Mount Royal, which dominates the city of Montreal, is in turn dominated by the great cupola of the Oratory of St. Joseph, the massive shrine church built by Blessed André Bessette, a Holy Cross lay brother who might have been the most well-known man in Canada in the early 1930s.
On a typical morning in those days a motley crew of the injured and the sick, poor and rich alike, would be lined up outside Brother André's small, 10-by-18 foot office, looking for cures from the “miracle man of Montréal.” Brother André would welcome them all for three hours in the morning, and another two hours in the afternoon, before spending several hours after dinner visiting the sick and invalids in their homes and hospitals.
By the time he arrived at his small office at 9 a.m., he would have already been up for four hours, having spent two hours in prayer in the chapel. The old brother also prayed for an hour at the end of the day, and took strength from his prayer to cope with the demands of the thousands who constantly besieged him for miraculous cures. “Never anything joyous, never anything amusing,” he was known to comment about his work.
Crutches on the Walls
Nevertheless, he received all those who came to see him, and performed thousands of miracles. The walls of the Oratory of St. Joseph are covered with the crutches, canes and other paraphernalia of infirmity rendered unnecessary by Brother André's cures. His conversations were curt, even brusque, often consisting of nothing more than his standard advice:
Get some oil consecrated to St. Joseph and a get a medal of St. Joseph. Rub the oil. Make a novena to St. Joseph. Pray to him a lot. Pray to the Good God.”
And when the thousands would return to thank him for his miraculous intervention, he would be equally brief: “It was St. Joseph and not I who cured you. Thank St. Joseph, not me.”
Brother André was both a fruit and a source of the increased devotion to St. Joseph that has marked the 20th century Catholic Church. The Church has long applied the words of the Pharaoh concerning the dreaming Joseph, son of Jacob, to the later Joseph, who also saw the will of God in dreams: Go to Joseph! (Genesis 41:55). Brother André spoke those words to the thousands who came to Mount Royal — Go to Joseph — and the Church as a whole has heeded that ancient injunction ever more in our time.
Patron of the Universal Church
Pope Pius IX, recently having lost the papal states in 1870, declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church on the feast of the Immaculate Conception that same year. Piux IX entrusted to the Church to the same fatherly protection “to whose custody God entrusted his most precious treasures,” as he wrote of Joseph's vocation to love and protect the baby Jesus and his mother Mary.
Devotion to St. Joseph is not entirely new, but had been dormant. St. Teresa of Avila encouraged a renewal of devotion to St. Joseph in the 16th century, but it has flowered much more in our century. Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955, to propose an example of a true Christian worker in response to communism's false vision of the worker. St. Joseph the Worker is celebrated on May 1, the European Labor Day, and during the communist period, the day on which the great Mayday military parades would be held.
Pope John XXIII decreed that Joseph's name be added to the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) after that of Mary, and before all others. Pope John also commissioned a new altar of St. Joseph in St. Peter's Basilica, where public Masses are offered several times a day.
Go to Joseph!
Brother André's great shrine to St. Joseph was built as a result of his persistent determination to honor the great saint. As Brother André's fame as a miracle worker grew, his desire was shared by the multitude of pilgrims who sought him out, and now the shrine draws hundreds of thousands to pray at the tomb of Brother André, as well as to pray to St. Joseph.
The life of Brother André echoed in some respects the life of St. Joseph, illustrating how the Christian life includes both silent ordinariness and explosions of the supernatural. Joseph's silence in the Gospel was echoed in the life of Brother André. Before he came to be known as a miracle worker, his life was utterly devoid of any newsworthy events.
His entire written output consists of three dictated letters, and he never read a newspaper or magazine — to the extent of not knowing, in the 1930s, who Hitler, Mussolini or Roosevelt was. Joseph's silence bore fruit in his care for the Holy Family, as did Brother André's in the ordinary duties of a Holy Cross lay brother whose first tasks included being a simple porter.
Yet that silent, ordinary life was filled with the most extraordinary manifestations of God's supernatural interventions in our world. Modern-day Québéc society would scoff at the concept of miracles, as does much of 20th century enlightened, rationalist opinion. But God cannot be limited to the imagination, or even to the altar. Brother André was a sign sent to a sophisticated, prosperous, forward-looking North American city that God is still at work.
My Father is working still, and I am working — John 5:17. So said Jesus to the doubters of his day, and so says the life of Brother André to the skeptics of our day. Jesus is still at work in the world, and so too is the man they called his father, St. Joseph.