On December 8th, 1870—150 years ago today—Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church. In honor of today’s anniversary, Pope Francis announced this morning a Year of St. Joseph, that begins today and will be celebrated through December 8th, 2021.
Accompanying this announcement, Pope Francis released a new Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde, (“With a Father’s Heart”). “The aim of this Apostolic Letter,” the pope said, “is to increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.” In the letter, Francis recounts the hidden life of St. Joseph in the Gospels and discusses some of the major teachings of his predecessors on this great saint. He remarks, “After Mary, the Mother of God, no saint is mentioned more frequently in the papal magisterium than Joseph.”
In the introduction to the letter, Francis explains that he has wanted to express some personal reflections about Joseph, and that the pandemic only increased that desire. He points out that the current crisis has highlighted the importance of ordinary, hidden heroes: “Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others.” Everyone, the pope says, “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. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
There are some important aspects of St. Joseph’s character that Pope Francis invites us to reflect upon in Patris Corde.
In the second section of the letter, “A tender and loving father,” Pope Francis explains how it was through Joseph that Jesus saw “the tender love of God.” He then calls upon us to—in imitation of our Heavenly Father and St. Joseph—“learn to look upon our weaknesses with tender mercy.” While the Devil wants us to condemn ourselves for our frailty, the Holy Spirit approaches us with tender love. Pope Francis reminds us that if we cannot accept our own weaknesses, we can easily fall into the trap of judging and condemning the weakness of others. “That is why,” the letter explains, “it is so important to encounter God’s mercy, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where we experience his truth and tenderness.” He goes on, “That truth always presents itself to us like the merciful father in Jesus’ parable. It comes out to meet us, restores our dignity, sets us back on our feet and rejoices for us.” Francis reinforces this point later on, in the letter’s fourth section (entitled “An accepting father”), when he writes, “I like to think that it was from Saint Joseph that Jesus drew inspiration for the parable of the prodigal son and the merciful father.”
In section three of the letter, Francis reflects on the obedience of St. Joseph. In the Gospels, Joseph is visited four times by an angel in his dreams. All four times, Joseph responds with immediate obedience—despite not having all of the answers. Pope Francis points out, “In every situation, Joseph declared his own ‘fiat,’ like those of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Joseph serves as a model of how to be faithful to God’s plan. And Francis reminds us, “Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father.”
In the fifth section of the letter, “A creatively courageous father,” Francis demonstrates how Joseph’s obedience was born from his profound trust in God’s providence. Joseph believed that God will always show us how to respond to any trial. As Francis puts it, “for all the arrogance and violence of worldly powers, God always finds a way to carry out his saving plan.” The pope reminds us, “Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground.” The obedience of Joseph comes from the trust that God can and will bring good from every evil.
But not only did Joseph trust in God—God also trusted him. “Joseph was the man chosen by God to guide the beginnings of the history of redemption. He was the true ‘miracle’ by which God saves the child and his mother. God acted by trusting in Joseph’s creative courage.” Creative courage, the pope says, is choosing to face difficult situations with faith and trust that God can help us “bring out resources we did not even think we had.”
In the seventh section, “A father in the shadows,” Pope Francis references Polish author Jan Dobraczyńsk’s novel The Shadow of the Father, about the life of St. Joseph. The novel, Francis says, portrays Joseph as “the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father.” Fatherhood, after all, is accepting “responsibility for the life of another.” This responsibility doesn’t overwhelm the freedom of others by “being overprotective or possessive,” but instead helps others become “capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities.” This is because fatherhood is rooted in self-gift, not possession or dominance. Here the pope reflects on St. Joseph’s chastity:
“Joseph is traditionally called a ‘most chaste’ father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.”
In the concluding section, Pope Francis encourages us to ask St. Joseph for his intercession, asking for the grace necessary to imitate his tenderness, obedience, trust, creativity, and self-giving love. Francis tells us, “We need only ask Saint Joseph for the grace of graces: our conversion” (PC conclusion).
Patris Corde ends with this prayer:
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.
Image: Statue of Saint joseph, by the Duthoit brothers, 19th century, in Amiens Cathedral. Photo by Vassil – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4336278