Jean Gerson [1363-1429] is one of the greatest figures of the Medieval Church who will never become a saint. He was a priest, scholar, writer, mystic, and Chancellor of the University of Paris at a time when the Church looked to its great European universities for doctrinal and moral guidance on the issues of the day. His career coincided with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and most notably, the age of the Great Schism, when multiple candidates claimed to be the lawful successor of St. Peter. Gerson championed reform of the Church and condemned violence and political assassinations.
Although saintly, he was never canonized and there is truly little likelihood that he ever will. No English language collection of his works appeared until Paulist Press published a major collection in 1998, and the first epic biography in English, Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation appeared in 2005 by the noted medievalist Brian Patrick McGuire. [See my review here.] It is interesting to note however that in the past twenty years there has been a resurgence in interest on Gerson; Amazon has two full pages of new offerings, including many new translations.
However, as I noted in my book review, the Church has always felt uncomfortable about Gerson, for his major claim to fame is his role in ending the Great Western Schism, the era of two [and sometimes three] competing popes. This era of papal confusion has been considered a major embarrassment to a church which esteems unbroken apostolic succession. Moreover, Gerson’s solution to this papal problem was the invocation of a reform council, which was eventually convened as the Council of Constance [1414-1418] and was planned by Gerson along with other scholars and civil rulers.
The first session of this council of Constance issued the decree Haec Sancta [“this holy (Council)”] which declared that a church council exercised a greater authority than the pope. Obviously, Constance was playing out this scenario when it deposed two popes and designated the third as the true successor of Peter, though it is hard to see what other options were open to the council fathers. The theory that a council could override and/or depose a pope came to be known as Conciliarism. After the Protestant Reformation Conciliarism fell into disfavor as Roman Catholicism dismissed Haec Sancta as a church teaching and rallied around the authority of the pope, and Conciliarism was formally condemned at the council Vatican I in 1870. Gerson, identified closely with Conciliarism, carried a taint after his death into modern times, though in truth his work was instrumental in restoring Church order in the fifteenth century. Modern Catholic scholars such as McGuire are looking at Gerson in a much more favorable life.
Gerson’s work and ministry made him other enemies in his lifetime. The murder of his political protector in Paris led him to decry civil murder and tyrannicide, making it unsafe for him to remain in Paris. Moreover, despite his scholastic training, he became more open to mystical experience. He expressed his belief that Joan of Arc’s “voices” were genuine divine messages. He eschewed Latin for his native French, so that more of his writings could be accessed by the laity, thus encouraging a democratization of spirituality that churchmen generally regarded as dangerous. Throughout his busy life he longed for the solitude of a life of prayer and reflection, and he would eventually take up residence in his brother’s monastery.
For all his demanding responsibilities, according to McGuire, Gerson found time to develop an intense devotion to St. Joseph. McGuire explains how innovative Gerson’s devotion was: “Joseph up to this time had no universal cult [following] in Western Europe and was often portrayed in art and in plays as a rather silly old man, tired and peripheral to the great events he witnessed.” [p. 235] Gerson investigated the apocryphal stories of Jesus and discovered that they were inconsistent with the Biblical description of Joseph, most notably that of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Gerson composed a Mass formula for a proposed feast of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, an observance he hoped to see adopted by the universal church. As McGuire writes, “The chancellor imagined Joseph as a young man, full of energy and potency, able to take care of his wife and son by hard work, and not the broken-down, tired figure of popular imagination.” Gerson demonstrated a familiarity with Matthew’s Gospel narrative of the arduous trials of the Holy Family, fleeing Herod and resettling in an unfamiliar Nazareth.
Like many preachers of his time—and Gerson was the court preacher in Paris--he took texts from the Bible and used his imagination to elaborate on the stories. Again, from McGuire’s research, Gerson asserted that “Joseph knew Mary from friendly visits to her each year in Jerusalem, where she lived in the Temple. He was related to Mary by blood because Anne, her mother, after the death of her husband Joachim, had married Joseph’s brother, Cleophas. According to the Jewish custom of the time, Joseph took Mary to live with him in Nazareth.” [p. 237] In his attempt to explain the nature of this marriage, Gerson speculated that Mary told Joseph she was with child but did not have sexual experience. “Joseph was struck by ‘so great a novelty’ but subsequently an angel appeared to him and explained how it was God’s will.” [p. 237] This is a captivating mix of Gerson's imagination with the core Biblical teachings on the nature and birth of Christ.
McGuire examines Gerson’s groundbreaking reflection on the holy marriage. “Their union was a real marriage; it contained marital love with sexual abstinence. As a man whose way of life required chastity and sexual abstinence, Gerson found in Joseph a model, a loving man who embraced a woman, who brought up a child, and who at the same time remained calm, content, and pure.” Gerson would tell his readers and listeners that there was nothing doctrinally necessary in his description of the marriage, but he believed that their marriage should be an essential part of Church devotion. He suggested that his proposed feast of their union be celebrated during the week before Christmas.
Gerson’s writings on Joseph are exhaustive, composed of both prose and poetry. He advocated that Joseph was a true father of Jesus because he was the one who “nourished, guarded, and served” him through his own labor. For Gerson, McGuire observes, “Fatherhood is thus not biological: it is a function that is assumed when one takes on responsibility for a child. Joseph became the father of Jesus by acting as his father; in taking him by the hand, feeding him, comforting him, teaching him, Joseph was his father.” [p. 238] Gerson’s writings on Joseph were composed in French, for the edification of the populace at large.
It is somewhat surprising that in Gerson’s day there was yet no feast of St. Joseph in the Church’s calendar of saints. Although Gerson proposed the idea at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] it was not until the papacy of Sixtus IV [1474-1481] that the major Feast of St. Joseph as we know it today was established on March 19. Joseph’s identity as a laborer led Pope Pius XII to establish the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a response to the Communist observance of May Day. In establishing 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis observed that the current Covid-19 pandemic “has helped us see more clearly the importance of ‘ordinary’ people who, though far from the limelight, exercise patience and offer hope every day. In this, they resemble Saint Joseph, ‘the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence,’ who nonetheless played ‘an incomparable role in the history of salvation.’”
It is one of history’s ironies that another unsung worker in the Church’s long history would be responsible for promoting Joseph to his rightful place in the devotional life of the Church.