St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church – “I have made you the father of many nations”

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One hundred and fifty years ago, Pius IX confirmed St. Joseph as patron of the Church. In the light of the texts compiled by the Liturgy in honor of the Holy Patriarch, let us consider the theological teachings contained in his title.

Father; a single word, but one which denotes so much honor. It is often among of the first that is heard from the lips of a child; not infrequently, one of the last that a man utters before leaving this earthly life, as, in fact, the God-Man himself did: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this, He breathed His last” (Lk 23:46).

The man who assumes the spiritual care of a newly baptized child is given the title of godfather. And if this were not enough to indicate the importance of this term, we could add the linguistic detail that the Latin form, pater, is the root of many other significant words: the property of a family, left as inheritance, is called patrimony; love of one’s homeland and the willingness to defend it is called patriotism, a model to be imitated is called a pattern; finally, one to whose help one has recourse is invoked as a patron.

The “father-guardian”

What relation, then, does the figure of a patron have with that of a father?

St. Joseph is declared Patron of the Universal Church – St. Nicholas Church, Wasquehal (France) -Photo: Julius Massius (CC by-sa 4.0)

The concept of patron is succinctly presented as “the Saint whose name one bears, or under whose invocation a church is dedicated; or whom a country, a city, a fraternity or a community claims as its protector.”1 Based on this definition, the role of the one we regard as a patron takes the form of a father-guardian, with whom we create a bond, and in whom we place our trust.

It is certainly honorable for Saints to have many souls who come to the waters of Baptism under the protection of their name, or who adopt it upon entering consecrated life. Perhaps even more outstanding is a patron to whom a religious community or a diocese, an entire city or a country is entrusted.

But what can be said of one whom all the faithful invoke as Patron of the Holy Catholic Church? No man would ever be able to bear a title of such grandeur… except the one who, on this earth, was called “my father” by God!

The Church clamors for its father

The present year, 2021, is dedicated to the veneration of the Glorious Patriarch St. Joseph, in commemoration of the 150 years that have passed since the Holy Father, Pius IX, declared him Patron of the Universal Church. The almost thirty-two years of that Pontiff’s reign still mark history today because of the events that took place during that period, both in the political and ecclesiastical spheres. We shall not dwell on them here, nor even enumerate them all, but perhaps the simple recollection of occasions such as the First Vatican Council, the proclamation of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and pontifical infallibility, the wars and liberal revolutions and the loss of the Papal States, exemplifies the tremendous convergence of circumstances, both glorious and tragic, that the Church and all of society experienced in that second half of the nineteenth century.

In this context, Catholics could not fail to recognize that the Barque of Peter, sailing towards the twentieth century – so often mentioned in prophecies of preceding centuries – was bound to pass through stormy seas, and that it was indispensable to entrust it to a special patronage, perhaps more necessary than ever before.

Thus, at the end of the year 1870, the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded to the clamorous supplication of the faithful:

“Seeing that in these most troubled times the same Church is everywhere beset by her enemies and is oppressed by such great calamities that the wicked seem to make the gates of hell prevail over her, the venerable Bishops of the whole Catholic world, in their own name and that of the faithful entrusted to them, have raised their prayers to the Supreme Pontiff, that he may deign to make St. Joseph Patron of the Catholic Church.

“And when these petitions and wishes were renewed with greater impetus during the Sacred Ecumenical Vatican Council, our Most Holy Pope Pius IX, moved by the lamentable state of these times, in order to place himself and all the faithful under the most powerful patronage of the Patriarch St. Joseph, desired to heed the wishes of the Bishops and solemnly declared him Patron of the Catholic Church.”2

This decree, entitled Quemadmodum Deus, and dated December 8, 1870, was ratified by the Roman Pontiff on July 7, 1871, with the Apostolic Letter Inclytum Patriarcha, for which reason the present month of July is especially appropriate for the veneration of our incomparable patron.

But one question inevitably arises: what was the basis for attributing this name to the spouse of Mary Most Holy? Was it an arbitrary decision of the Supreme Pontiff or perhaps a spontaneous reaction of Catholics harried by persecution? Not only would it seem irreverent to affirm this, but it would be blasphemous to disregard the luminous action of the Holy Spirit in this historical fact and, above all, the profound theology behind this title.

In reality, it would not be out of place for the Holy Father to entrust the flock of Christ to St. Michael, the Prince of the heavenly hosts; or to St. Peter and St. Paul, the pillars of the Roman Church; or to St. John the Baptist, of whom the Savior claimed that there was no greater man among those born of women (cf. Lk 7:28). The Church has always counted on these and many other patron Saints. Nevertheless, like her Divine Founder before her, persecuted by Herod and a fugitive in Egypt, the Church needs her father’s aid in this difficult historical period.

This brings us to the theological question: how can we explain the paternity of St. Joseph in relation to Holy Church?

Eucharistic celebration in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Caieiras (Brazil). Inset, St. Joseph – private collection

The new Abraham: true father of the God-Man

It would be futile to explain the mystery of this paternity if we fail to consider that it is not associated with blood ties, as the first idea of “father” suggests. In St. Joseph, this term takes on another tenor.

Among the biblical passages presented by the Liturgy for the Solemnity of the Glorious Patriarch on March 19, there is a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which calls the attention of the faithful to a curious detail which, at first sight, appears to have no connection with the Saint being celebrated: the Apostle refers to the figure of Abraham!

“The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith. […] That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants – not only to the adherents of the Law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all” (Rom 4:13, 16).

The fact is that this text contains a profound and mysterious relationship, through which the Church’s Liturgy takes the Patriarch of the Chosen People as prefigure of the Patriarch of the New Covenant. This analogy between the two great men of the faith was pointed out in the twelfth century by the Benedictine Rupert, Abbot of the monastery of Deutz: “Of all those to whom the promise of the Incarnation was made, the first was Abraham, and the last Joseph. The genealogy of the Savior does not lead to Mary, which would be in accordance with the fact that it is She who gives Him birth in the flesh; but, in accordance with a divine kinship, it leads to Joseph who – although not being Christ’s father by the flesh, but by faith – was the last heir of the aforementioned promise. ”3

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Holy Liturgy brings to light the figure of Abraham in the commemoration of St. Joseph, since in both of them God’s Covenant with the chosen man goes beyond the bond of the Law and is placed on the plane of grace. Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, EP, comments on the same passage from Paul: “The permanence of a lineage cannot be based on blood, but rather on a divine foundation that makes it eternal; namely, on grace. […] Therefore, there is a higher level than the natural or human level; a family constituted by faith and not blood. […] As the descendant of David, all the promises of the Covenant are fulfilled in St. Joseph. He is father of Jesus through the faith inherited from Abraham, which he brought to perfection. The bond between him and the Redeemer is a relationship of faith.”4

Church history has seen not a few who, refusing to accept a paternity exempt from the carnal bond, have invented theories which have discredited the divine manner in which the Messiah was conceived, and even the virginity of the Mother of God and of her immaculate Spouse. Theology, however, teaches us that St. Joseph’s paternity towards the Divine Savior was new, unique and singular, of a higher order than the natural or adoptive paternity of ordinary men.5 And the chastity on which it is built not only makes it purer, but even more authentic, according to the judgement of St. Augustine: “Maior puritas confirmet paternitatem. […] Quia tanto firmius pater, quanto castius pater – His greater purity confirms his fatherhood. […] For the more chastely he is a father, the more surely he is a father.6

“Our father, before Him in whom he believed”

Given that the Glorious Patriarch is in fact the virginal father of Jesus, his relationship to the Holy Church follows as a consequence: “Just as Mary’s spiritual motherhood in relation to all men is but the complement and prolongation of her natural motherhood of Jesus, so the fatherhood of St. Joseph, which he exercised naturally in relation to Christ, is prolonged in a mystical way. It is therefore necessary that the authority and paternal care which St. Joseph exercised in the Holy Family, the first nucleus of the Church, be extended marvelously throughout the whole Church.7

Thus, the great title of Patron of Church bestowed on St. Joseph has its foundation in an even deeper dignity: since he is truly the father of Christ, the Head of the divine institution He founded, he cannot but be the true father of His Body.8

St. Joseph, Patriarch of the Church – Minor Basilica of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal -Photo: Gustavo Kralj

We see then how in St. Joseph the words of St. Paul to the Romans are more perfectly fulfilled, as he continues in his epistle: “as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ (Gn 17:5) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed […] In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, ‘So shall your descendants be’ (Gn 15:5). […] That is why his faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:17-18, 22).

Through his faith in accepting such a high mission entrusted by the Eternal Father, St. Joseph did not receive “only” the name of father of Jesus – which is already above any merit of a created being – but he became the father of a numerous posterity, that is, “the inheritance which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,”9 as is said in a well-known prayer of Leo XIII to the Holy Patriarch.

Let us ask for the intervention of this omnipotent father

In this year 2021, which is no less calamitous than the time when the Mystical Spouse of Christ was entrusted to St. Joseph, what should Catholics do, then, who are struggling to defend the integrity of the Faith and the purity of customs? Let us heed the advice of the Magisterium:

“May he, St. Joseph, with his fatherly providence and powerful intercession always help you and your family; let us say omnipotent intercession, because that is what must be said. It could be observed that this word ‘omnipotent’ is applied to the intercession of Mary Most Holy. But we dare affirm that it ought first of all to be applied to St. Joseph. […] Since the head of the house was St. Joseph himself, this intercession cannot be less than omnipotent, for what could Jesus and Mary possibly deny to St. Joseph, to whom he literally consecrated his whole life, and who truly owe to him the means of their earthly existence?”10

Confiding in this omnipotent intervention – and we hope that it will come soon! – in the year of St. Joseph, the persevering Catholic should pray to him that the world may recognize the paths that it has been treading and, in light of the Psalm applied by the Liturgy to the Patriarch of the Church, consider the recent events they have experienced: “If his children forsake my Law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges” (Ps 89:30-32).

We must also beseech him that the Mystical Body of Christ, of which he is the father, may be defended from the snares of its adversaries, as the same Psalm says: “The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him” (Ps 89:22-23).

Finally, may he protect his blessed posterity, those over whom hovers the promise of his Divine Son that they shall not perish under the infernal powers (cf. Mt 16:18). Concerning this posterity, it has been prophesied: “I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of the heavens” (Ps 89:29).

Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #165.

1 PATRON. In: GLAIRE, Jean-Baptiste; WALSH, Joseph-Alexis (Dir.). Encyclopédie catholique. Paris: Parent-Desbarres, 1847, t.XV, p.447.

2 SACRED CONGREGATION OF RITES. Quemadmodum Deus: ASS 6 (1870), 193-194

3 RUPERTO DE DEUTZ. De divinis officiis, c.XIX. In: CANALS VIDAL, Francisco (Ed.). San José en la fe de la Iglesia. Antología de textos. Madrid: BAC, 2007, p.16-17..

4 CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. New Insights on the Gospels. Città del Vaticano-Nobleton: LEV; Heralds of the Gospel, 2013, v.VII, p.44.

5 Cf. LLAMERA, OP, Bonifacio. Teología de San José. Madrid: BAC, 1953, p.92-102.

6 ST. AUGUSTINE. Sermo 51. In: Obras Completas. Madrid: BAC, 1983, v.X, p.42-43.

7 BOVER, SJ, José Maria. De cultu S. Ioseph amplificando. Theologica disquisitio. Barcinone: Eugenius Subirana, 1926, p.49-50.

8 Cf. CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. São José: quem o conhece?… [St. Joseph: Who Knows Him?…] São Paulo: Lumen Sapientiæ, 2017, p.412.

9 LEO XIII. Prayer to St. Joseph: ASS 22 (1889-1890), 117..

10 PIUS XI. Allocuzione nella festività di San Giuseppe, 19/3/1938. In: L’Osservatore Romano. Città del Vaticano. Year LXXVIII. N.66 (March 21-22, 1938); p.1.

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