In December, in an apostolic letter entitled Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), Pope Francis proclaimed a year of devotion to St. Joseph. We don’t know much about Joseph. His wife and adopted son, rightfully so, get most of the attention. Nonetheless, St. Joseph is a mysterious, and yet also compelling figure, known more for his deeds than his words. One could say he is the epitome of the ‘strong, silent type.’
St. Joseph offers us, through his quiet service and gentle strength, a vision of authentic masculinity, different from the one proposed by so much of our culture today. Where our culture often tells men they must be dominant, Joseph is meek and humble, ever listening and attentive to the needs of those who depend on him most. Where our culture paints a picture of the quintessential man as powerful and aggressive, Joseph shows us a man that uses his strength for the protection of the vulnerable.
The life of St. Joseph challenges our assumptions about true masculinity and forces us to contend with the fact that our culture has sold us a false bill of goods that has only led to the continued abuse of women and children and the poor and marginalized, at the hands of men. “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” (PC2). Pope Francis urges us not to look to strongmen and tyrants for examples of manhood, but to the adopted father of Our Lord.
So, what can we learn about authentic masculinity from St. Joseph? What is Pope Francis urging us towards in this year of “the dad of all earthly dads?” Allow me to propose three insights inspired by the pope’s letter.
Acceptance takes tremendous courage
Much was asked of St. Joseph. He, like his wife, Mary, was given an almost Sisyphean task: to raise the Incarnate Son of God as your own and to prepare him in his ministry to redeem the world. No doubt Joseph had his moments of uncertainty and hesitation, even fear. Yet, he persisted. He takes Mary in as his wife, despite this “mysterious pregnancy” and offers his own fiat to God in doing so. “Joseph…teaches us that faith in God includes believing that He can work even through our fears, our frailties, and our weaknesses” (PC 4).
We are tempted by a modern worldview to try to manipulate reality to suit our ends and force the outcome most desirable to us. If life does not conform to our preconceived understanding of what it should be, then it is life that must change and reality that must bend to our will. We must resist any inconvenience or impediment to our own plans. Joseph, however, offers us a different way; a way of acceptance that requires not passive reception but courageous embrace of reality. The pope points out that, “Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, take responsibility for them and make them part of his own history”(PC 6).
Work is Holy
One of the few facts that we do know about St. Joseph is that he was a carpenter. He worked with his hands and participated in the creative process of God himself to make things of use for himself and others. He did this work every day to provide for his family. There is great dignity in work, especially in the kind of labor that allows one to create, as God does. “Saint Joseph’s work reminds us that God himself, in becoming man, did not disdain work” (PC 9).
In our contemporary culture, which places a premium on desk jobs and drastically undervalues manual labor, we struggle to see the importance of the kind of work that Joseph did or how this type of labor could possibly be worthy of distinction (never mind earn a just wage) in our modern, technologically obsessed world. Pope Francis reminds us, however, that “work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion” (PC 9).
Quite simply, work is holy. To labor for the benefit of others is the work of a saint. Work draws us closer to God by allowing us to participate, in our own small way, in his work and thus sanctifies us. This is not to romanticize manual labor and long for a bygone era, but to recognize the fact that all work, done well and in the service of the common good is, in fact, good, even redemptive. It is good for those who directly benefit from it and those who do it because “working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us” (PC 9).
Fatherhood is self-gift
“Fathers are not born, but made,” (PC 5) says the pope. Men learn to be fathers through trial and, often, much error. Countless studies have been done over the past several decades on the role of fathers and the negative impact that having an absent or abusive father can have on a child’s life. We are in the midst of a crisis of fatherhood and St. Joseph reminds us why there is no substitute for a good and loving father.
“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” (PC 10). Often our culture attempts, both implicitly and explicitly, to persuade us into thinking that responsibilities hamper our freedom and limit our happiness. By this logic, a truly happy person is one who lives utterly untethered to the needs of others. Pursuing their own happiness becomes their only responsibility because they chose to acknowledge it alone as real. Parenthood, which demands great sacrifice of one’s own comfort, wealth, resources, and time would then seem repulsive. So would any life path where one is expected to care for the needs of those who cannot care for themselves.
Towards this modern, self-centered worldview, St. Joseph would be, at best, unimpressed. As the pope asserts, “the logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the center of things. He did not think of himself but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus” (PC 10).
Joseph emptied himself so that those dependent on him might live more happily. In this way, he modeled for his adopted son the self-giving, sacrificial love that we have come to associate with the cross. It is through this daily witness and offering of himself that Joseph discovered his purpose and, ultimately, joy. “Joseph found happiness not in mere self-sacrifice but in self-gift” (PC 10).
St. Joseph provides us with a vision of masculinity and fatherhood that runs contrary to the prevailing contemporary narrative for both roles. He does so with humility and tenderness, yet with an undeniable strength. As Pope Francis remarks: “Our world today needs fathers. It has no use for tyrants who would domineer others as a means of compensating for their own needs. It rejects those who confuse authority with authoritarianism, service with servility, discussion with oppression, charity with a welfare mentality, power with destruction” (PC 10).
In search of a better way forward for all men, we need look no further than Saint Joseph, husband of Mary.
All sources cited are from Pope Francis. “Patris Corde” (PC). Apostolic Letter Patris Corde of the Holy Father Francis on the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church (8 December 2020) | Francis, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 8 Dec. 2020, www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20201208_patris-corde.html.
Image: By Jules Richomme – Paris Musées, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98109353
John Paul Manfredi is a Catholic school educator in the Diocese of Las Vegas. He holds a Master's degree in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. His writing has also appeared in the Church Life Journal and EpicPew. John Paul is a husband and father of three.