Sense and Nonsense: Misunderstood Man

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The Feast of St. Joseph is March 19. We would like to know more about St. Joseph. What we do know about him is confined to a few lines in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. A friend of mine once told me that she made a thirty-day novena to St. Joseph because her husband was out of work. He was hired to a new job on the thirtieth day. This result made me pay attention. I have subsequently made similar novenas to St. Joseph, none of which, at least yet, ended in the same dramatic way. Still they got me to thinking of this legal father of Jesus, the Christ.

Devotion to St. Joseph is rather a modern phenomenon. The Feast was established in 1621 by Gregory XV. St. Teresa of Avila had much to do with this devotion. Father Joseph Chorpenning, OSFS, has translated Jeronimo Gracian’s (Teresa’s adviser) book on St. Joseph (1597)—Just Man, Husband of Mary, Guardian of Christ (St. Joseph’s University Press, 1993), a book well worth reading for Lent. I had not realized that Pius XI, in Divini Redemptoris, dedicated the conversion of Russia to St. Joseph. That one certainly worked.

The Church with some success presented St. Joseph as a counterbalance to the old Marxist May First or Labor Day celebrations. As a carpenter, St. Joseph represents something central in Christian thinking, both about work and about the family to which a man’s work is related.

Modern reflections on either Joseph or Mary stress their pertinence to contemporary issues. If we read the Blessed Mother’s words as recorded in the Gospels carefully, we see that she was quite independent. She wanted to know before an angelic intellect, “how these things could be?” Gabriel is not recorded to be annoyed by her perplexing response. Only when she had understood something of the surprising information the angel explained to her did she consent to its implications.


Mary questioned Jesus as a young boy when she found him in the Temple: “Did you not know that your father and I have sought you sorrowing?” Evidently, she suspected that he did know, which rather annoyed her. Jesus’ answer to her seems also to be rather sharp, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Apparently in Jesus’ mind, she should have known about this business. She watched Jesus carefully and “pondered” the things he did and said in her heart. She was not given all the answers but was expected to figure out certain things about her son without his having to explain them to her.

Joseph’s is a more straightforward problem. Yet, he too was especially chosen for the providential task assigned to him. When Joseph discovered that Mary was to have a child whom he knew was not his, he decided to do an honorable thing. No one would fault him. Indeed, the very fact that he has to be instructed by an angel testifies to the validity of his initial problem with Mary’s condition.

Joseph is told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What is born of her is of the Holy Spirit, the child he will name Emmanuel, that is, “God-with-us.” In essence, the whole nature of the Trinity, the inner life of God, is given to Joseph as an explanation of this event in his life. He does not seem to have thought it fallacious or unreasonable.

After the birth of Jesus, Herod found something threatening his jurisdiction. The angel again appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and the child into Egypt. He did this, waited, and a couple of years later, returned when he heard that Herod had died. But on finding out that Herod’s dangerous son was now king, Joseph decided, again being instructed, to return to Nazareth where it was more likely to be safe and out of the way.

Joseph is considered to be the patron of a happy death because we assume that he died sometime after the finding in the temple and prior to the beginning of Christ’s public life. That is, he died in obscurity with Jesus and Mary. This tells us much about what is important in a human life.

Major figures in the life of Christ are not always well known to us. We know Peter, John, and Paul better than Joseph and Mary. But we are curious. No person about our redemption is insignificant. Joseph saw this child for many years, saw him grow at least into young manhood, knew that he was to protect this child and his mother, that this is what God asked him to do. Joseph remains the model of ordinary, quiet manhood.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).