What Have the Popes Said About St. Joseph?

THE JUBILEE OF ST. JOSEPH: After Blessed Pius IX proclaimed St. Joseph the “Patron of the Universal Church” in 1870, his successors have turned their attention to St. Joseph in their own particular way.

GIROLAMO ROMANINO, ‘THE MARRIAGE OF THE VIRGIN,’ C. 1540 (photo: = / Public domain)

The figure of St. Joseph is something of a blank canvas upon which preachers and theologians can paint a wide array of images. As sacred Scripture says so little about St. Joseph, it is left to the Catholic imagination to build up, generation after generation, a fuller picture of the saint granted the supreme mission of caring for Jesus and Mary.

In recent times the papal magisterium has raised up St. Joseph as popular devotion to St. Joseph has increased. And as expected, the various popes have employed St. Joseph as a kind of mirror for their own pastoral priorities.

After Blessed Pius IX proclaimed St. Joseph the “Patron of the Universal Church” on Dec. 8, 1870, his successors have turned their attention to St. Joseph in their own particular way. 


Pope Leo XIII

“On the subject of this devotion, of which we speak publicly for the first time today,” began Leo XIII in his 1889 encyclical on Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, indicating that a “Josephite” magisterium was something in its early stages.

At the time, Leo was greatly preoccupied by the new conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on the working classes. Less than two years later would come Rerum Novarum, the charter of contemporary Catholic social teaching. 

Thus Joseph was depicted as one who “passed his life in labor,” demonstrating that “the condition of the lowly has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the laborer is not only not dishonoring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled.”

Leo then included a warning about the dangers of communist revolution, which he would later call a remedy worse than the disease. 

“Recourse to force and struggles by seditious paths to obtain such ends are madnesses which only aggravate the evil which they aim to suppress,” Leo wrote. “Let the poor, then, if they would be wise, trust not to the promises of seditious men, but rather to the example and patronage of the Blessed Joseph.”


Venerable Pope Pius XII

The link between labor and Joseph was further emphasized in 1955, when Pius XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a second feast of Joseph in addition to his principal feast on March 19.

Pius XII chose May 1 for the new feast precisely to be a rival to the European labor day, or May Day. In the communist countries and for communist parties in Western Europe, May Day parades exalted Marxist ideology and communism. 

Pius wanted to present an alternative, Christian vision of human labor, and so chose to lift up Joseph as a model for workers.


Pope St. John Paul II 

In 1989, to commemorate the centennial of Leo’s encyclical, John Paul issued his apostolic exhortation on Joseph, Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer). 

It completed his trilogy of magisterial documents on the Holy Family, which included Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) on Jesus Christ, his first encyclical in 1979, and the encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) on Mary in 1987.

John Paul, the pope of human freedom, made Gaudium et Spes (24) — which explained that man can only truly find himself through a sincere gift of self — a principal leitmotif for the entire pontificate. He therefore presents Joseph’s marriage to Mary as a model of freedom fulfilling itself in a gift.

“At the culmination of the history of salvation, when God reveals his love for humanity through the gift of the Word, it is precisely the marriage of Mary and Joseph that brings to realization in full ‘freedom’ the ‘spousal gift of self’ in receiving and expressing such a love,” John Paul wrote.

John Paul rooted his teachings on labor (Laborem Exercens, 1981), marriage and family in a profound meditation on Genesis, and so applies it to the Holy Family.

“We see that at the beginning of the New Testament, as at the beginning of the Old, there is a married couple,” John Paul writes. 

“But whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth. The Savior began the work of salvation by this virginal and holy union, wherein is manifested his all-powerful will to purify and sanctify the family — that sanctuary of love and cradle of life.”

Finally, John Paul took up the principal theme of the Second Vatican Council, the universal call to holiness: 

“What is crucially important here is the sanctification of daily life, a sanctification which each person must acquire according to his or her own state, and one which can be promoted according to a model accessible to all people: St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies. ... He is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things. It is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.”


Pope Francis

In his letter of December 2020, Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), Pope Francis brings to the fore his special concern for the poor and dispossessed, migrants and refugees, proposing Joseph as a “special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty.”

“The Holy Family had to face concrete problems like every other family, like so many of our migrant brothers and sisters who, today too, risk their lives to escape misfortune and hunger,” the Holy Father writes.

“St. Joseph is invoked as protector of the unfortunate, the needy, exiles, the afflicted, the poor and the dying,” Pope Francis adds. “Consequently, the Church cannot fail to show a special love for the least of our brothers and sisters, for Jesus showed a particular concern for them and personally identified with them.”

There are also several engaging flourishes which are typical of Pope Francis. 

There is the special sensitivity he has to domestic turmoil, writing that “in our world where psychological, verbal and physical violence towards women is so evident, Joseph appears as the figure of a respectful and sensitive man.”

For many today, the problem is not men behaving badly as much as it is men being absent altogether. Pope Francis addresses that phenomenon in a beautiful passage where he shows his love for poetry and literature.

“The Polish writer Jan Dobraczynski, in his book The Shadow of the Father, tells the story of St. Joseph’s life in the form of a novel,” Pope Francis writes. 

“He uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: [H]e watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.”

“Fathers are not born, but made,” Francis continues. 

“A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person. Children today often seem orphans, lacking fathers.”

Finally, there is this remarkable thought about one of the Holy Father’s favorite fatherly images in the Gospels: “I like to think that it was from St. Joseph that Jesus drew inspiration for the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Merciful Father (Luke 15:11-32).” 

That’s a fine example of the blank canvas upon which anything can be painted. 

It’s an attractive idea, to be sure, even if Joseph’s family life bears no similarity at all to the family in the parable. 

That’s a big part of the attraction of St. Joseph for Pope Francis and his predecessors: The great saint can be what we need him to be.

Read the PDF of the Register special section on the Jubilee of St. Joseph, or browse the other articles here: 

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