The Church celebrates the feast of St. Joseph this week on Monday, March 19. This saint, often described as “the man closest to Christ,” has been the subject of lifelong devotion for Holy Cross Father Roland Gauthier.

Father Gauthier, an internationally renowned scholar on everything concerning the life of the saint, lives in Montreal, site of the Oratory of St. Joseph, the world's largest shrine to St. Joseph.

He spoke recently with Register correspondent Louise Perrotta.

Perrotta: When did you develop an interest in St. Joseph?

My family had a subscription to a monthly magazine put out by the Oratory of St. Joseph. As a boy, I remember often looking through it after Sunday dinner. At that point I had some degree of devotion toward St. Joseph but didn't know much about him.

In 1940 I was ordained a priest in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which staffs the Oratory. Eventually I began taking courses for a doctorate in theology. One day as I was puzzling over what to choose for my dissertation topic, a lightning bolt of inspiration flashed through my mind: “The Oratory is here. … What about something on St. Joseph?”

The thought took root, so one fine day I went to the Oratory in search of materials. “You must have some books and articles about St. Joseph,” I asked the priests there. They showed me a little shelf — maybe three or four feet long — of materials in French, Latin, English. I was somewhat surprised to find so little.

Searches of other religious libraries around Montreal turned up a few more books, but it seemed to me that St. Joseph was like the poor relative in the Holy Family. There were so many books about the Blessed Virgin, so few about him. And many authors made no mention of Joseph even when speaking about biblical scenes like the flight into Egypt, where he plays an important role!

These discoveries intrigued and stimulated me. “I have to dig deeper,” I told myself. “There must be more.”

One thing led to another, and I ended up spending almost 45 years at the Oratory, most of them developing and supervising the Center and its various activities focused on St. Joseph.

Would you give an example of how good theology can contribute to our appreciation of St. Joseph?

In the area of marriage and family life, for example, theological research points to the fact that St. Joseph was a true father and husband. He didn't beget Jesus, but he carried out all the functions of a father towards his child — a role of educating and forming that first-century Jews considered even more important than we do today.

St. Joseph was also a true husband. This runs contrary to the view of some people, who have imagined Mary as a kind of nunand thought that the couple's love wasn't very deep. The truth is that Mary was a married woman who loved her husband with a virginal but real and complete love. I've always maintained that Mary loved Joseph as no other wife has ever loved her husband and that their union is the most perfect realization of earthly love.

Seeing Joseph as a true husband and father makes it easier to turn to him as a model for family life. Looking at his relationship with Mary, married couples can learn how to treat one another with loving respect. They can relate to St. Joseph as a real person who faced the problems of any breadwinner. Certainly, his experience of marriage and fatherhood was unique, but it was rooted in ordinary life.

In one of your recent books, you suggest that the Church draw attention to Mary and Joseph's relationship with a liturgical feast celebrating their marriage. Why?

Mary and Joseph's marriage was ordained by God for receiving Jesus. Together with the feast of the Holy Family, a feast celebrating Mary and Joseph's marriage would speak of God's plan for marriage and family life by presenting the model couple whose relationship of faithful commitment and mutual love is so closely linked to salvation history. Such a feast existed for centuries in various areas — without ever being approved for the universal Church — but was removed from the liturgical calendar in 1961. But given the current societal crisis, with so many marriages ending in divorce, it seems to me that a liturgical celebration of Mary and Joseph's marriage would underline the dignity and holiness of marriage and call couples to the deep spousal love that God intends.

On a personal level, what have you learned from St. Joseph?

Not just one thing, but everything that has to do with the spiritual life. By contemplating Joseph, I've come to a deeper understanding of the two great commandments, love of God above all and love of neighbor as oneself.

St. Teresa of Avila said that St. Joseph is the model of the interior life. I think this is a consequence of his unique roles of husband of Mary and father of Jesus. For years — 12 at the very least — Joseph lived in intimate union with the Son of God and with the world's greatest saint. No other saint had this privilege! So who better to lead us to Jesus and Mary?

Joseph's role in the spiritual life is well expressed in a Nativity scene by the Renaissance painter Barocci: Joseph is opening the door, motioning an unseen visitor to come inside towards Jesus and Mary. This captures something of what I've experienced of St. Joseph in my own personal life.

How has your perception of St. Joseph evolved?

Reading and reflecting on St. Joseph and his role and mission, I quickly understood that because his greatness stems from his intimate union with Jesus and Mary, it's important to see him in the context of the Holy Family. Joseph should-n't be separated from Jesus and Mary. In fact, every time I think of him, I think of them.

This is actually something I