March is the Month of St. Joseph! Josephologists (counterparts of Mariologists and Christologists) are enthusiastically wondering what Pope Francis might do next in this relatively new theological field of Josephology. But he’s not the first pope in history with a lively devotion to St. Joseph. Today, let’s compare this pope to his 265 predecessors to see who’s the greatest Josephite pope. Just as one could ask “Who’s the Greatest Marian Pope?” let’s probe this question in terms of “Who’s the greatest Josephinian pope?” So, fittingly, grab yourself a “Cuppa Joe” and in the spirit of “St. Joe,” let’s get to work!
Let’s start at the beginning. Pope St. Peter didn’t even mention Joseph in his two Epistles nor through St. Mark his protégé in his Gospel. He might have met St. Joseph once (cf. Mt 1:18, Jn 6:42, 59) but that’s speculation. Other than being the first pope and Prince of the Apostles, Peter never penned a word about Joseph. Sorry St. Pete, step aside…
Ok, who’s next? Linus, Cletus, Clement? Not a papal peep! The first blip on the radar was in the 300s after St. Jerome took a heretic to task. In defending Mary’s perpetual virginity, Jerome says Joseph was also a virgin (Contra Helvidius, c. 383). Thus, the birth of Josephology can be traced to Jerome’s weighing in on this debate. It seems Popes Sts. Damasus I, Innocent I, and Gelasius I agreed with St. Jerome as they issued papal rejections and condemnations of the apocryphal “Protoevangelium of James” (a book St. Jerome calls “absurd”) as it paints Joseph as a grandfatherly non-virgin widower. Nevertheless, nascent Josephology didn’t truly take off until only over a century ago; so, let’s hop into our DeLorean and swerve back to the future to look at more modern papal heavyweight contenders…
In this Corner…
Ladies and gentlemen, as iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer would say, “Let’s get ready to rummmblllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllle!!!!”
Welcome to ringside! In this corner, hailing from various European countries, dressed in white, are some former heavyweight champions of the papal world! Let’s see how they weigh in:
- Pope Sixtus IV was the first pope to insert the feast of St. Joseph in the Roman missal and breviary in 1480.
- Pope Gregory XV in 1621 decreed that St. Joseph’s feast be celebrated worldwide as a double.
- Pope Clement X in 1670 raised the feast to double of second class.
- Pope Clement XI in 1714 enhanced the feast with a Mass and office proper to it.
- Pope Benedict XIII decreed in 1726 that St. Joseph be added to the Litany of the Saints.
Pope Pius VI was the first pope to approve a pontifical crowning of a statue of St. Joseph in 1796 (Poland). He was too busy fighting against the French Revolution, the Jansenists, and the Gallicans to do much more with Josephology, however. Incidentally, Pius VI is also notable for establishing the first episcopal see in the US (Baltimore).
Pope Bl. Pius IX in 1847 extended St. Joseph’s feast to the whole Church, authorized three pontifical crownings, and also declared St. Joseph as the “Patron of the Universal Church” in 1870. Gigantic uppercut! But is this pope the true “Rocky” of St. Joseph?
Pope Leo XIII’s Quamquam Pluries was the first encyclical on St. Joseph in 1889. Sweet! Like Sugar Ray! Therein, he says Joseph is second only to Mary as the greatest Saint! (Fr. Donald Calloway dives into this in a watershed, the bestseller Consecration to St. Joseph on p. 98). This pope holds the record for the most pontifical crownings at four! Huge blows! Excellent footwork in the ring! Is he the Champ?
Pope St. Pius X in 1908 invited St. Luigi Guanella to build the Basilica of St. Joseph in Rome (and became the first official member of the Pious Union of St. Joseph launched by St. Luigi). He also authorized the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909 and two crownings. He penned a prayer wherein he calls Joseph the “Virgin Father.” Bam! A big George-Foreman-like-no-nonsense-straight-forward-style-heavyweight blow. Yet even a Lefebvrite might ask, “Is that all?”
Pope Benedict XV wrote, in 1920, on the heels of St. Joseph’s apparition at Fatima in 1917, Bonum Sane (for the 50th anniversary of St. Joseph’s title of Universal Patron of the Church), promoting devotion to the saint worldwide. In 1921, he added “Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse” to the Divine Praises! He authorized two crownings. Fabulous! But, enough for the gold belt?
Pope Pius XI, in his 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris, echoes his predecessors Pius IX and Leo XIII about Joseph’s patronage and protection of the Universal Church in one salient paragraph. Bold! But that’s it.
Pope Ven. Pius XII declares “May Day” (May 1) as the new Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955; composed a wonderful prayer to St. Joseph the Worker; authorized three crownings. Ginormous body blows! Judges are checking their scorecards… does this make him the undisputed “king of the ring”?
Pope St. John XXIII added Joseph’s name to the Roman Canon (now known as Eucharistic Prayer I) in 1962 and authorized two pontifical crownings. Bravo! But not the “Golden Boy” nor the “Real Deal Holyfield” that we’re after.
Pope St. Paul VI is the most recent pope (to date) to approve a pontifical crowning (in Spain). He spoke of Joseph’s “incomparable virginal love” in a St. Joseph’s Day homily in 1969. But that’s it. He was too busy being a modern-day “Athanasius Against the World” in the face of the Sexual Revolution, defending the truth of God’s plan for true married love – Humanae Vitae! He didn’t pull or “contracept” any punches! But does this make him St. Joseph’s “Italian Stallion”?
Pope St. John Paul II promulgated Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos in 1989. Bulletproof! A Rocky-like performance! “JP II, we love you!” He did many great things “in the ring” as the greatest papal prizefighter of our lifetime. But, while he declared a Jubilee Year and dedicated his Wednesday Audiences to the Theology of the Body, he didn’t declare a Josephite Year or devote his Wednesday Audiences to the “Theology” (catechesis) on St. Joseph.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, baptized as “Joseph,” was nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” as the Vatican’s “doctrinal watchdog” before he became pope. “The B16 Bomber” zeros in on what he terms “Joseph’s greatness” in these key areas: his royal virginal fatherhood, his simplicity and humility, his chaste husbandry, and his work ethic. He established a type of theological “blueprint” for his successors to build upon. In the Vatican Gardens he inaugurated a fountain dedicated to St. Joseph. Poignantly, he said: “This beautiful fountain is a symbolic reminder of the values of simplicity and humility in accomplishing God’s will every day, values which characterized the silent but invaluable life of the Custodian of the Redeemer…. Relying on God doesn’t mean acting entirely clearly according to our criteria. Rather, entrusting oneself to God means emptying oneself, renouncing oneself, because only those who agree to lose themselves for God can be ‘just’ like St. Joseph.” On July 5, 2010, he declared: “To St. Joseph’s intercession I entrust the hopes of the Church and of the world.” Bombshell! But is he the “king in the ring”?
And in this Corner…
Dressed in white, weighing in at 181 pounds (except on Sundays!) with the longest “reach” of any papal contender, a theological Southpaw from South America; he can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee; king of spontaneous jabs, causing “rumbles in the jungle”; never afraid to take off his papal gloves, or mingle with the crowd; the one, the only: Franciscuuuuuuuuus!
Pope Francis, only two months after “taking the ring” in 2013, confirms the addition of Joseph’s name to Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and consecrates Vatican City State to St. Joseph! In 2020, he writes his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde and declares a “Year of St. Joseph” – historic! – for this goal: “to increase our love for this great Saint!” That same year, he increased the Litany of St. Joseph by 7 invocations (Joseph’s name means increase!). But wait, there’s more! He began a new “Catechesis on St. Joseph” during his Wednesday Audiences from November 2021 to mid-February 2022! How fitting, as Wednesday is traditionally devoted to St. Joseph. Francis knows well that, whether in times of plagues and famine in the land or during a worldwide pandemic, it’s always a good time to “Ite ad Joseph!” (Gen. 41:55). It’s probably tattooed on his left bicep!
But Wait, There’s More…
Do you recall what month in 2013 that he became pope? March: the Month of Joseph! Remember what day he inaugurated his papacy with the papal Mass? In a word, he was a Josephologist before it was cool to be one! Rewind the tape, check out his hard-hitting heavyweight homily: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I thank the Lord that I can celebrate this Holy Mass for the inauguration of my Petrine ministry on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the Patron of the Universal Church. It is a significant coincidence.” See! He was a “Pope of St. Joseph” in the See of St. Peter from the very start! See?
Moreover, Francis has signed some key Apostolic Exhortations on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. For example, Gaudete et Exsultate (The Call to Holiness) and Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)—in which he mentions Joseph seven times! Christus Vivit! (Christ is Alive!) was also signed in the Month of Joseph (though not on the 19th) and he mentions Joseph three times in that heartfelt Apostolic Exhortation to youth.
The Knock-Out Punch Heard Around the World!
Sleeping St. Joseph! If not already a TKO, this is the final knock-out blow that’ll put any other papal contender quickly to sleep! Game over. Lights out!
“On my table I have an image of St. Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church!” Pope Francis says, “When I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath St. Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words, I tell him: pray for this problem!” He said this to an audience of families in the Philippines in January 2015. Fast forward to today and we see “Sleeping St. Joseph” statues popping up everywhere – thanks, again – in large part to Pope Francis, the true heavyweight champion of St. Joseph!
“I love St. Joseph very much,” he said (cf. Vatican News, March 19, 2018). This pope loves St. Joseph like no other! And it’s precisely because of this pope that we can confidently predict that his successors will continue his Josephology from the papal chair for “rounds” to come – so much so, in fact, that we can now happily say: “Where Peter Is, There Is Joseph!”
Header Image: Pixabay
A convert to Catholicism for 25 years, John D. Lewis (related to Mike only in the order of grace, we think) is a bizjet pilot based in Asia with his wonder-woman wife and amazing five sons. Lewis, founder of “Josephology” Facebook Group, is the author of three books, including his latest, Journey with Joseph (which is “highly recommended” by Fr. Donald Calloway), and On Wings and Prayers: 1,001+ Quotes for a Happy Flight and a Happy Life.