If you don’t believe that Church tradition develops under the influence of the Holy Spirit, listen to how St. Joseph has been almost methodically “upgraded,” along with the Holy Family, by one Pope after another since the nineteenth century. This was not just a case of Popes waking up in the middle of the night and thinking to themselves, “Gee, I’d like to do something nice for St. Joe.”
In 1870, at a difficult time in the Church’s history, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Catholic Church. “In the providence of God,” writes Michael D. Griffin, OCD, “nothing has, I believe, made the faithful so directly conscious of the special importance of Saint Joseph. From that time onwards, devotion to Joseph has grown by leaps and bounds within the Church.”
In the great encyclical Quamquam Pluries (1889), Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) established the foundation of the theology of St. Joseph, stating that Joseph is greatest of the saints after Mary and ahead of all the other saints. His encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) would sum up the teaching of the Church on the singular role of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church:
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.
Leo instituted the Feast of the Holy Family on the Third Sunday after Epiphany. That would change twice in the next eighty years.
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), in his Bonum Sane (1920), stated that the only hope for nations lies in families. Benedict made the Feast of the Holy Family a day of obligation and transferred it to the First Sunday after Epiphany. Benedict XV also reestablished March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph, as a holy day of obligation.
Pope Pius XI (1922–1939) left several teachings about St. Joseph and was the first Pope to state that Joseph belongs to the order of the Hypostatic Union along with Jesus and Mary. His successor, Pius XII (1939-1958) instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, as an antidote to the Communist celebration of May Day.
Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) had a special devotion to St. Joseph and even proposed in May 1960 that the Assumption of St. Joseph into heaven “is worthy of pious belief.” This was ten years after Pius XII solemnly defined the Assumption of Mary. When John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he commended it to the heavenly patronage of St. Joseph. Perhaps even more important was John’s insertion of Joseph’s name in the Canon of the Mass, immediately after the name of Mary and before all other saints.
Paul VI (1963-1978) spoke often of St. Joseph in homilies, and in 1969 he moved the Feast of the Holy Family to within the Octave of Christmas. While John Paul I lived only a month as Pope in 1978, his successor, John Paul II, issued the crowning tribute to St. Joseph with his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer), on the hundredth anniversary of Quamquam Pluries. We’ll look at Redemptoris Custos tomorrow, on the final day of this novena, the Feast of St. Joseph.
Throughout this series of St. Joseph, I have been offering excerpts from a homily on the Feast of St. Joseph by Karl Rahner, SJ. Here’s the penultimate section:
[Joseph] received into his family the one who came to redeem his nation from their sin, one to whom he himself gave the name of Jesus, a name which served the eternal Word of the Father, the Word who had become a child of this world. And people called their redeemer the son of a carpenter. When the eternal Word was audible in the world in the message of the Gospels, Joseph, having quietly done his duty, went away without any notice on the part of the world.
But the life of this insignificant man did have significance; it had one meaning that, in the long run, counts in each person’s life: God and his incarnate grace. To him it could be said: “Good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” Who can doubt that this man is a good patron for us? This man of humble, everyday routine, this man of silent performance of duty, of honest righteousness and of manly piety, this man who was charged with protecting the grace of God in its embodied life?
Contemporary Christians might find their way back to what is best in them if the individuality of this man, their patron, were again producing more stature in them. Granted, a nation must have greatness of spirit and pioneers who will lead it toward new goals. Just as much, if not more so, however, a nation needs men and women of lifelong performance of duty, of clearheaded loyalty, of discipline of heart and body. A nation needs men and women who know that true greatness is achieved only in selfless service to the greater and holy duty that is imposed upon each life; human beings of genuine reverence, conquerors of themselves, who hear the word of God and carry out the inflexible decrees of conscience. It needs men and women who through their lives bear the childlike, defenseless grace of God past all those who, like Herod, attempt to kill this grace. A nation needs men and women who do not lose confidence in God’s grace, even when they have to seek it as lost, as Joseph once sought the divine child. Such individuals are urgently needed in every situation and in every class.
Blessed St. Joseph, whose clear example of dedication, righteousness, and manly piety has never been more needed than today, pray for us!