Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
We know that at Fatima during the apparition on October 13, 1917, after the miracle of the sun, our Blessed Mother appeared again but joining her this time was St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus. Both the Christ Child and Joseph blessed the world. St. Joseph was silent; he spoke through his action.
This is not the only appearance Joseph and Mary made in a single place in Europe. There were lesser known apparitions nearly 500 years earlier. On different occasions, both Joseph and Mary visited the little village of Cotignac, France. The Child Jesus appeared with Mary also.
Cotignac is in the heart of Provence, yet few have heard of this rural area. Yet certainly most are familiar with names not far away — the Mediterranean coast, Marseille, the Alps, and Saint Tropez. Then again, don’t St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary normally choose to appear in modest, little-known places, like Fatima? And Cotignac?
St. Joseph Appears
The summer of 1660 was an exceptionally hot on in Cotignac and the region. On June 7, a young shepherd named Gaspard Ricard was searching for fresh grass on Mount Besillon. About 1 pm Gaspard had to lie down because he was suffering from the roasting heat and exceptional thirst.
Next thing he knew, a tall man was standing next to him.
“I am Joseph. Lift it and you will drink,” the man told him, pointing to a large boulder.
The boulder was huge. Many men would have a difficult time moving the immense rock. But Gaspard listened to the man and made the attempt. He was surprised he was able to lift the boulder. Under it he discovered a fresh water spring. He looked up to thank the stranger, but the man had vanished.
The shepherd dashed to the village to tell all the people what happened. We can’t overestimate his eagerness and excitement. Knowing him as a humble young man, everyone believed him. They all rushed to see the newly revealed spring and the surprisingly abundant water supply n a place where no water had ever been before.
The wonderful documentary Shrine of the Holy Family: Provence, France includes this event and tells how by July 25 “the city council mentions that the source pointed out by St. Joseph has abundant healing qualities and attracts people from all over the region who come to wash, drink and find healing remedies.”
Because of the numbers of people who quickly began arriving once the word spread about this appearance of St. Joseph and the miracle that followed, the townspeople immediately began building the first chapel at the site.
Then healings began at the sanctuary and spring. And continued. In just one example to show the continuous healing properties, in 1662 Father Allard of the Oratory that was built on the site, wrote, “The waters of St. Joseph bring miracles. Since I returned, a man whom we know from Avignon, born lame, went to the spring and came back cured, having left his crutches there. Everyone drinks and carries away the water.”
A history on the sanctuary’s website says of that time, “They go to the fountain from all the places of the province and the surrounding countries, the infirm, the sick of all kinds, most of them returning healed, or comforted by their infirmities.”
Since the beginning, the spring has never dried up.
The people of Cotignac realized a chapel had to be built on the site of the apparition and began constructing one on August 9 that same year. Their own 13th century parish church had just seen an expansion three years earlier, and actually remains that way to this day.
Then King Louis XIII stepped in. He royally decreed that from March 19, 1661, the feast of Saint Joseph became a day noted throughout the kingdom.
Four years earlier, the king had already consecrated himself, his throne and France to the Virgin Mary. He surely was moved to do so because he and the Queen knew of the apparition of Mary at the site of the new Chapel of Our Lady of Graces — in Cotignac. A mere two miles away from where St. Joseph appeared.
On January 31 that same year of 1661, the local Bishop of Frejus combined the sites of both apparitions so near to each other under the title, Sanctuary of the Holy Family, and declared, “God, by the graces he wished to grant in honor of Saint Joseph, wished not to separate in the devotion of the faithful, the two holy persons (Mary and Joseph) whom he had joined on earth, for the mystery of our salvation ...”
By 1663 when the chapel of Saint Joseph of Besillon was ready, the same Bishop of Frejus delegated the Oratorian Fathers to be its guardians. The priests were already down the road at the chapel of Our Lady of Graces.
Words and Silence
A priest from the shrine of St. Joseph shared thoughts in the documentary about the appearance of the great saint.
There’s not one instance in gospel Joseph speaks, and in Cotignac he said only one small phrase, the priest noted. “But his silence is not about being mute. Tradition holds rather that he spoke only words that count.”
One lesson might be in light of today. “In opposition, our world suffers from an avalanche of words — words whose meanings are constantly changing. It seems the more people speak, the less they communicate,” the priest observed. “The silence of Joseph is not empty. It is only the absence of unnecessary words.”
He is a man who seeks the truth and preserves the well-being of his family, bringing them to safety. “He was just, not only by virtue but also by obedience to the Ten Commandments.”
With his short directive to the young shepherd Gaspard, St. Joseph spoke a proverbial treasure trove of learning. When Joseph heard the words of God’s simple directions to him, he immediately put them into action. He didn’t ask for explanations why he should or should not leave for Egypt at once. Or before that when told to take Mary into his home as his wife.
Gaspard must have grasped this at once since he didn’t ask Joseph how he expected the shepherd to lift that huge boulder all by himself. Joseph had the faith that moved mountains, and here he taught the same to Gaspard who immediately went to try to life the impossible rock by himself. Certainly he got supernatural help for his trust.
Then there are the healings to follow. St. Joseph follows what his son Jesus did in healing the sick and comforted the afflicted.
The Benedictine Sisters for years at the monastery connected to this sanctuary report “that St. Joseph brings children back to their parents, protects the unborn, and reconciles feuding brothers. And that he also helps people having financial difficulties.”
Saint Par Excellence
Many come here before making a decision. As the priest in the documentary reminds, “St. Joseph is their counselor.”
We can have this same counselor for our own, wherever we are. Doctor of the Church St. Teresa of Avila was greatly devoted to St. Joseph. She said, “To other saints, the Lord seems to have given grace to help us in some of our necessities. But my experience is that St Joseph helps us in them all; also that the Lord wishes to teach us that, as he was himself subject on earth to St. Joseph, so in heaven he now does all that Joseph asks. This has also been the experience of other persons whom I have advised to commend themselves to the saint.”
St. Teresa wanted to persuade everyone to be devoted to St Joseph, “for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God,” she said. “I do not remember that I have ever asked anything of him which he has failed to grant. I am astonished at the great favors which God has bestowed on me through this blessed saint, and at the perils from which he has delivered me, both in body and in soul.”
Listening to her words, and remembering St. Joseph’s help and simple directive to a humble shepherd in Cotignac — a help and directive that has continued to ripple through the centuries with a spring that never dries up as a reminder — we all should follow the Biblical instruction, “Ite ad Joseph — Go to Joseph!”
Next time, the Virgin Mary’s appearance with Jesus in Cotignac, and why the Sanctuary of the Holy Family.