Melchior Paul von Deschwanden (1811-1881), “Saint Joseph and Jesus with John the Baptist”
This past May, in anticipation of Mothers’ Day, I wrote a piece called “The Virgin Mary and the Necessity of Mothers.” Hence, it was only fitting that I write a follow-up piece discussing Saint Joseph, and how “the Silent Saint” showed us that fathers are necessary as well.
Of course, it is proper and fitting to recall that God the Father is Christ’s only true Father, and that Saint Joseph served as a foster-father, or what one might deem a “father figure.” In any event, as you will see, Saint Joseph is a model for fathers everywhere when it comes to typifying the crucial role that we play in our children’s lives. In what follows, we will reflect on what Saint Joseph provided within the Holy Family, examine how the last three popes have underscored what fathers comparably provide within their families, and sound a call for fathers to take their familial responsibilities seriously.
The Holy Family
As alluded to by his common title of “the Silent Saint,” we have no recorded words of Joseph’s from within the Sacred Scriptures. Saint Joseph’s presence within the Gospels is one of protection, of honor, of duty, of care, and ultimately, of deep love for the Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. And he accomplishes this without drawing attention to himself. Or, perhaps when Mary and Joseph were on their way back to Jerusalem, looking for Jesus following the Passover celebrations (see Luke 2:41-52), he was especially inclined not to stop and ask for directions.
In any event, if you are unfamiliar with – or if you require a refresher on – Joseph’s contributions within the Holy Family, read chapters 1 and 2 of both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We see in these passages a man who, originally uncertain of what God had in store for him, came to place his full trust in the Lord, from remaining with Mary after she was found to be carrying the Christ Child, to taking Mary and the newborn Lord down to the safety of Egypt in order to avoid Herod’s maniacal intentions, to helping to instruct Jesus in the ways of carpentry in out-of-the-way Nazareth. Of all of the circumstances in which God could have stepped into our humanity, he chose for the Incarnation to occur within the setting of an earthly mother and an earthly father.
The indispensable role of fathers in their children’s lives has been elucidated by many popes – emphasizing at this time their title of Holy Father – throughout Church history, but it is worthwhile to take some time to look at some key teachings from the last three popes on the matter.
In 1981, Saint John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio: On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World that “Love for his wife as mother of their children and love for the children themselves are for the man the natural way of understanding and fulfilling his own fatherhood. Above all, where social and cultural conditions so easily encourage a father to be less concerned with his family, or at any rate less involved in the work of education, efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance” (paragraph 25).
Years later, in 1989, John Paul II actually wrote an apostolic exhortation on Saint Joseph, titled Redemptoris Custos: On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church, reminding us that “This bond of charity was the core of the Holy Family’s life, first in the poverty of Bethlehem, then in their exile in Egypt, and later in the house of Nazareth. The Church deeply venerates this Family, and proposes it as the model of all families. Inserted directly in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Family of Nazareth has its own special mystery. And in this mystery, as in the Incarnation, one finds a true fatherhood: the human form of the family of the Son of God, a true human family, formed by the divine mystery. In this family, Joseph is the father: his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring; but neither is it an ‘apparent’ or merely ‘substitute’ fatherhood. Rather, it is one that fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family” (paragraph 21).
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed in his Address to the Young People and Families of Sicily, in Palermo, regarding the partnership between husband and wife as father and mother, that “the family is fundamental because that is where the first awareness of the meaning of life germinates in the human soul. It germinates in the relationship with the mother and with the father, who are not the masters of their children’s lives, but are God’s primary collaborators in the transmission of life and faith.” In 2016, Pope Francis dedicated much of the content of paragraphs 172-177 of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family to the need for fathers, along with the need for mothers, emphasizing the complementary attributes of the two.
A Call to Fathers
In the midst of our celebration of Fathers’ Day, it is vital both for fathers to remember their role and to take that role seriously. We are necessary, yet not in an arrogant way; rather, in a manner that indicates that it is a truly blessed privileged for us to be able to participate in this divinely inspired paternal capacity. In an era that pretends that fatherhood is able to be derogated at best or altogether cast aside at worst, let us instead continue to look to the example of Saint Joseph, and to familiarize ourselves with the Church’s teachings on the critical contributions that we make within our families. Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us!