“Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet, and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support, and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.” ~ Pope Francis, Patris Corde
The feast of St. Joseph falls on 19 March every year. To Christians, St. Joseph is not only the patron Saint of the sick and of the dying but also the patron Saint of the family. The name of St. Joseph is of special significance to me as I received my entire primary and secondary education at St. Joseph’s College Colombo (the largest Catholic school in Sri Lanka), and I live in Canada whose patron Saint is St. Joseph, and in the city which has the largest church in the world dedicated to St. Joseph – The Oratory. St. Joseph’s Oratory attracts thousands of locals as well as foreign tourists each year. St. Joseph is considered by Catholics as the patron of the universal church – so declared by Pope Pius IX in 1870 – and his life is featured in the New Testament in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke.
Although Joseph lived in the first Century AD, veneration of the Saint in the western world is reported to have begun only in the 14th Century when an order of mendicant friars – the Servites – observed his feast on 19 March. In 1479 Pope Sixtus IV introduced the feast to Rome.
Joseph was from Nazareth, Galilee, a region of Palestine. He descended from the House of King David. He married Mary and found she was already with conception. Mathew recalls in his Gospel (Matt 1:19): “ being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame” Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly, when an angel appeared and informed Joseph that the child in Mary’s womb was the son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Soon after the birth of Jesus, an angel appeared and advised Joseph of the impending danger of King Herod the Great of Judaea’s decision to have violence committed on the infant Jesus, whereupon Joseph fled with the family to Egypt, only to return to Nazareth after Herod’s demise.
Perhaps the most relevant significance of Saint Joseph in the modern world is the integrity he presented. “integrity” is a complex word carrying many nuances, one of which is that it stands for “doing the right thing even if no one else is watching”: in other words, practicing unobtrusive goodness. In the words of Pope Francis: “The greatness of Saint Joseph is that he was the spouse of Mary and the father of Jesus. In this way, he placed himself, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, ‘at the service of the entire plan of salvation”. The definition of “integrity” in Webster’s Dictionary is “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility; the quality or state of being complete or undivided”. St. Joseph is recognized as the epitome of masculine holiness, particularly as an example for modern culture.
Martha Beck, in her book The Way to Integrity: Finding a Path to Your True Self defines integrity as “wholeness” which denotes peace and goodness both from without and within. In other words, doing the right thing for the right reason. This way, Ms. Beck seems to suggest that we could transcend what culture sells us to find “integrity, and with it, a sense of purpose, emotional healing, and a life free of mental suffering. Much of what plagues us—people pleasing, staying in stale relationships, negative habits—all point to what happens when we are out of touch with what truly makes us feel whole”. This translates to independence from psychological suffering.
Part of integrity was love of family for Joseph. Father Gary Caster, author of Joseph: The Man Who Raised Jesus says: “Joseph has confidence in what God the Father is asking him to do. He doesn’t hem and haw: ‘Maybe we shouldn’t go [to Egypt]. … Just what is God asking me to do? Joseph immediately does everything the Father tells him to do through the angel. He’s not wishy-washy, doesn’t overthink things, doesn’t insert himself [his will].” Joseph was also imbued with righteousness and justice, which are aspects of integrity. Br, Subal Rozairo, in his article St. Joseph: Patron of the Universe and Social Justice says:“ St. Joseph comes across to us as a model of many virtues. He was an authentic person who showed by his simplicity that he was not afraid because he knew God was with him. He was not controlled by external forces. He faithfully and joyfully attended to the little but fundamental things of caring for Mary and Jesus. In his simple lifestyle, he was rich in relational trust with the father to whom he utterly surrendered himself. Of all his virtues justice, simplicity, and integrity are the featured ones”.
The righteousness, social justice, and integrity that St. Joseph was known for percolated through the ages from the Gospels of Mathew and Luke to modern day philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche – the former of whom introduced the categorical imperative of universal righteousness. Immanuel Kant was of the view that every human being is an end and not a means. This philosophy is based on a sense of duty to human dignity and that the duty should be performed with kindness. This is what made Adolf Eichmann’s assertion before the Nuremberg Court tenuous – that he did everything with a sense of duty irrespective of moral restraint – unacceptable. Kant also said that one should judge a person not on how they acted when times were good, or when they felt like being kind or caring and that the true measure of kindness in a person was in how they behaved when they didn’t want to, and when there was nothing to be personally gained for them. This epitomizes what St. Joseph stood for.
Fast forward to modern times, one wonders how Nelson Mandela – the epitome of Kant’s ideal and Nietzsche’s Uber mensch – would have treated refugees or immigrants in today’s context. It has been said of Mandela: “Mandela was an amazing leader and example of love, forgiveness, and kindness and one of the things that made him so remarkable is that upon his release in 1990, not only did he not express anger, or hatred towards his jailers, he actually befriended them. In fact, he invited one of them to attend his 1994 presidential inauguration and to the 20th anniversary celebration of his release from prison. Both James Gregory, and Cristo Brand, Mandela’s jailers spoke of the deep respect they had for this man. Brand went from being pro-apartheid as a young man to someone who stood with Mandela against racial segregation, and oppression”.
One cannot gainsay that if St. Joseph were to be asked to point to an ideal human being in modern times, the great Saint would turn towards the likes of Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, such people are few and far between in this modern world.