Imagine a world where no Christian is named for St. Joseph, where no church or religious organization bears his name. Picture St. Joseph absent from the Mass, the Breviary, the Church calendar, and the Litany of Saints. No shrines, no special devotions, no hymns, no solo images, no popular customs, no festive foods pay homage to St. Joseph.
This world without St. Joseph was Christendom until the 14th century. Up to that point, St. Joseph was almost universally ignored, reduced to a mere spear-carrier in the pageant of Salvation.
He still remains in the background for Byzantine Christians today. Their tradition accords St. Joseph no independent cult or feast day but merely includes him among other holy ancestors of Christ remembered on December 16. In fact, St. Joseph is an ecumenical stumbling block for some Greek Orthodox, who rate him as only a minor figure in the story of Christ’s life.
The long obscurity of this saint, whom we now account one of the greatest, seems incredible, especially to people who can remember when his altar stood on the Epistle side of every Catholic church. With all its twists and turns, St. Joseph’s long march to fame is a fascinating episode in the history of Catholic spirituality—and one relevant to certain contemporary problems in the Church.
An Absent Father?
Scripture provides minimal material for a popular cult of St. Joseph. The gospels mention him by name (the name “Joseph” means “God adds” or “God gathers”) only 15 times: He appears briefly in connection with the early life of Jesus, then simply disappears. The Evangelists record not a single word spoken by St. Joseph. And without a traditional burial place, he didn’t even leave bodily relics.
None of the above would have necessarily pushed St. Joseph into the background. Imaginative histories were concocted for nameless New Testament cameo players later called Saints Longinus, Veronica/Bernike, and Martial.
But the early Church was anxious to defend the Virgin Birth and the perpetual virginity of our Lady. It seemed to many Christians that minimizing St. Joseph magnified Mary. The Church fathers remained studiously incurious about his life. Although they mention him occasionally in passing, there’s not a single listing for St. Joseph in the saints’ index to Migne’s Patrologiae Latina, a 221-volume collection of Church writings up to 1216.
St. Joseph’s obscurity in the East ensured that Mohammed never heard of him from Christian informants. The unmarried Virgin Mary, on the other hand, enjoys favorable attention in the Koran, where Surah 19 is titled “Mary.”
Finally, the most influential of the apocryphal gospels, the Greek Protevangelium of James, assigned St. Joseph a less-than-flattering part. Here he’s a timid, elderly widower with grown children. Even after the heavenly sign of a dove emerges from his staff, he tries to beg off marrying young Mary “lest I should become a laughingstock to the children of Israel,” but the high priest insists. When Mary is found to be with child, St. Joseph frets that she’s been deceived by Satan, as Eve was before her. Later in Bethlehem, St. Joseph is off looking for a midwife when Mary gives birth to Jesus with miraculous ease.
Although condemned by popes in the West, the Protevangelium provided the East with its preferred solution for the pesky “Brethren of the Lord” problem: Those identified as siblings of Jesus must have been children from St. Joseph’s first marriage.
Redone in Latin as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew between the eighth and ninth centuries, the Joseph legends of the Protevangelium spread throughout Western Christendom. They appear in The Golden Legend (1298), the Middle Ages’ favorite book about saints, where St. Joseph is discussed only on feasts of our Lord or our Lady because he lacked a feast of his own.
An elderly St. Joseph, subordinate to Mary, was a stock figure in medieval literature. For instance, in the 15th-century English mystery play Joseph, he’s a querulous codger who fears he’s been cuckolded.
The low point of St. Joseph’s position in medieval devotion has to be the story of Blessed Herman Joseph of Steinfeld (d. 1240), a Norbertine priest. The culmination of the cozy apparitions he’d enjoyed from childhood was a mystical marriage with his “sweetheart,” the Blessed Virgin. The holy man added “Joseph” to his birth name, Herman, symbolically taking St. Joseph’s place in Mary’s affections.
Despite his debut in an illustrative mosaic at St. Mary Major in Rome (circa 440), St. Joseph was marginalized in medieval art. He didn’t rate a separate image, even in prayer books. Northern Gothic artists did give him an active part in caring for the Christ child—but only in menial tasks such as finding water, cooking, or swathing the Infant in his woolly hose.
Fourteenth-century Tuscan painters developed a peculiar motif known as the charivari of St. Joseph, in which Mary’s disappointed young suitors—those whose staves failed to blossom or generate a dove in the High Priest’s fitness test—watch angrily and make threatening gestures during the wedding of Mary and Joseph. These images reflect contemporary social problems that left many vigorous young men unable to marry while older men snapped up tender maidens with rich dowries.
Even at the end of the Middle Ages, St. Joseph was still being pushed to the background in the Holy Kindred—group portraits of our Lady’s whole family that were popular in northern Europe. Like the other male relatives, he merely watches the reading women and playing children from behind a barrier. Only after 1500 does St. Joseph move into the circle of activity and get to touch Jesus.
Out of Obscurity
While fashion was rearranging the Holy Kindred, illuminated manuscripts began giving St. Joseph slightly greater prominence. He now escorts Mary to St. Elizabeth’s home for the Visitation and holds the Infant for the Presentation in the Temple, a role previously reserved for the Blessed Mother.
Medieval parents, however, continued to avoid the name Joseph. Only one Giuseppe appears on a list of 53,000 Tuscan householders collected before 1530, whereas that name is now one of the most popular Italian names. The first Catholic saints named for St. Joseph came along later still: Canary Islander Blessed Joseph de Anchieta (b. 1534) and Spaniard St. Joseph Calasanctius (b. 1556).
Nevertheless, small changes were accumulating in the script— changes that would drastically revise St. Joseph’s part in the play.
One finds early evidence of positive attention being paid him in another piece of apocrypha, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, written in Egypt between the fourth and fifth centuries. Although it makes the saint a widowed father of six who is 90 years old when he marries twelve-year-old Mary, this story describes him as still hale and healthy up to his death at 111. Jesus tenderly consoles His dying foster father, mourns him, and promises to bless those who honor his memory. Coptic Christians did just that; they had given him his own feast day (July 20) by the end of the first millennium.
The year 1000 found St. Joseph mentioned on two or three local saints’ lists in Germany and Ireland. Latin-rite Catholics celebrated his feast for the first time in Winchester, England, around 1030. The first oratory dedicated to St. Joseph was opened in Parma in 1074. Later, a church was dedicated to the saint in Bologna (1129) and a chapel in Joinville, France (1254).
St. Joseph’s union with the Blessed Virgin was declared a true marriage during twelfth-century theological debates on matrimony. The Church de- cided that consent, not consummation, was the sacrament’s essential element.
But these were isolated exceptions to general indifference, although St. Joseph did manage to attract the private devotion of Saints Bernard of Clairvaux, Gertrude the Great, and Birgitta of Sweden, as well as the Spiritual Franciscan Peter Olivi. He had entered the special Breviaries used among Servites, Franciscans, and Carmelites by the end of the 14th century, with his feast day celebrated on March 19.
St. Joseph Takes His Place
Still, this slowly building interest would not necessarily have brought St. Joseph to his later prominence. What propelled him to saintly stardom were the calamities of the 14th century. That era opened with unprecedented famine around the shores of the North Sea. The Hundred Years’ War broke out between France and England. Civil war tore at Castile. Portugal, Scotland, and Poland-Lithuania battled for their national lives. Peasants and urban artisans rose in revolt from Tuscany to Flanders, England to Estonia.
Heresies, corruption, and religious hysterias disfigured the Church while she suffered the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism. And over all these miseries rode the Black Death, killing a quarter of Europe’s people in its first assault alone.
The horrors inflicted on families and communities needed heavenly healing. Reform-minded French theologian Jean Gerson (d. 1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and a noted spiritual writer, turned the spotlight on St. Joseph as the ideal family model and protector. Gerson’s 2,957-line poem about St. Joseph, the Josephina, promoted the saint and his marvelous virtues across western Europe.
Gerson’s ideas were echoed by his contemporary, St. Bernardine of Siena, a spellbinding preacher and reformer of the Franciscan order. St. Bernardine labored to evangelize Italy’s powerful city-states, whose proud consumerist culture let money distort marriage patterns among the elite. Sodomy and widespread attempts at contraception also disfigured these societies.
Gerson and St. Bernardine gathered up existing fragments of devotion to St. Joseph and rewrote his role in the Church. Rejecting the elderly St. Joseph of the Church fathers and the Greek Church, they declared that the saint must have been a strong young man, well able to care for the Holy Family. St. Bernardine struck an especially sympathetic note with his urban audiences by calling St. Joseph a “diligent administrator” who anxiously worked day and night to support his loved ones.
Furthermore, according to Gerson and St. Bernardine, St. Joseph was a virgin, not a widower, and he had been cleansed from original sin before birth so that he would be a fit spouse for Mary. Gerson and St. Bernardine also believed that St. Joseph was assumed into heaven after death. Thus the Holy Family had already been reunited, in body as well as in soul, maintaining the same bond of charity that had held them together on earth. Gerson wrote, “O venerable trinity Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, which divinity has joined, the concord of love!”
By the 16th century, devotion to St. Joseph was flourishing in Spain. St. Teresa of Avila became his great advocate because she believed his intercession had healed her of paralysis. Referring to “the glorious St. Joseph” as her “father and lord,” St. Teresa praised him as a helper in every need and burned with eagerness “to persuade all to be devoted to him.”
By the 1550s, St. Teresa was also dreaming of reforming her Carmelite order. She placed this difficult project—and the dangerous journeys it required—under St. Joseph’s protection. Twelve of the 17 new monasteries she founded were dedicated to the saint, and all of them were adorned with his statue—honors hitherto unknown.
St. Teresa’s enthusiasm spread to others, notably her friend and fellow Discalced Carmelite, Jeronimo Gracian. This friar’s highly popular Josephina (1597) repeated earlier praises for the saint, adding the significant proposal that St. Joseph was the man who most resembled Christ in “countenence, speech, physical constitution, custom, inclinations, and manner.” Gracian also plucked the command “Ite ad Joseph” (“Go to Joseph”) from the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph (Genesis 41:55) and made it the New Testament saint’s catch phrase, a quote that was often inscribed on his altars and images.
Carmelite devotion to St. Joseph spread to other orders within Spain and throughout the Spanish empire. The first foundation of St. Teresa’s nuns in France (1604) planted her spirituality into the French “Century of Saints.” In particular, her love of St. Joseph took root in St. Francis de Sales, the great champion of holiness in everyday life.
St. Francis built Joseph-based piety into the Order of the Visitation, which he founded with St. Jane de Chantal. The Visitandine nuns were directed to say a daily chaplet, litany, and meditative prayers to St. Joseph. St. Francis himself preached eloquently to them about his favorite saint.
Conference 19 in St. Francis’s influential Spiritual Conferences celebrates the chastity, humility, courage, constancy, and strength of St. Joseph—virtues that are envisioned as flowers embroidered on his heavenly garments. As the Savior’s guardian, St. Joseph had to be “more valiant than David and wiser than Solomon.” As the human being closest to Mary in perfection, he was worthy of the special intimacy he enjoyed with Jesus.
St. Francis was also the liveliest advocate of a special resurrection and assumption for St. Joseph, following that of Christ. He presented the saint as “the glorious father of our life and our love,” a tremendous intercessor and patron of parents, workers, and the dying.
St. Joseph Thrives in the Counter-Reformation
St. Joseph, the stalwart family saint, meshed nicely with Counter-Reformation strategies for reevangelizing Christendom. His strength and dignity fit early modern ideals of patriarchal authority: Families were encouraged to imitate the harmonious order of the Holy Family headed by St. Joseph.
The saint’s growing reputation also left its mark on Renaissance and Baroque art. At the turn of the 16th century, Italian paintings of St. Joseph’s wedding to Mary exalted the religious significance of matrimony over its social and economic aspects. He became a model husband dutifully marrying in a Church ceremony, unlike Tuscan aristocrats who wed at home before a notary. Raphael’s Betrothal of the Virgin (1504) is one famous example. This public relations campaign was rendered moot after the Council of Trent required everyone to marry before a priest and two witnesses.
In 1570 Johannes Molanus, the Counter-Reformation’s arbiter of religious art, demanded a clean sweep of legendary material in Christian art. Among the subjects his writings denounced were the Holy Kindred and apocryphal accounts of St. Joseph’s selection as Mary’s spouse. Molanus insisted that St. Joseph be depicted as young and vigorous, with the Christ child firmly under his paternal authority.
Baroque artists didn’t entirely obey these rules: St. Joseph kept his miraculous flowering staff and sometimes his grayness. But they did meet market demand for fresh images of St. Joseph, especially in the Hispanic world, where he enjoyed royal support. Among the masters, both El Greco and Zurbaran painted a strong, black-bearded St. Joseph walking hand in hand with the Holy Child. This motif of a man leading God by the hand would be often imitated because of the way it captured the saint’s fatherly love for our Lord.
A more formal treatment is Zurbaran’s Coronation of St. Joseph (1636), in which the risen Christ awards His foster father a floral crown of glory. Murillo’s delightful genre scene The Holy Family with Little Bird and his tender St. Joseph with the Christ Child (1670s) depict the saint as a young, darkly handsome Spanish father.
Engravings made in the Spanish Netherlands spread such imagery throughout Catholic Europe and carried it to the New World. In Mexico and the Andes, where the Spanish Conquest and European diseases had left cruel scars, the Indians embraced St. Joseph as their own. Colonial artists created charmingly naive paintings of their saint well into the 18th century, often depicting him with a bell-shaped Baroque crown and spangling his garments with gilt flowers.
More honors were showered on St. Joseph in early modern times. He was named official patron of Mexico (1555), Canada (1624), Bohemia (1655), Austria (1675), the Chinese missions (1678), and all of Spain’s dominions, including Belgium (1689), which still remains under his patronage. Of course, St. Joseph continued to be invoked by families, carpenters and woodworkers, doubters, travelers, house-hunters, and the dying.
Although the Roman calendar had first listed St. Joseph’s feast day in 1479, it wasn’t until the 17th century that grandiose Latin hymns were written for this celebration. He received his own special office in the Roman Breviary in 1714, and his name was inserted in the Litany of Saints in 1729.
The first religious order dedicated to the saint was the Congregation of St. Joseph, founded in Le Puy, France, in 1650. Most of the three-dozen orders now operating under his name in the United States stem from that original French community.
But this glorious period of Joseph-centered piety was rudely disrupted by the French Revolution and the coming of the modern era. Familiar habits of hierarchy collapsed under pressure from industrialization, liberalism, and anticlericalism. As the backdrops of their lives changed, family, community, and the Church were under immense pressure throughout the Western world.
In troubled times, St. Joseph remained the refuge of the faithful. Not only were new religious orders dedicated to him, but the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded by the Breton Blessed Jeanne Jugan (d. 1879), made St. Joseph the de facto patron of all its homes for the aged.
Blessed André Bessette (d. 1937), a Canadian brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, reportedly healed thousands by rubbing them with “St. Joseph’s oil.”
Montreal’s Oratory of St. Joseph, begun by Brother Bessette in 1904, grew into a huge basilica that still draws legions of pilgrims and promotes the saint worldwide.
Popes likewise saw St. Joseph as a prime healer of modern woes. In 1847, Blessed Pius IX ordered the feast of his patronage to be celebrated everywhere on the third Wednesday after Easter. In 1870, the same pope, now “the Prisoner of the Vatican,” declared St. Joseph patron of the Church.
Leo XIII’s 1889 encyclical on devotion to St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, invokes the saint against the religious and social crises of his day. Besides echoing familiar thoughts on the saint’s singular virtues, Leo XIII asks the poor to take St. Joseph, not socialists, as their guide in seeking justice.
The rise of communism made this last thought more timely than even Leo could have predicted. In 1930, Pius XI named St. Joseph a special protector of Russia to counteract Soviet persecution of the Church; he invoked him again in 1937 against atheistic communism in general. In 1955, Pius XII replaced the Patronage of St. Joseph with a new feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, the traditional holiday of the working class. (Since then, new images of the saint show him holding carpenter’s tools rather than lilies.)
To draw blessings from the Church’s patron, Pope John XXIII made St. Joseph patron of Vatican II (1961) and inserted his name in the canon of the Mass (1962). But John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (1989) broadens his predecessors’ concerns.
For John Paul II, the mystery of St. Joseph’s heroic obedience to God plays out in the family, the “sanctuary of love and cradle of life.” He emphasizes the reality of the saint’s marriage and paternity despite the absence of sexual activity: Self-giving love is what matters most. Outside the family, St. Joseph “brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption.” He’s our model for harmonizing the active with the contemplative life. Inheritor of the Old Covenant, his association with Jesus and Mary in their “domestic church” makes him a fitting patron of the universal Church born of the New Covenant.
Redemptoris Custos places St. Joseph firmly in the foreground of efforts to renew family, society, and the Church. With married fatherhood disparaged, workers devalued, and the true faith fading, now more than ever we must “Go to Joseph.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.