When Pope Francis declared 2021 to be the Year of St. Joseph, many of my Catholic friends expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to focus more intently on the foster father to the Christ and spouse of Mary, the Theotokos. Although popes and bishops and saints, to a one, have expressed admiration and spiritual gratitude to Joseph (with some, like Teresa of Avila, declaring that petitions to St. Joseph always redound to the good), many Catholics will confess themselves a bit puzzled by that enthusiasm. In fact, they will say they are puzzled by Joseph himself, largely due to his perceived silence throughout Scripture, where none of his speech is quoted. “We don’t know him,” a colleague of mine said, as the dedicated year began. “It feels like everywhere you go in this diocese, you see another parish named for Joseph, but I’ve never really understood why, when he is so silent.”
That’s the deal with Joseph. Because he is silent, some find it easy to miss him, or undervalue him. In a way, that’s a reflection of our current, noisy age, wherein the loudest voices, the flashiest or most deliberately sensational opinions, the most frequent posters to social media take up so much of our awareness, while the quieter ones—or those who have deliberately stepped back from all the noise because it has become so empty—are forgotten, their influence diminished, mostly because they’re just not perceived as “doing” enough. In our increasingly utilitarian society—where one’s human value is too closely related to what one does, how many likes and follows one has, and just how high and far people will jump to insure that they are seen, heard, and not forgotten—it can be easy to wonder, as my colleague did, why Catholics name so many buildings and programs for Joseph; why nearly every parish has a statue of Joseph, usually with a great many of the attendant candles lit as people go to him with requests for intercessory prayer, with help for everything from job situations to family matters to selling a house.
Joseph’s silence in Scripture is a misperception. Silent he may be, but (and utilitarians should actually appreciate this) through his actions, he speaks to us aplenty—and in a steady, consistent voice of affirmation and trust. All we must do to hear him is watch, and then wonder; when we do, we will discover that Joseph is easy to know because—within a life of extraordinary circumstance—he is nevertheless just like us: hard-working, sometimes confounded, protective of his family, and ultimately true to himself. Where he may differ from you and me is in his willingness to take things on faith when anyone in his circle of friends might raise their brow and call him foolish. Joseph was willing to look like a fool to the world—taking Mary as his wife rather than sending her away, leaving friends and the society he knew to depart for Egypt in the middle of the night. Heeding dreams, for heaven’s sake, when smart, successful people put their trust in the tangible things, the sensible things.
In the Year of Our Lord, 2021, tangible and sensible things have become as ripe for deconstruction as anything else. What has not been utterly upended has been rendered unrecognizable. When “truth” has thus become such a malleable thing, spending some time in conversation with Joseph—for whom the world must sometimes have seemed a little distorted—may help us to better heed all the intangible ways that God reaches out to us (dreams, guts, instincts, inspirations) and asks us to follow and take things on faith.
The months are speeding by, and 2021 is nearly over. On December 8, the Year of St. Joseph will end. If you have not yet spent some time pondering Joseph, here are two books that can more than help us grow closer to this great father, who teaches us by doing—by showing—rather than adding more noise to the din.
Through the Heart of St. Joseph was written by Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, a monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania. Fr. Boniface is—like Joseph himself—a quiet teacher. As one might expect in something written by a Benedictine, the exposition of St. Joseph reads here like an extended lectio divina; it is an invitation to ponder, to let the nudges of the Holy Spirit guide your understanding. Fr. Hicks spends each chapter examining one aspect of Joseph’s character—his protection, his silence, his fatherhood, his steadfastness—and invites us to consider how Joseph “made room for mystery” in his life. He shows us through the appreciation and writing of saints and popes, but also by opening up our own awareness about how life happens, and how we humans respond. Each chapter ends with a beautifully wrought prayer that helps us learn to open up to Joseph. The great mystic of Avila would advise all comers to “Go to Joseph” with their concerns. Through the Heart of St. Joseph demonstrates why it’s such good advice.
Saint Joseph Prayer Book is a gorgeously produced work published by the Daughters of St. Paul and written, compiled, and edited by Sr. Mary Mark Wickenhiser, FSP. I confess, this is one of those books that grabbed me by its gilt-detailed beauty—because I can be squirrelly like that—but then proved to be an invaluable purchase. Although the book opens with a small collection of common Catholic prayers, it is deeply focused on Joseph. It not only gives us good reasons to turn to Joseph every day and in all sorts of circumstances, but it shows us how. By relating new or original prayers to some of the titles we find in the Litany of St. Joseph, Sr. Mary Mark helps us to become surprisingly intimate with him. Amid brief but profound meditations on the saint, we are given prayers we didn’t realize we needed until they are before us: prayers to know one’s own vocation in life, for family, for financial concerns, for virtue. Prayers for modesty and self-discipline, and healing from sexual abuse; prayers to combat pornography, and defense against the powers of evil. And yes, prayers to sell or buy a house. There are also original novenas included, along with devotions to Joseph that few of us likely know about. There is guidance on making a Holy Hour with the saint and even a bit of trivia here and there—St. Joseph and fava beans? Who knew there was a connection?
Well, I do now. But much more importantly, thanks to these two books, the esteem I already held for St. Joseph has grown into a warm and deep affection—I might even say a spiritual kinship—that has me turning to Joseph again and again, and feeling perfectly fine that so much of what is both Catholic and common is under his patronage.