EVOTION to St. Joseph is one of the strangest symptoms of the vitality of the Church, of the spontaneous activity of the Faithful and of their response to the Holy Spirit, and of the falsity of the idea that Catholic devotion is mechanically engineered by authority.
For three-quarters of her lifetime so far, the Church had shown no general signs of devotion to St. Joseph. There are those who maintain that St. Teresa of Avila's devotion to him was a sort of origin of what has now become world-wide; but then, though printing existed, books were not accessible to the many; and of those books St. Teresa's were but one or two, and hardly anyone can have read them who did not belong to a tiny minority of a minority—those among the well-educated who were interested in higher forms of prayer.
A Symptom, not a Cause
So I think of her devotion to him again rather as a symptom of something that God was choosing should now begin, than as a cause of its beginning.
Among her nuns, she will have stimulated the development of the Godimplanted germ; but it was not she who planted it. No matter; in every church today you will find a statue of St. Joseph; and if you say: " But so you will, or almost everywhere, of St. Therese of Lisieux "that may well be 'but she was a contemporary : here you find the devotion of the Church taking a flying leap backwards across fifteen centuries, and alighting upon one whose role in the gospels is reduced to its absolute " structural " minimum.
One wants to know how Our Lady got through the crisis of becoming what we should call an " unmarried mother "; and how she and her Son " managed " during the years of His infancy and youth: the answer is given in terms of "St. Joseph," and beyond the fact of his Davidic ancestry, his trade, and that he was a " just man," we know, from the gospels, nothing at all about him.
However, we may be told that we do know a very great deal more—" a priori," that is, deducing consequences from something we. know for certain, without need of furthef evidence e and again, from the fact that the Church has so highly sanctioned devotion to St. Joseph: and "finallooirom
our own experience of his Help..' 7" ': • .
"A Just Man " U 8 h I do, oot,think that we have the right to draw any special conclusions from the very sober words : " a just man," .which could be used about any decent citizen: in this particular case, he felt sure that Mary, from what he knew of her, was surely innocent, whatever might be the explanation of what had happened: so he resolved to spare her the ignominy inevitable were there a public exposure.
Nor, I think, dare we speak too positively in consequence of the undoubted principle that when God provides a man with a special task, He prepares him to fulfil it suitably. No doubt He does: but we are not necessarily good judges of what is "suitable." "My ways are not your ways: neither are My thoughts, your thoughts." I, were I to decide that a man was the proper man for a job, would announce to him that he had been chosen for it, explain accurately what it was, and also, the best way of setting about it. Then I would put him to it, and leave him so much liberty as possible in carrying it out.
But this method did not seem suitable to God. He left Joseph entirely in the dark.
St. Joseph's Mental Agonies
He cannot have known Mary's destiny when he espoused her—she did not even knOw it herself. Conceivably he knew that she had taken some vow of virginity, which is the Catholic •tradition and seems vouched for by Scripture. He may have espoused her to be her guardian rather than husband. All the more appalling the shock that he had to endure. In our own anxieties, we may well recall the really dreadful hours that he passed through. Then " in a dream," he•was enlightened as to that.
Even allowing for the Jewish readiness to believe that God speaks to men through dreams, dreams Seem very different in the morning, and they are apt to fade. Anyhow, this dream helped him over his first great difficulty. Then they went to Bethle hem. Anxiety again about a domicile: distress when he could not find one. The more he believed that the unborn child was to be Messias, the more dreadful. that He should have to be born in a stable. The visit of the Shepherds compensated for that; and again, the incident of Simeon's prophecy in the Temple.
Who knows how he interpreted the visit of the Magi—whenever that occurred? And instantly after that, came another dream —" Fly! Herod intends to murder the Child!" Fly? Uproot his whole life, just as it seemed to be so placidly starting again? He might almost have sighed: "Oh, that those wise men ' had never come!" (I have often wondered what became of Cleft gifts . . . The incense and the myrrh served no practical purpose : the gold-dust may well have been needed on the Holy Family's journeys, or in Egypt, till Joseph got work there. Even those dear mementos were after all but " material" things; to none of these may one cling for ever; and all, who have to do with
A New Shock At last came the joyful news that the Holy Family could return, and start for home they did. But a new shock, as to which Joseph got no divine dreamguidance. When he heard that the monstrous Archelaus was reigning at Jerusalem—a more horrible man even than his father Herod theGreat—he simply dared not return to Bethlehem (where I think they had, as it were, " settled," and where Mary might so often once more have contemplated the beloved cave), but took his way home to Nazareth.
.Perhaps he was glad. After all, they belonged to that rough north-land; and the ittemiSttdS?'bf, the. 'murdered Ilenotents:, .maY have made even Bethlehem intolerable. There remains only the episode of the Loss and Finding in the Temple; and the gospel tells us frankly that " they did not understand the things that were said to them." Then came the long-drawn sojourn at Nazareth, where he taught Jesus His trade; but where nothing—certainly nothing Messianic—seemed to be happening; and he died before seeing any single promise kept,
or any prophecy fulfilled. Yet his task had been perfectly completed, even though he had carried it out wholly " in the dark."
We could hardly allow March to pass by without mentioning St. Joseph; but even so, I have singled out only one aspect of his career on which to comment. In making "deductions" from the principle that God will certainly have " prepared" him for his vocation, and given him all the graces needed for his fidelity therein, I have not speculated on what God " surely must have done," but simply set down what the Scriptures show us that He did.
Pleasant Little Tricks
Nor need I develop what every loyal Catholic will admit--that the sanction of the Church, granted to our devotion to St. Joseph, settles the matter of its validity; nor that its marvellous expansion within the Church in reality does so too. Nor have I dwelt on the experience of so many Catholics—no! not only that of nuns, who play pleasant little tricks with his statue, and in other devoutly unscrupulous ways obtain temporal favours from him—who have experimentally tested the kindness and power of St. Joseph.
Patron of the Uncertain
But I have dwelt on what concerns, so it seems to me, so many—the small householder, half our employees, right up to the Pope.
Perhaps one of the most distressing features of modern life is its uncertainty. So many men (and women) arc doubtful how long they can hold down their job. So many girls know that they will lose theirs if they marry. The uncertainty then hinges on : "Ought I Ito marry at all?" And: " If I marry, can I keep it secret; am I sinning if I do so?" "Can I trust any of the future?" From time to time, I become obsessed with the number of men and women who themselves are obsessed with this matter.
And to go to the other extreme—the Sovereign Pontiff. He has to legislate for the whole of Christ's Church—the mystical Holy Family. No kingdom, republic, or I empire even approximates to his charge or involves any comparable responsibility. If he makes a mistake, what consequences, lasting for centuries, and affecting hundreds of millions of souls, may not about! Pray often for the Pope, and do not be surprised if modern Popes have been granted and are grateful for a heavenly " Patron "" great father "—of the Church of Christ on earth.
Picture the sweep of St. Joseph's prayer —from each little household. anxious as was his own; up to the illimitable Home and the very Body, of Jesus Christ today.