St. Joseph's Day
cultivating the tenderness of the father
Where our mistakes become a scandal, let us ask Saint Joseph to give us the courage to speak the truth, ask for forgiveness, and humbly begin again. — Pope Francis, Final Catechesis on St. Joseph
In his apostolic letter, Patris Corde (“with a heart of a father”), Francis declared 2021 the year of St. Joseph. As St. Joseph’s year came to a close, Francis dedicated his weekly general audiences to meditating upon this model of holiness. From November to February, Francis elucidated Joseph’s witness as a migrant, a husband, a compassionate caregiver, and as disciple.
Francis first lauds Joseph as a man who is faithful to relationship, whose love is a presence of stability within his familial relationships, even when they change drastically from what he anticipated and imagined. “This liquid, gaseous society finds in the story of Joseph a very clear indication of the importance of human bonds,” said Francis. We are told that individuals first and foremost allegiance is to themselves. But Joseph’s is to relationship, to those he has committed to care for.
Secondly, Francis calls Joseph the patron of peripheries. Joseph was a marginal man who found himself at the center of history, a humble man who never sought his own exaltation. Joseph’s example inspires us not only to seek God on the peripheries of our society, but to look for God in what we push to the edges of our own consciousness.
“And this should bring us great trust because the Lord knows the peripheries of our heart, the peripheries of our soul, the peripheries of our society, of our city, of our family, that is, that slightly obscure part that we do not show, perhaps out of shame,” Francis said in his first lesson on Joseph. God is a God of margins, even within ourselves.
Joseph’s example of faithfulness on the peripheries, is a reminder that we are called to accept a vision of life greater than one we might have imagined for ourselves. Joseph shows us the imagination that is required to follow God. “Joseph’s risk gives us this lesson: to take life as it comes. Has God intervened there? I accept it,” Francis says. Receiving God’s gifts, accepting God’s actions pushes our imaginations to mirror the imagination of God. And as our imaginations expand, so, too, does our capacity to receive.
Joseph, often lauded for his silence, is an example of the necessity of listening—and silent encounter—in a media-fueled age. We are bombarded by words so incessantly we often cannot hear the Word. One of my Lenten resolutions is to use language well, to speak better. To ingest words that give me space and time to receive the Word, that help me use words beautifully, richly, not cheaply. Joseph’s example shows the importance of silence to speaking well. One cannot be full of one’s own chatter if one wants to respond to others well.
“One cannot live without courage, the courage to face each day’s difficulties,” Francis says. Fear can cause us to close in on ourselves, to be bitter, to reject the grace of God, to lean on our own power, like a wolf, according to Francis. But Joseph’s courage shows us another response to fear: trust. If we are not the author of history, but another is, then we are free not to dominate or manipulate others, to control situations, to scheme for certain outcomes. Rather, we are called to cooperation.
Joseph is also, famously, the patron of work. “Work is an anointing of dignity,” Francis says. But workers of today do not have the same dignity as Joseph of a carpentry shop of their own, the ability to make something beautiful with their hands. Joseph is the patron of the abused worker, the Amazon Worker, the gig worker, those who are unable to earn their own bread or aren’t able to earn enough to make ends meet. Those whose wages are stolen by their bosses.
If you took the approximately $400 billion fortune of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, you could pay 10 million people $40,000 a year. That’s roughly the entire population of the state of Michigan. Or, New York City plus a bit of Jersey. $40,000 a year is over twice as much as a federal minimum wage worker earns in a year. It’s 50% more than what a New York City minimum wage worker earns yearly. $400 billion could forgive the student loans of over half of the 45 million student loan holders in the United States. Vast wealth has pooled up at the top of the social waterfall, not trickled down.
And, infamously, it was in these audiences on St. Joseph that Pope Francis went on the record against Dog Dads and Cat Moms. Although, in context, his comments are less about hating animals and more about embracing the risk of love. A risk we often sidestep—a risk that seems costly, but is actually the heart of living.
More so than anything else, I was struck by Francis’ description of Joseph as a father in tenderness. One of Francis’ constant calls is for a revolution of tenderness. He calls us, like the prophet, to change our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh. Francis calls Joseph “an accepting father,” in Patris Corde. Joseph’s strength comes from his receptivity. Joseph’s power comes from fully accepting the will of God, and then acting on it creatively. “We want to be in complete control,” Francis writes, “yet God always sees the bigger picture.” Joseph, a truly creative craftsman, shapes what is given him, even the unexpected or unwanted, into the beautiful.
I am a dreamer. Both physically—literally—dreaming frequently each night. I love sharing the details of nights full of colorful, emotional dreams that often serve as an internal barometer. Our dreaming mind is a mystery. But what is certain is that our mind is playing at night—putting together information from our days, from external realities and internal emotions, in creative, imaginative new ways. Our dreams play with our fears, our desires, what we see, what we wish, what we feel. Joseph, scripture notes frequently, is a dreamer. Like his Hebrew namesake, Joseph is depicted dreaming and responding to his dreams. Perhaps Joseph is able to listen to dreams because he is open to something new. He is attentive to the movements within him, he discerns God’s actions in the world, and he acts boldly, with imagination. He believes that more is possible beyond the bounds of the ordinary.
In one of my favorite audiences, Francis describes the communion of saints. He begins with his own childhood imagination of the phrase: of a queue of saints receiving communion. But the communion of saints truly means a profound solidarity that endures beyond death:
“By virtue of the communion of saints, of this union, every member of the Church is bound to me in a profound way. But I don’t say “to me” because I am the Pope — we are bound reciprocally and in a profound way and this bond is so strong that it cannot be broken even by death. Indeed, the communion of saints does not concern only the brothers and sisters who are beside me in this historical moment, but also those who have concluded their earthly pilgrimage and crossed the threshold of death."
One of the most common depictions of Joseph in churches is on his deathbed. Joseph is the patron of a happy death, not because death is a happy circumstance, but because it is possible for a Christian to live without fear of death. “There is one certainty: Christ is resurrected, Christ is risen, Christ is alive among us. And this is the light that awaits us behind that dark door of death,” Francis holds up the images of both Benedict, his predecessor, and Joseph as examples of men who are facing death with boldness. Joseph’s faith, surrender, and embrace of the unusual circumstances that following God brings him to, shows us how to live and how to die.
This solidarity that outlives death is found through the Church. And the Church must imitate the welcome and hospitality in the image of Joseph, who guards the child and virgin in his care:
“The Church is everyone, everyone. On a journey. Safeguarding one another, looking out for each other. This is a good question: when I have a problem with someone, do I try to look after them, or do I immediately condemn them, speak ill of them, destroy them? We must safeguard, always safeguard!”
The Gospel is near to us, already in our heart and on our mouth. It is brought close to us through the lives of the saints. “[The saint’s] lives are concrete proof that it is possible to put the Gospel into practice,” wrote Francis in Patris Corde. But the saints themselves can become caught up in legend. They can become mythopoeicized, flattened from humans into legends.
We need friends and neighbors who bring the saints alive to us: the patient, long-suffering care-giver, the kind stranger, our friend who challenges us to think differently, the person on the edge of acceptable society, who speaks to what is marginal in our own hearts. The Gospel is brought alive through the saints. But even their examples can fade. It takes thought, articulation, and love to bring the saints’ example into dialogue with the realities of today, “to make new Nazareths in us.” Christ is constantly incarnated in the world, and it is the saints—the Church—who bring him alive again. We need others to bring the Word of God close to us.
Joseph, who has been too often flattened into legend, is brought alive again through Francis’ homilies as a friend whose life reminds us that the Gospel is not words written for a former time or for people other than ourselves, but it is already close to us—in our hearts, on our mouth. We have only to carry it out.