By CAROLE BRESLIN
Throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America, countries will be observing a holiday started by the International Labor Movement — a day celebrating the workingman. In the Catholic Church we have observed this day, May 1, as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, ever since it was instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955. On September 14, 1981, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, Laborem Exercens or On Human Work. Eight years later he issued the apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos or Guardian of the Redeemer. Both of these explain the honor and respect due to St. Joseph, patron of workers.
While much of the secular world celebrates this day in honor of workers, we celebrate this day by honoring St. Joseph in his role as a worker. He worked as a carpenter, provided and protected his family, always sensitive to the slightest command of his Lord and God.
St. Joseph must have been from Bethlehem, the City of David, since he had to return there during the census required by the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Judea. This census, to register the whole world under Roman authority, required the subjects to return to their place of birth.
Hence, Joseph must have been born in Bethlehem but had at some time moved to Nazareth in Galilee. Presumably this move became necessary in order to provide himself and his dependents a livelihood. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, which — according to tradition — meant that Joseph and Mary were married but not yet living together.
Also according to tradition, they had both pledged to observe perfect chastity and thus preserve Mary’s virginity. This pledge illustrates the degree of sanctity both had achieved.
Indeed, some theologians have speculated that since John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born as the herald of Christ, then St. Joseph most likely received that same honor as the foster father of Christ. If St. John the Baptist was sanctified in the womb of Elizabeth at the Visitation of Mary with Jesus in her womb, then perhaps the same favor would have been given to St. Joseph.
The Gospel of Matthew is the first to mention Joseph in the Bible as he explains the heritage of Jesus with Joseph as the husband of Mary. In the very next section of that first chapter of Matthew, he describes what some call the second annunciation of the Incarnation.
As St. Joseph agonizes over the situation of Mary’s pregnancy, he ponders quietly divorcing her. Note that Mary had not told Joseph about the angel’s visitation to her or what had occurred. She trusts completely in divine Providence. Then the angel appears to St. Joseph. The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s Child has been begotten of the Holy Spirit and, the angel also tells Joseph, rather than being a bystander, “and you shall call him Jesus” (Matt. 1:21). Thus Joseph will be the head of the family begotten by God.
Being a “just man” (Matt. 1:19), Joseph obeys. In all of the Gospels, there is not one recorded word spoken by St. Joseph. Nevertheless, we know of his concerns. We know of the “dreams” or visitations of angels by which he learns of God’s will. There is no record of any hesitation in following orders.
Even when he needs to take his lovely and very pregnant bride 80 miles south from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he does not hesitate. He searches unsuccessfully to find an inn for her, finally securing a birthplace for Jesus in a cave or a stable for animals. Jesus is born in the town whose name is translated as “house of bread.” The Bread of Angels was placed in a feeding trough for the animals.
While the shepherds and the magi come to worship Jesus, Joseph stands in the background. Again no mention is made of this man selected to care for and be the guardian of the Savior of mankind. Humbly he serves. What glory to be able to witness this parade of rich and poor, learned and simple, who come to worship Jesus!
Once the magi leave, Joseph has another dream during which he is ordered to rise immediately and take the Child to Egypt to protect Him from the murderous plot of Herod, who is threatened by this Child who is the King of the Jews. Once again Joseph immediately obeys, packing up their meager possessions to make the laborious trek to a faraway land.
Somehow Joseph manages to provide for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus, until some years later — for a third time — he is visited by an angel instructing him that he should return to Judea since Herod is dead. For the third time he obediently packs and leaves as instructed. It seems Joseph is spending a good deal of his married life with Mary traveling. First to Bethlehem, then to Egypt and now back to Galilee where the Holy Family will continue to live the hidden life except for one episode.
This episode is the last trip of Joseph recorded in the Gospels: The Holy Family travels to Jerusalem to observe the festival. However, when they set out to return to Nazareth, the absence of Jesus was discovered and they return to Jerusalem to search for Him. They find Him in the Temple discoursing with the leaders of the Temple.
Even here we do not learn of any words that may come from Joseph, but only from Mary. Jesus replies to her that He must be about His Father’s work. This must have been a rather surprising comment for Joseph to hear; but, in all humility, he must have recognized the truth of the statement.
The Patron Of Many Causes
Joseph, a patient, loving man, must have held the Baby Jesus, must have trained this beloved “son,” and must have had both Jesus and Mary at his bedside as he breathed his last breath. He surrendered willingly and lovingly to the needs of his family. He is honored by numerous religious orders such as the Sisters of St. Joseph who dedicated so many years to caring for troubled children and orphans.
Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the patron of the Universal Church. Pope John XXIII added the name of St. Joseph to the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer. Since then Pope Francis has added his name to the other three eucharistic prayers after Mary and before the apostles. St. Joseph is also the patron of many other causes, countries, and institutions too numerous to mention here. Next to Mary, his blessed spouse, he is probably the most powerful intercessor for various intentions.
Dear St. Joseph, protector of the Holy Family, protect our families from the onslaught of a culture bent on destroying them. Joseph, most patient and loving, most obedient and hard working, lead us in our pilgrimage to Heaven to be with you, with your beloved foster son Jesus, and your blessed spouse the Blessed Virgin Mary. 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. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)