Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

What St. Joseph does; Who St. Joseph is…  

December 6, 2009

My grandfather, Jacob George, died on Dec. 5, 1913, when his son, my father, was only 10 years old. Although I never knew my grandfather, I have a holy card that was printed at the Techny Mission Press and that my father kept in his prayer book. It has the dates of my grandfather’s life and death on one side, and a picture of St. Joseph on his deathbed on the other. It calls St. Joseph the “Patron of a Happy Death.”

St. Joseph died sometime between the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth after the flight into Egypt and the beginning of Jesus’ public life. It is assumed that he died with Mary and Jesus at his side. Surrounded by his wife and her child, he passed from this life into the bosom of Abraham, the limbo of the fathers, to join Adam and Eve, the patriarchs and judges, and await the opening of heaven’s gates through the crucifixion and death of Jesus some years later. We are encouraged to pray to St. Joseph so that we too may die surrounded by Jesus and Mary, having received the sacraments of the church and in the company of those who will pray us into eternity.

St. Joseph, who cared for Mary and for Jesus as a youngster, is also the protector of the universal church. As I read through many of the cares shared with me last month, I offered to St. Joseph for his protection those who had sent in their intentions. Most people mentioned family members who were sick or without a job or trying to get through school. Many mentioned sons or daughters who had fallen away from the practice of the Catholic faith. Others were concerned about friends or family addicted to drugs or gambling. Very many reached beyond their immediate family and prayed for peace in the world, for greater love and generosity and justice in society, for “forgotten souls” and for “the spiritual growth of Chicago’s priests.” These are the prayers of disciples of Jesus, of those whose desires conform to God’s will for his people. They are people at home with St. Joseph.

St. Joseph watches over the church and helps us to die well. That’s what he does, but who was he? He is called a “righteous man,” a just man in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (1:19); but he is also a silent man. We discover who he is through looking at those to whom he is related, by blood or in the plan of God for the salvation of the world. The Gospel according to St. Matthew begins with the “genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The list of Jesus’ forebears concludes with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” In the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus is linked back to “Adam, son of God.” Joseph is listed as the last link connecting Jesus to his own people, the chosen people, and to the whole human family. He helps bring us back to our roots, to the origins of the human race and of the church.

Joseph began to learn of his place in God’s plan for the world’s salvation when, faced with Mary’s pregnancy, he decided to give her back her liberty and to do so quietly, with discretion (Mt 1; 18-19). God had been at work in Mary’s life, but neither God nor Mary had stopped to ask Joseph what he might think. Joseph’s trust in God and in Mary, however, enabled the Lord to call him back into the divine plan. He was given to understand by “the angel of the Lord” that Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin bearing a son was being fulfilled in Mary. He was not to step aside; he was to love and protect Mary and her child. He exercises authority over both Mary and Jesus, to whom Joseph gives the name chosen by God (Mt 1:21). Like the saints of God in every age, Joseph wants above all else to do the will of God. It was God’s will to give him as wife the mother of the savior and to give him, therefore, her son as his. In these unique relationships, Joseph shows himself both poor and magnanimous. Joseph is integral to God’s plan to keep hidden who Jesus is until his hour comes, when Jesus himself would begin to show the world who he is.

Joseph is present at Jesus’ birth, at his circumcision, at his presentation in the temple, at the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt. In obedience to God, Joseph through his work and his love created a home for Mary and Jesus in Nazareth, and he helped Jesus grow and become strong and filled with wisdom (Lk 2: 339). Joseph himself grew, as does every husband, in sharing his wife’s devastating sorrow when Jesus was lost to them in the Jerusalem temple (Lk 2: 41- 51); and he grew again when Jesus reminded both Mary and Joseph of his own need to do the Father’s will above all else. Jesus, in responding to his mother’s anxious questions, doesn’t speak in reproach but neither does he speak like a child. Once again, God acts without asking human permission, even from those who love him.

Joseph departs from the pages of Scripture in silence. Unlike the patriarchs of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose burial in Hebron or in Shechem is recorded in Scripture, Joseph’s burial place is unknown. He was a poor man, completely dedicated to his work as a servant of the Lord. His work done, he disappeared from the earth but remained in the heart of Mary and in that of her son. Because he gave himself entirely to God’s plan for us, Joseph has a place in our hearts too. Last week, the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines celebrated its 50th anniversary. The monastery is dedicated to St. Joseph and, like St. Joseph, the contemplative nuns are consecrated to the mission of the church. There are two other convents of contemplative religious women in the archdiocese. The Poor Clares follow the rule of St. Francis and St. Clare in their monastery in Lemont, and the contemplative branch of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity makes its home in St. Procopius Parish in Pilsen. The archdiocese is immeasurably blessed by the presence of these communities of consecrated women. Often we ask them to pray for us. During this Advent season, this time of waiting for the Lord, we should remember these contemplative sisters in our prayer. In silence, they daily enter into the mysteries of the Lord’s life, and their example gives us the courage to do the same, especially during Advent.

May St. Joseph guard them, as he protected Mary and Jesus; and may St. Joseph teach us how to grow in love for his wife and her divine son in the depths of our hearts until, in death, we meet Jesus, Mary and Joseph and come to live with them forever in the Father’s house. Have a Blessed Advent!