, of being contrary to the constant teaching of the faith. Therefore, to claim that the fatherhood of Joseph be described as physical is a serious departure from sound theology and the teachings of the Church.

Since he did not cooperate in any physical sense, Joseph’s fatherhood could only be in the order. This implies positively that he was moved by love and generosity to care for Christ and negatively it excludes the possibility of corporal generation. But this only imperfectly describes the situation, as we shall see.

c) The fatherhood of Joseph is Unique

In the whole course of human history there has never been a type of fatherhood that is identical to that of Saint Joseph. Why is this so? An event occurred in the life of Saint Joseph that has never occurred, and never will occur, to any other married men. This tremendous event implied: (1) that Almighty God miraculously enabled his wife virginally to conceive and bring forth a son; (2) the child in question was the Incarnated Word of God; (3) all this occurred in such a way, according to the special designs of Divine Providence, that the Child was not a stranger to Saint Joseph, but the fruit of his own marriage; (4) and finally Joseph by the same divine decree was, in a true sense, granted the rights and duties of fatherhood towards this Child.

It would be a mistake to conclude that what distinguishes Joseph’s fatherhood from all forms of human adoptive fatherhood is the fact that the child in question was divine. This oversimplification would miss the whole point.

What is also unique in this case is the fact that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was ordained by God to receive the Son of God into the world. The Incarnate Word of God was the fruit of the marriage of this holy couple. Christ was not a stranger to their marriage. Quite different is an ordinary case of human adoptive parenthood, namely, the child adopted and given the rights accorded to natural children, is a to the marriage of the couple in the sense that their marriage was not ordained to receive that child and care for him.

Were it ever to happen that God would miraculously and virginally make a man’s wife fruitful precisely because of his marriage to her, that man would become the father of the child in the singular way that Joseph is the father of Christ. God could not in justice deny him a paternal right to the fruit of his wife’s womb.

Hence, just as Mary became the Mother of God not “because of the will of man but because of the will of God”23, so neither did Joseph receive his fatherhood towards Christ except by the will of God. Mary cooperated much more proximately and more intimately in the Incarnation than Joseph, so that she is not only morally the Mother of God, but as well. Her motherhood is perfect in every sense of the word. The fatherhood of Joseph does not have the perfection of physical fatherhood but it immeasurably surpasses any form of human adoptive fatherhood.

How is it possible for Joseph to have become the father of Jesus in the sense described without his knowledge or consent? Furthermore, there is the constant belief of the Church that he and Mary agreed to remain virgins. Does that fact not imply the resolve to have no children?

These objections are easily answered. When Mary and Joseph married, even with the resolve to abstain from the use of the sexual privileges of marriage, they were entering marriage with the idea of consecrating themselves to one another for the love of God. They were completely “open” to the designs of God’s will, even though at the time they did not know what that Will implied. It is basically unimportant whether they understood down to the most minute detail what God was demanding of them; it was sufficient that they surrendered themselves without reserve to His unfathomable designs. Their call to marriage was not a private vocation, a vocation that only concerned themselves; it was a call that was to affect the entire community of the human family. In all likelihood the only thing they were sure of in their hearts was that God was calling them to marriage and that they were to live a virginal life; they determined to live their married life according to the good pleasure of God. This attitude of mind and heart was the all-important thing at that moment. As yet they had no idea what great things God had in store for them.

Perhaps a simple example might shed some light on this matter. Consider the parents of St. Theresa of Lisieux, or the parents of Saint Thomas Aquinas at the time of their marriages. They certainly had no idea that a child would be born to them who would one day be a canonized saint and who would have such a profound spiritual influence on millions of souls. On their wedding day they simply resolved to follow their calling in the state of matrimony and to put their marriage at the service and good pleasure of their Creator.

Thus it was with Mary and Joseph. Only with the passing of time did they begin to understand how their marriage was to be the most privileged marriage of all times because, as Saint Augustine states, “the Holy Spirit gave a divine child to both of them”24. In the miraculous fruit of their marriage, God’s most decisive and important intervention into human history took place.

What is the best title to express the unique fatherhood of Saint Joseph? There are any number of terms employed by the faithful and spiritual writers such as a fatherhood that is legal, reputed, foster, vicar of the Eternal Father, or virginal. Most of these titles express a partial aspect of the reality. Father Francis Filas, S.J., the greatest living American Josephologist, along with a number of other writers, prefers the title: Joseph, the of Christ. He justifies his choice of title in these words:

‘Virginal father’ seems to approach the requirements for an adequate description because it is brief, exclusive, and clear ,or perhaps we should say that it is as clear as any title ever will be in referring to a fatherly relationship that so utterly transcends all ordinary categories. Extrinsically, ‘virginal father’ has been recommended in the words of Augustine. Intrinsically, according to its meaning, it so limits the significance of the word ‘father’, by calling the fatherhood , that it excludes all connotation of physical generation, with no ambiguity whatsoever. On the other hand, by its mention of a virginal , it indicates that some sort of fatherhood is being referred to. Since physical paternity is excluded by the word ‘virginal’, the rights and duties of a fatherhood in the moral order seem to be the logical conclusion.

A little later in the same book, Fr. Filas continues:

Now to apply this principle to ‘virginal father’. St. Joseph is father of Jesus ,and in saying this we have exactly the thought of many centuries that Joseph was father in all respects, physical generation alone excepted! An adoptive father, whose son is extraneous to him and to his marriage, does not possess paternity in a fashion such as this. The description fits only St. Joseph’s relationship, according to which Christ was Joseph’s true son in the moral order, and not extraneous to him. The Saint could not have obtained such a fatherhood except through the fact that Jesus was born of Joseph’s wife. There is no other source possible, the marriage was the channel of parenthood to St. Joseph.25

5. Saint Joseph had true paternal sentiments toward Jesus

Since Joseph was granted the privilege of virginal fatherhood towards Jesus, it is necessary to say a few words about the special interior grace he possessed of experiencing true paternal sentiments towards the child. It is a general principle of theology that when God calls a man to perform a special service, He gives all the graces necessary for the perfect execution of that vocation. The fatherhood of Joseph was not granted by nature and therefore God who, in a supernatural manner had made Joseph a virginal father, also granted him profound sentiments of love and solicitude for Christ that no human father ever felt for his son. This can be called the principal grace of his state of life in God’s plan for him in salvation history.

Bossuet explained this grace in a manner that has never been surpassed. He wrote:

That same divine hand that fashions each man’s heart gave a father’s heart to Joseph and a son’s heart to Jesus, so that Jesus obeyed Joseph and Joseph did not fear to command Jesus. And how can he to be so bold as to command his Creator? It was because Christ’s true Father, the God who had begotten Him from all eternity, had chosen Joseph to act as father to His son in this world; and in so doing God had, as it were, charged Joseph’s breast with some ray or spark of His own boundless love for His Son. It was this that changed Joseph’s heart, it was this that aroused a father’s love in him, so much so that, feeling a father’s heart burn within him at God’s word, Joseph felt also that God was telling him to use a father’s authority: therefore he did not fear to command Him whom he acknowledged as His Master.26

His fatherly sentiments enabled him to exercise that holy care and solicitude in caring for the child. This is especially evident in the course of the endless troubles that occurred during the first few years of ‘Christ’s existence. But, again following the keen insights of Bossuet, the greatest proof of his fatherly solicitude was given in the agonizing experience of being separated from Christ for three days when the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem.

Consider this further ordeal, and a remarkable one. It was not enough that men should distress him, Jesus did so too: the Boy eluded his watchful eye, slipped away, and was lost for three days. What had faithful Joseph done? What had happened to the sacred trust that God had put into his hands? We can hardly imagine Joseph’s alarm and lamentations. If you do not yet understand his fatherhood, look upon his tears now, see his misery, and be convinced that he is a father. His grief made it abundantly clear, and Mary was right when she said to Jesus, “Thy father and I have been seeking thee sorrowing”. It was as if she said: “Son, I am not afraid to call him your father now, and by doing so I throw no shadow on the virginal marvel of your birth. I call him your father because of his solicitude and disquiet, his concern on your behalf is truly fatherly. I and your father: I join him with myself in our common sorrowing.27

6. Holiness and dignity of Saint Joseph

From the sixteenth century there has been a growing consensus among theologians about the outstanding holiness of Saint Joseph. Today it can be affirmed that it is the common teaching of the Church that Joseph occupies a very special place in heaven, because of his exceptional holiness, that is second only to the place occupied by the Mother of God.

In his encyclical letter , Leo XIII wrote:

Joseph… indeed was the husband of Mary and the father, as was supposed, of Jesus Christ. From this arise all his dignity and grace, holiness and glory… There can be no doubt that more than any other person he approached that supereminent dignity by which the Mother of God is raised far above all created natures… Joseph alone stands out in august dignity because he was the Guardian of the Son of God by divine appointment.28

Several things are worthy of note in this encyclical of Leo: first, he mentions the measure of the holiness of Saint Joseph. The norm that determined the amount of grace that Joseph received was the twofold office that he possessed, namely, that of being the husband of Mary, and the father of Jesus Christ. The grace God bestowed upon his soul coincided with the supereminent dignity of those two offices. Secondly, Leo’s insistence that Joseph approached the holiness of Mary. Mary was raised far above , does this mean that the Pope was teaching that Mary is holier than the angels themselves? It does, and this has been the common teaching of the Church for many centuries. But, what is more pertinent to this study of ours, does this mean that Joseph is also higher in dignity and holiness that the angels? Leo does not explicitly say this, but he certainly supplies the premise from which such a conclusion can legitimately be drawn. Pius XI in his characteristically incisive and clear language dispelled any doubt that might still linger when he wrote: “… between Joseph and God we do not see, and we can not see, anyone except Mary with her divine motherhood”29.

Because of the words of Christ that “of those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist”30, some have questioned whether John the Baptist did not surpass Joseph in holiness. This objection is not as strong as may appear. Taking into account the parallel text of Luke (7:28), exegetes assure us that Christ did not state that John the Baptist was the holiest person who ever lived, otherwise we would have to maintain that he was holier than the Mother of God! Christ was only speaking of John the Baptist as the greatest of the of the Old Testament. He was saying that the other prophets were given the mission of foretelling the coming of the future Messiah, but John was the last of the prophets and the greatest of them all because he was given the mission of pointing out to his contemporaries the expected one of the hopes of Israel: “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

The dignity of a Saint is measured by the degree of grace and virtue he possessed. In this sense, not all saints had an equal amount of grace, but each one was given the amount of grace “according to the will of God” that would enable him to perform the mission assigned him. In the case of Joseph, the fact that he was assigned the privilege of living in the intimate presence of Jesus and Mary indicates the rapid growth in grace and in virtue that must have occurred in his life.

7. Patron of the Universal Church

In 1870 Pope Pius IX declared Saint Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church. In the providence of God, nothing has, I believe, made the faithful so directly conscious of the special importance of Saint Joseph. From that time, devotion to Joseph has grown by leaps and bounds within the Church.

What prompted the Church to declare herself to be under the special protection of Joseph? Incidentally, there are many writers who do not hesitate to say that the Pope did not Saint Joseph the Patron of the Church, but that he only this to be a fact. This observation is not without merit, for Papal documents only refer to a declaration on the part of the Church and they never speak of the Church herself constituting Joseph in this role. Hence, it is best to follow this terminology.

Leo XIII sums up the teaching of the Church on the matter:

The divine household which Joseph governed as with paternal authority contained the beginnings of the new Church. The Virgin most holy is the mother of all Christians, since she is the mother of Jesus and since she gave birth to them on the mount of Calvary amid the indescribable sufferings of the Redeemer. Jesus is, as it were, the firstborn of Christians, who are His brothers by adoption and redemption. From these considerations we conclude that the Blessed Patriarch must regard all the multitude of Christians who constitute the Church as confided to his care in a certain special manner. This is his numberless family scattered throughout all lands, over which he rules with a sort of paternal authority, because he is the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus Christ. Thus, it is conformable to reason and in every way becoming to Blessed Joseph that as once it was his sacred trust to guard with watchful care the family of Nazareth, no matter what befell, so now by virtue of his heavenly patronage he is in turn to protect and to defend the Church of Christ.31

It was the mission of Joseph to be the head of the Holy Family on earth, and in caring for wife and son he began his office of protecting the Church, because, as Leo pointed out, the Church was then in the embryonic state of her existence. He was chosen to watch over the source of salvation and of sanctification for humanity, and in heaven he continues the sacred trust that he exercised so well here on earth.

But it should not be forgotten that this office of Joseph is a office. He exercises it because he is the father of Jesus Christ. Joseph is the spiritual father of all the faithful, and this office is a natural consequence of his office as virginal father of Christ. In becoming the father and protector of Christ, he was given spiritual charge of all those who would receive the graces of the redemption, just as Mary became the spiritual Mother of all precisely because of her Divine Motherhood.

8. St. Joseph assumed into heaven?

Theologians have raised the question of Saint Joseph’s assumption into heaven. Was Joseph granted the privilege of being taken to heaven in body as well as in soul? Many theologians have based their belief in the resurrection of Joseph into heaven on the words of Saint Matthew: “Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep arose; and coming forth out of the tombs after His resurrection, they came into the holy city and appeared to many”32.

There is not unanimous agreement among the exegetes that this text can be used as a real proof of his assumption. Nevertheless, there are some noted scholars who have made the claim that those who rose at that time died no more and rose to heaven with Christ. Some of them think Joseph must certainly have been one of this group; and there are not lacking strong reasons for thinking this must be.