Common Wisdom: Least of the Three

It all started in third grade. Attending parochial school, I was introduced to the practice of “making visits” to church, aside from obligatory Sunday Mass. It is a custom which stuck. When it comes to church visits, I am a frequent flier.

As a child, however, I became uncomfortably aware that altars of the Blessed Virgin were always banked with flowers. Minimally, a bouquet or two. In contrast, St. Joseph’s altar was often bare, his only blossom the lily, sculpted into his most familiar statue. The comparison of plenty to nothing disturbed my eight-year-old heart, and established a lifelong proclivity to go out of my way to compensate St. Joseph, described in the Holy Family as the least of the three.

I do not mean compensation on a grand scale. Mostly it is unremarkable, but it is determined. I did surreptitiously cross altar rails to leave flowers at his pedestal, risking detection and censure from Reverend Mother. Every night I was—and am—certain to include prayers to St. Joseph, aware as a schoolgirl that we hardly venerated him at all. Much was made, and quite properly so, about Mary. We wore miraculous medals, we had processions and May crownings, we celebrated her holydays, and marked October as month of her holy Rosary. In this country, St. Joseph was allotted one day of focus; we were instructed that March 19 was his feast day. The Altar Society usually managed to assemble some daffodils to adorn his space, but it was never so lavish a display as with Mary, and it pained my sensibilities well into adolescence. After all, Mary was not a single parent. The holy family is a trio.

I hasten to record that my devotion to Mary can-not be questioned. Her Memorare is the last prayer from my lips at bedtime and above the night table is Michelangelo’s Pieta (not the original). I revere this historical, incredible woman. Since God chose her blessed among women she deserves complete esteem from me. Mary’s image is found in many homes, including mine. But God also chose Joseph. Where is he represented?

I can report one location. Directly beneath my Pieta is a reprint of a gem I stumbled upon in a museum exhibiting the work of Henri Fantin La Tour. I expected to see, and did, his celebrated flowers and portraits, when what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a compelling pastel, “L’enfance du Christ.” Mary sits, holding the infant Jesus; two angels hover overhead, two kneel. On his feet, standing in serene profile, is the strong, gentle presence of a man. Absent St. Joseph, the scene’s impact is monumentally diminished.

Here I must register a complaint concerning the stinginess of the evangelists to tell us much about St. Joseph. For that matter, they are almost as stingy about Mary. One searches scripture in vain to flesh out the slim sketches recorded about this extraordinary couple. I weary of commentary telling me that St. Joseph was “a just man” (Matthew 1:19). Yes, I know that; we all know that. Yet I shrink from criticizing exegetes. They haven’t got much to go on. Pope John Paul II reminds us that

the gospels speak exclusively of what Joseph “did.” Still they allow us to discover in his “actions”—shrouded in silence as they are—an aura of deep contemplation. This explains, for example, why St. Teresa of Jesus, the great reformer of the Carmelites, promoted the renewal of veneration to St. Joseph in Western Civilization.

That’s a quotation from an apostolic exhortation delivered last year, “On the Person and Mission of St. Joseph.” This meaty meditation demonstrates the Holy Father’s capacity to make a banquet from a lean larder. He put St. Joseph on center stage and acknowledged as well papal predecessors who extolled and found inspiration in the simple dignity of the “just man.”

But let’s face it. When it comes to saints, humble Joseph never scored with Catholic school children. Major attractions were Joan of Arc, Bernadette of Lourdes, and assorted martyrs who courageously went to deaths none of us believed we could endure. In fact, St. Joseph is called “Patron of a Happy Death,” which sounded oxymoronic to my young ears, although I wouldn’t have known to call it so. Happily dying, as a category, didn’t stimulate the imagination. Even today I contemplate my inevitable demise with regret. God gave us a glorious creation and I want to hang around as long as possible. As years fly by, nevertheless, I realize I made a serendipitous choice of celestial residents. St. Joseph’s identification with “happy death” begins to offer a sense of confident consolation. He died, we can assume, in the arms of Jesus and Mary. What a way to go.

For my own mental health, I don’t spend a lot of time on the topic of expiration. But periodic speculation about dying next in line to, say, Mother Teresa, strikes terror in my heart. We are all called to be holy; the Lord is an equal opportunity savior. Unless seriously deluded, however, we are aware that some of us are spectacularly more successful than others on the path to sanctity. When comparisons loom, it is com-forting to consider St. Joseph, whose life in no way measures up to the heroic deeds and dashing verve of so many in Lives of the Saints. His appeal rests precisely on the ordinary existence he led, a constant witness to faith and obedience. These are virtues which energize spiritual life, and I pray he will intercede when my batteries run low.

Intercession, of course, is one of the blessings of a loving a saint. I harbor no doubt that St. Joseph was touched by the little girl who took him flowers. He accompanies her still. It was never my intention to pester him, but the nuns instructed us about the powers of intercession, going so far as to point us in the direction of the proper saint for the particular problem. I refrain from asking frivolous favors but, when exasperated, I do turn to St. Anthony in locating a lost item, and have bent the ear of St. Jude, whose misfortune it is to be Patron of Lost Causes. One of my daughters struggles with the concept of petitionary prayer, a difficulty shared and explored with penetrating analysis by C.S. Lewis. As for me, I take my cue from the evangelists. In the New Testament, Christ prayed a lot, and He spoke about prayer. The one He gave us is filled with petitions, albeit with the submissive “Thy will be done.” The skeptical daughter is alive today, I am convinced, because the intercession of St. Joseph helped me persuade her future father that marrying a Catholic did not suggest insanity. He finally caved in and proposed. It was March 19.

This essay is slated for May’s Crisis, a month traditionally dedicated to Mary. I write it in the dreary month of March in the middle of which, with little fanfare, comes the feast of St. Joseph. The chapel where I make daily visits has a bright pink azalea at Mary’s statue; St. Joseph looks down on potted tulips, mostly wilted. Someone is going to take him flowers.

Considering the magnitude of Christ, and the Virgin who bore Him, it is perhaps easy to overlook the modest carpenter of Nazareth, who taught his trade to the man Who was God. Certain popes made exertions to draw our attention to him: in 1870 Pius IX declared St. Joseph Patron of the Universal Church. Paul VI held him up as “the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies… he is proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ there is no need of great things—it is enough to have the common, simple, and human virtues.” In 1962 Pope John XXIII saw to it that the name of Joseph was inserted—belatedly—into the Roman Canon of the Mass. Pope John Paul II speaks today of the sanctification of daily life, which finds its exemplar in St. Joseph.

If Rome has not ignored St. Joseph, many Catholics have. Popular devotion to him here never quite caught on. Perhaps it is another gesture of compensation that I write with love and admiration for her spouse to be read in Mary’s month of May. I make this connection cognizant that in so doing I emulate Pope John Paul II, whose exhortation on St. Joseph was given on August 15, feast of the Assumption, marking the centenary of Pope Leo’s XIII’s encyclical on the saint the same day. The implication is that in honoring Joseph, one honors Mary. Theirs was a shared glory.

Now it is time to take flowers. Reverend Mother is no longer feared.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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