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Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph The Hymnographer

June 14, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In the late sixth and early seventh century, the glories of Gregorian chant began to develop in Rome. Then, in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote beautiful hymns to celebrate Corpus Christi and to honor the Real Presence.
In the Eastern Church, around Constantinople, they also sang hymns, but it was not until the late ninth century that a simple man was inspired by God to write a plethora of hymns dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Bartholomew, St. Nicholas, and to many others. He composed so many hymns that he came to be known as St. Joseph the Hymnographer.
Joseph, born around 810 on the Italian island of Sicily, had exemplary Christian parents. His father, Plotinus, and his mother, Agatha, were forced to flee the island with their family around 827 when the Muslims invaded the island. They fled to Peloponnesos in southern Greece. (The island eventually returned to Italian control, but not until after the Normans conquered and drove out the Muslims in the 11th century.)
The family lived together until Joseph was about 16. He journeyed to Thessalonica in northern Greece on the shoreline of the Aegean Sea to join the monastery of Latomos.
With his humble demeanor and industrious nature, he quickly made his way into the hearts of his brother monks. His piety and quick grasp of the monastic life resulted in his Ordination to the priesthood by the bishop of Thessalonica in 840.
A new Godly partnership developed when St. Gregory the Dekapolite came to the monastery and met Joseph. He was so impressed with the holiness and the humility of the new priest that he invited him to return to Constantinople with him.
When Gregory and Joseph arrived in Constantinople, they resided at the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus Martyrs. These times were fraught with the persecutions of the iconoclasts during the reign of Emperor Leo the Armenian. Gregory and Joseph were particularly endangered since they preached against the heretical iconoclasts, including both the emperor and the patriarch of the Church of Constantinople, John VII Grammatikos.
Since Pope Leo III was not under the influence of the Byzantine emperor and the Eastern Church was still in communion with Rome, St. Joseph was frequently dispatched to Rome to update the Pontiff on the dire situation. He received this commission since he was a gifted orator with an ability to win others to serve the truth.
When Joseph was on his way to Rome carrying documents describing the persecutions by the iconoclasts and the preeminent threat to Orthodoxy, he was captured by a band of invading Muslims. They had been paid off by the iconoclasts to waylay Joseph in order to prevent him giving the information to the Pope, but also because he opposed them so openly. The band took Joseph to Crete, and handed him over to the iconoclasts who threw him into prison.
Like many other imprisoned saints, Joseph encouraged his fellow prisoners with prayers and his cheerful endurance of the wretched conditions. His manner greatly influenced an Orthodox bishop who had thoughts of wavering. In the end the bishop was so edified by Joseph that he bravely endured his martyrdom.
After six years in prison, on Christmas night, Joseph experienced a vision of St. Nicholas of Myra (270-343). The saint told him that the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Armenian had died and that the persecution had ended.
St. Nicholas then gave Fr. Joseph a scroll, instructing him to eat it. “Hasten, O Gracious One, and come to our aid if possible and as you will, for you are the Merciful One,” was written on the scroll. Fr. Joseph did as he was told, exclaiming, “How sweet are Thine oracles to my throat” (Psalm 118/119:103).
St. Nicholas then asked Fr. Joseph to sing those words and when he did the chains dropped off his limbs, the prison doors burst open, and he was free. He then was miraculously transferred back to Constantinople — a distance of over 400 miles across the Aegean Sea.
There he learned that his great friend in Christ, Gregory, had died during his imprisonment in Crete as did Gregory’s disciple John. Fr. Joseph had a church dedicated to St. Nicholas built and placed the relics of both St. Gregory and his disciple, John, in it.
Joseph settled into a routine of practicing his priestly duties accompanied by a deeply devout prayer life. One of his favorite saints was the apostle, St. Bartholomew. As Joseph spent forty days before his feast in great sorrow, he regretted that there were no hymns and no canon for this great man’s feast. Even with such regret, he did not dare consider himself worthy to undertake the task.
God, in His merciful love, was to satisfy Joseph’s longing. On the vigil of Bartholomew’s feast, that saint appeared to Joseph at the altar. He placed the Gospel close to the priest’s heart and told him to write hymns, “May the right hand of the Almighty God bless you, may your tongue pour forth waters of heavenly wisdom, may your heart be a temple of the Holy Spirit, and may your hymnody delight the entire world.”
After that vision, Joseph also wrote many hymns for the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Nicholas, and other saints.
In the meantime, the new emperor, Theophilus, renewed the iconoclast persecutions. Fr. Joseph was again punished for his faithfulness and exiled to Cherson for eleven years. At the end of the emperor’s reign, Empress Theodora restored veneration of holy icons and made St. Joseph the keeper of sacred vessels at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
However, Joseph tolerated no evil and when he denounced Bardas for unlawful cohabitation — he was the brother of the empress — he was again exiled until Bardas died in 867.
Then for the third time Joseph was called back to Constantinople, this time by Patriarch Photius. This time he was made father confessor for the clergy of Constantinople.
In 863, Joseph received a notice of his death in a dream on Good Friday. In anticipation he studiously made an inventory of the sacred items of the church and gave it to Patriarch Photius. With that task completed, he retired for three days of prayer for peace in the Church and entered eternity. He feast is celebrated on June 14.
Many of the canons of the Eastern Church were written by Joseph the Hymnographer.
Dear St. Joseph, you lived in difficult times when many church leaders persecuted those who were faithful to the teachings of Christ. You were exiled, stripped of your positions in the church, and imprisoned. The Church has suffered through the centuries with so many heresies and faithful bishops and priests have preserved the Truth and persevered in their faithfulness. Pray that we will be blessed with shepherds who will guide the faithful through these troubled waters and help us remain serene and at peace, knowing that God has already won the battle and that Heaven awaits those who suffer. “Without the cross there is no salvation,” Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, said, and “perfection is unattainable.” Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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