Ite ad Joseph

23 01 2019

I saw online a recent argument about the modern cult to St. Joseph in the Catholic Church, with many defending the idea of Joseph being a young virgin as the definitive pious opinion. The issue of the cultus of St. Joseph is a complicated one that intertwines the historical needs of modernity with the manifestation of supernatural power. St. Joseph was named Patron of the Universal Church and second only to the Virgin Mary herself. In South America, the priests would often give us spiritual conferences revealing the intense theological debate especially in Spain before the Second Vatican Council about whether St. Joseph had experienced his own “immaculate conception,” or if he was purified in the womb of his mother and when, etc. The intense devotion that led to his insertion into the Roman Canon is still seen when the reformers kept his name in but made the entire Roman Canon optional, including the names of all of the long-revered Roman martyrs.

Of course, the flip side to all of this is that the cult of St. Joseph was unknown prior to the Counter-Reformation. Even in the Middle Ages in the West, the Byzantine image of the Deisis was seen in churches: Christ seated in glory, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. Up to that point, if Joseph was thought of at all, it was still a perfectly pious opinion to think of Joseph as an old widower, sitting off to the side in the Nativity scene, outside the economy of salvation other than lending his lineage to his supposed son as seen in the opening of the Gospel of St. Matthew. The idea that he was a virile but perfectly chaste head of a first century petit-bourgeois family was not an image the early Church entertained.

Could it not be argued that the sensus fidelium changed, that this is a development of doctrine or piety that had been hidden initially but revealed when the time was right? (Except for 1900 year old prayers.) The time being the emergence of modern Europe, with a more defined nuclear family, increasingly urbanized in many places. This came to the forefront when the Western Church instituted the Day of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1st to try to usurp the radical labor holiday. No longer was the ascetic in the wilderness the ideal man, standing at the left hand of Jesus in glory, but rather the hard worker, the urban dweller, the nuclear family man as protector of the hearth was the new model of piety.

Honestly, on one level, I am fine with this, because the heavens have spoken in a sense. I can still hear my deceased grandmother uttering the prayer: Patriarca del alma mia cuando la muerte llegara, tu patrocinio y amparo de Jesus y Maria. In the family religion, St. Joseph is who you pray to for the grace of a good death. To this end, a priest once told a story from Spain of a priest getting a strange phone call to go to the bedside of a man who it turned out hadn’t been to church in decades. The priest had learned that the man had been devoted to St. Joseph in his youth. No one knows who called, well, I suppose they figured it out. And then there is of course the staircase that St. Joseph built in New Mexico, etc. etc. Perhaps the popularity of the creche at Christmas led to the Holy Family seizing the Catholic imagination, and as often happens, things took off from there. Perhaps this is a case of theology catching up with piety.

I suppose then that I am not one to rain on people’s piety, especially not on my deceased grandmother’s. But I still have to recall how when Pius IX was asked to insert St. Joseph’s name into the Canon, he objected that he was only the Pope, and had no power to do such a thing. What a difference a century makes, but the ease at which tradition was changed, over centuries and decades, should make us question whether any change was ever a good idea in the first place. Maybe things would have been better off if Joseph stayed the old widower, and St. John the Forerunner kept his privileged position at the Throne of Glory. Maybe the Western Church would have had a different mentality, one that is less worldly, more contemplative, less likely to just rubber-stamp people’s lives and instead call them to something higher. Those who are prone to question change should question even the changes they like or deem innocuous. At the same time, there is no harm to going to Joseph, if that is what you feel like doing.


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