On December 8, 2020, Pope Francis declared “The Year of St. Joseph.” I was a little confused as to why the date of December 8 was chosen, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, but the day coincides with the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s declaration of St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. Later, Pope Pius XII declared Joseph the Patron of Workers, and Pope John Paul II honored him as the Guardian of the Redeemer. Pope Francis, while incorporating these historical honors into his own 2020 Apostolic Letter, “With a Father’s Heart,” brings the memory of Joseph into the twenty-first century in a very pointed way.
In his Letter, Francis describes Saint Joseph as “a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a father who is creatively courageous, a working father, a father in the shadows.” Although we take Joseph for granted as a major Biblical figure, our image of the man is constructed with remarkable little help from the Scriptures. Joseph is not mentioned at all in the Gospels of John and Mark, and little in St. Luke. We would not know that he was a carpenter except for a tiny fragment in Matthew 13:55. Joseph’s major role in the family of Jesus is chronicled only in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, which itself is overshadowed by a parallel account in Luke’s first two chapters, where Mary’s obedience is the pivotal devotional point highlighted consistently in the beads of the rosary.
But In Matthew’s narrative Joseph is the pivotal character in the Infancy account. Mary says not a word. The angel communicates to Joseph the nature and meaning of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph is described as a “just” or “righteous” man who is willing to stretch the boundaries of what is the legal thing to do in favor of what is the divinely inspired thing to do, provide protection and dignity to a young woman who, to all appearances, is pregnant outside of marriage. Joseph will continue to listen to this divine inspiration when he protects his family by fleeing into Egypt to avoid Herod, and then settles in an unfamiliar region of Galilee. This is the last we hear of Joseph, the assumption being that he raised, supported, and trained his [putative] son in the ways of Jewish life.
As Pope Francis puts it, Joseph is “a father in obedience to God: with his ‘fiat’ he protects Mary and Jesus and teaches his Son to “do the will of the Father.” The pope goes on to describe Joseph as an “accepting Father” because he “accepted Mary unconditionally,” a critical witness in this world “where psychological, verbal, and physical violence toward women is so evident.” Francis goes on to underscore Joseph’s trusting in the Lord, even events he did not understand, “setting aside his own ideas” and reconciling himself with his own history. Joseph was “able to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations, and disappointments.”
In our time when the needs and rights of aliens—a basic concern of the Old Testament—has become a point of contention in the United States, Francis calls Joseph “the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution, and poverty…every poor, needy, suffering, or dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person is ‘the child’ whom Joseph continues to protect.” From St. Joseph “we must learn…to love the Church and the poor.”
The Church has long venerated St. Joseph as the Worker, and in 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1 of each year as a counterbalance to the celebration of May Day in Communist bloc countries. In his A Marginal Jew I  Father John Meier describes the work of a carpenter in Jesus’ day as a physical one, specifically the framing of new homes with trusses. [pp. 278-285] Both Joseph and Jesus would have been strong men for this kind of labor. If St. Luke is correct, the work was also sustaining; Joseph would not have been summoned to Bethlehem for a tax census were his profits insignificant. Pope Francis goes to great length to encourage sensitivity to a “renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which St. Joseph is an exemplary patron.”
I see on a variety of catechetical and religious websites numerous requests for ideas on how to integrate the year of St. Joseph into parish life. There are several opportunities here to be drawn from the figure of Joseph as he comes down to us from Scripture and historical devotion in the Church:
Critical Bible Study: The only Scripture text which speaks of Joseph at any length is Matthew’s Gospel, and come Christmas we are prone to pass over it to Luke’s narrative for our study and reflection, as Luke more closely fits the narrative we carry around in our head. But Matthew focuses on the character of Joseph, referring to him as “a just man,” a powerful accolade in Hebrew literature. It is Joseph who, after making his mind up to take his courageous step to divorce her quietly and sparing her the wrath of the law, receives the divine assurance and revelation that he has done the right thing. Joseph continues to receive divine enlightenment on how to protect his family throughout Matthew’s narrative.
The story of Joseph is a case study in the importance of critical analysis of the Biblical texts. Matthew has significant doctrinal and moral reasons for composing his Infancy narrative as he did, not least of all to emphasize how a just man, a descendant of Abraham, played a critical role in the Redemption narrative by being the kind of man he was.
The treatment of women by men: Color me old fashioned, but I judge another man by how he treats women, whether that be in the home, the marketplace, or the church. There is great wisdom in Genesis in describing creation as a fruitful duality, “male and female he made them,” and I am grateful for the women in my life who have saved me from my worst self and nurtured me into a better self, past and present. The society of Joseph’s time was patriarchal in its customs and laws, which only underscores his “manning up” to protect his beloved from the consequences of a time when the scales were tipped against women.
There is a Pro Life consideration under this by-line. In her 2019 bestseller Heartlands, an autobiographical description of rural poverty in her native Kansas, Sarah Smarsh describes in some detail the Saturday night struggles of the teenaged girls to convince their boyfriends to use condoms, against the emotional pleadings of their partners to please them. I do not need to spell out which sex bears the greater cost in these moral missteps. Respect for women is not just a public rubric.
The dignity of work. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened what has long been a problem in our country and elsewhere, i.e., the chronic difficulties of making a living and supporting a family. I would add to this reality another factor, that some jobs and some careers are more rewarding than others.
I would be lying if I said I had an answer to this human dilemma. It does seem that on such matters as job safety, wages, health care, and childcare, for example, the boundaries of the discussion are arbitrarily set to “market conditions,” i.e., what is profitable.
Curiously, there is a rather large body of Church teaching on the rights of workers and the divine necessity of fairness to laborers, in no small part attributable to the example of St. Joseph, venerated as “The Worker” in our compendium of feasts. From Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum  to John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens , the Church is on record as teaching the basic rights and protections of workers, rights that would probably be viewed as too progressive or generous in American capitalist culture. A review of Catholic social justice teachings on the work force seems a fitting exercise for the Year of St. Joseph.
Protection of the Alien. As noted above, Pope Francis describes Joseph as “the special patron of those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution, and poverty.” Despite the Old Testament’s frequent call for mercy for “the alien and the orphan,” the United States has had a troubled history with aliens seeking entry into our country to build a better life. In very recent times, our national policy toward aliens has actually created more orphans.
The year of St. Joseph presents an excellent time for public discussion of a moral and just process by which immigrant may be processed into American life. At the very least, applicants must receive due process of law. But beyond that, reconciliation and affiliation of the estimated 11,000,000 persons currently in our country would be entirely consistent with our Biblical roots. I am thinking, too, of the DACA population, many of whom have been assisted by Catholic social justice groups and/or graduated from Catholic schools and colleges.
We can only imagine how Joseph and his family depended upon citizens and even civil officials during their sojourn to foreign Egypt in flight from Herod. While there is plenty of room for debate about the details, the principle of welcoming and integrating well-intentioned seekers of admission and integration into our country today is fully consistent with a Biblically based faith. And come to think of it, most of us would not be here today if our ancestors had been denied at the gate.