Devotion to Saint Joseph - The Course of Its Development, by Father Matthew Russell

As the life of Saint Joseph was a hidden life upon earth, so devotion to Saint Joseph, deep and ardent though it always has been, was hidden in the Church for centuries. The veneration and affection has indeed been displayed more openly in these later ages, but it was reserved for Pius IX. Pius, the priest of the Sacred Heart, and the preacher of Mary's privileges - to bring Saint Joseph still more prominently before the faithful, thus reuniting, as it were, in the eyes of the faithful, the Sacred Trinity upon earth, the Holy Family of the house of Nazareth, Jesus and Mary and Joseph. In the Apostolic Decree which constituted Saint Joseph patron of the Universal Church, it is stated "that the Church has always most highly honoured and praised the most Blessed Joseph, next to his Spouse the Virgin Mother of God, and has besought his intercession in time of trouble."

The development of doctrine and devotion in the Church, however, was necessarily very slow. For centuries the whole attention of the Church was directed to maintaining the true doctrines about the Incarnation. This was the fundamental truth of Christianity, and this was the most frequently and violently attacked. The God -Man, given by His own love and the charity of the Father to the Church, was the precious treasure upon which, during the early years of her existence, all her attention was lavished. All the marvellous mysteries wound round that central mystery of the Incarnation had to be explained; and all the attacks, open and insidious, that sought to detract from the truth of that mystery, and the honour of God, had to be repelled. By degrees, when those controversies on the Incarnation had subsided, and the Church had a breathing-time, without ever forgetting her Spouse the Son, she directed her attention to the Mother; and by degrees, thinking them over first in her own deep mind, she put before her children truth after truth, and dogma after dogma, about the Mother, her royal dignity, her Divine Maternity, her rich prerogatives, until, in our own age, she reached the primary truth of all, that the Mother had never known sin, and the reality of her position was recognised - a Virgin and sinless. "And thus," as a holy priest has written, "the adoration of Jesus and the devotion to Mary took their places immovably in the sense of the faithful, and in the practical system of the Church; one shedding light upon the other, and both instructing, illuminating, nourishing and sanctifying the people."

The claims of the All-Holy Son and His Virginal Mother being satisfied, the Church was able to turn her attention to the guardian of both, the father of the household at Nazareth. We have said that the Church is a type of Mary, and there can be no doubt that Mary is a teacher of the Church. When, therefore, the truth of her Son's Incarnation was placed beyond doubt, and any honour paid to Saint Joseph could not prejudice the Divine Origin of her Child, the Church of God learned from her teacher's lips the dignity and the holiness of Joseph, and gathered from her heart deep feelings of love and gratitude to him. Mary's Divine Maternity protected and confirmed the truth of our Divine Lord's origin; but, by a wise decree, the Church did not publicly preach the dignity of Saint Joseph until the truth of the Incarnation was put beyond the cavils of heretics, lest the presence of Saint Joseph might prejudice the exclusive right of the Eternal Father to the paternity of the Son. Devotion to an earthly father, even though he were only foster-father, might have given the enemies of Jesus Christ a pretence for denying His eternal generation from the Father; we must not, therefore, be surprised to find that public devotion to Saint Joseph was not established in the Church as early as devotion to the Blessed Virgin, because the honour of our Divine Lord is to be maintained, whoever should suffer; and whereas Mary's Divine Motherhood was the surest protection of the honour of the Son, devotion to Saint Joseph would have been seized upon by captious heretics as a proof that the Church was regardless of that first truth of the Incarnation, that Christ had no earthly father - as Saint Athanasius declares - "Born of the Father before all ages, born of a Mother in time."

But although the Church's devotion to Saint Joseph was not explicitly declared until the thirteenth century, there can be no doubt that his claims to the reverence of the faithful were fully acknowledged even in the earliest ages. It is to the East that common opinion traces the origin of devotion to Saint Joseph. Before Saint Athanasius, in the fourth century sent missionaries into Abyssinia to instruct the Copts in the rites of the Church of Alexandria, the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt was commemorated in Abyssinia, and a special festival was kept in honour of Saint Joseph. So, too, amongst the Christians of Syria, so ancient is the devotion that there is no record of its introduction amongst them. There can be no doubt, too, that in the Greek Church the devotion is of great antiquity, as may be gathered from their hymns, and the custom that everywhere prevailed in Greece of calling children by the name of Joseph.

The history of the introduction of devotion to Saint Joseph into the West is instructive. Father Faber, indeed, is of opinion that the devotion sprang up in the West - itself in the South of France. "It rose," he says, "from a confraternity in the white city of Avignon, and was cradled by the swift Rhone, that river of martyr-memories that runs by Lyons and Aries, and flows into the same sea that laves the shores of Palestine. The land which the contemplative Magdalen had consecrated by her hermit life, and whence the songs of Martha's school of virgins had been heard praising God, and where Lazarus had worn a mitre instead of a grave-cloth: it was there that he, who was so marvellously Mary and Martha combined, first received the glory of his devotion."

There can be no doubt now, however, that the great majority of ecclesiastical writers trace the devotion to the East, and attribute its introduction into Europe to the Carmelite Order, who came to the Western Church under the pontificate of Honorius III, in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Half a century had not gone by when devotion to the earthly guardian of our Divine Lord had spread through the universal Western Church. A century later, the greatest doctors of the Church exerted all their learning and eloquence to propagate this devotion to Saint Joseph. Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Saint Thomas, composed an office in his honour; before his time, another Dominican, Brother Bartholomew of Trent, had written his biography. In 1416, whilst the Council of Constance was sitting, and the legates of the Holy See, twenty cardinals, two hundred bishops, and all the doctors and theologians of the Church, were earnestly debating the best means to stem the torrent of corruption that was devastating the Church, Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, appeared before the Fathers, and suggested devotion to Saint Joseph as the most effectual remedy for the evil; because, he argued, Saint Joseph was the guardian of Christ, and he whom Christ obeyed on earth still retains an authority of affection over Christ in heaven; and thus his wishes, like the wishes of Mary, are commands, and his intercession is all-powerful. His words were received as the words of one who had a mission from Heaven; and, in truth, according as devotion to Saint Joseph spread in the Church, the troubles of the Church, one by one, disappeared. In less than a year, perfect peace was restored; the distractions of schism and dissension ceased, and under the mild patronage of Saint Joseph, the ever-suffering Church had its history of persecution broken by a momentary peace, which she seldom, and only at rare intervals, enjoys.

Time went on, and now it was not a passing schism, but the most fearful heresy that desolated the Church; it was not a spark of hell-fire, but an eruption; but devotion to Saint Joseph lived and was fostered in the Church by the greatest of his devoted clients, Saint Teresa; and when many of the nations of Europe rejected Christ by rejecting His Church, the Child and His Foster-father passed away into heathen lands; and as at the passing of the Child in his father's arms into Egypt, the idols trembled and fell, so heathenism disappeared where the gospel of Jesus was preached by His priests, and whole kingdoms were evangelised and won over to God. "The contemplative," says Father Faber, " took up the devotion, and fed upon it; the active laid hold of it, and nursed the sick, and fed the hungry in its name. The working people fastened upon it, for both the Saint and the devotion were of them. The young were drawn to it, and it made them pure; the aged rested on it, for it made them peaceful. Saint Sulpice took it up, and it became the spirit of the secular clergy; and when the great Society of Jesus had taken refuge in the Sacred Heart, and the Fathers of the Sacred Heart were keeping their lamp burning, ready for the resurrection of the Society, devotion to Saint Joseph was their stay and consolation. . . So it gathered into itself orders and congregations, and high and low, young and old, ecclesiastical and lay, schools and confraternities, hospitals, orphanages, and penitentiaries, everywhere holding up Jesus, everywhere hand in hand with Mary, everywhere the refreshing shadow of the Eternal Father. Then, when it had filled Europe with its odour, it went over the Atlantic, plunged into the damp umbrage of the backwoods, embraced all Canada, became a mighty missionary power, and tens of thousands of savages filled the forests and the rolling prairies at sundown with hymns to Saint Joseph, the praises of the Foster - father of our Lord."

Such is a brief outline of the history of this wonderful devotion. And such is the way that God has chosen to recompense the Protector of Jesus and Mary. The hidden life of Nazareth is changed for the glory of Heaven, and the worship of God's Church upon earth. The meek and lowly Joseph is Patron of the Universal Church. So deep was his humility upon earth, that he seems to us to have been no more than the unconscious agent of the miracles of Heaven, and he little knew that for the fulfilment of the high functions God had entrusted to him his soul had been fitted with transcendent virtues; and that in after ages learned doctors of the Church would study eagerly his life and his character, knowing well that in both they would discover traces of the spiritual omnipotent work of the Holy Spirit. He must have been completely unconscious of his sanctity during life, and now we have saints far advanced in spiritual life sitting at his feet to learn sanctity, for they know that he, who on earth and in heaven is nearest to Christ, is likest unto Christ, and that to be like unto Joseph is also to be like unto Jesus. Who was more humble, more hidden, than the carpenter of Nazareth? Yet, behold, the great wisdom of the Church does not separate him in glory from those with whom he was associated in misery, but throughout the Church devotion to Saint Joseph is spreading, laying hold of all hearts, and subduing them; not the hearts only of the young, or the poor and the lowly, whose life is like to his, but even saints, as I have said, are happy to bring themselves under his sweet influence; and mighty schemes for the sanctification of souls are placed under his protection, and difficult problems are submitted to him for solution, and grave doctors have often appealed to the Foster-father of Jesus for guidance and assistance. Among many other edifying traits of character, it is recorded of a great theologian of our time, that oftentimes, when burdened with anxious care, he has been seen to lay his head on the feet of Saint Joseph, as if appealing to the Protector of our Divine Lord for light and strength to guard the mystic body of Christ as Joseph guarded Jesus from His enemies on earth.

When the holy and amiable Pius IX was Pope, there was a great artist in Rome who received an order to paint a picture commemorative of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The scene of the picture was partly laid in heaven, and, skillful as he was, the artist had great difficulty in grouping round the Heavenly Throne the many choirs of saints and angels. When the outline of the painting had been made, he took it to the Vatican for the Pope's approbation. Throwing a quick glance over the sketch, the Holy Father detected an omission. "And Saint Joseph - where is he?" "I will put him there," said the artist, pointing to a group lost in clouds of light and glory. "Not so," said the Holy Father, "but" - laying his finger by the side of our Divine Lord - "you will put him there, for that is his place in heaven."