Last week we explored some ideas around what kind of relationship St. Joseph would have had with his wife, the Blessed Virgin Mary. We took as our point of departure the idea that, as God invented marriage and family in the first place, it is reasonable to assume that their marriage, and their family life, would have been closer to God’s ideal plan for both, as opposed to being something unnatural just because the child in the family was the Son of God and his mother was the Immaculate Conception. This assumption that God’s grace “perfects” our natural humanity aligns with our core Catholic understanding of salvation itself.
This week we look at the next verses in the prayer, which is equally powerful:
With a father’s care you watched over Jesus, our Savior.
This observation that St. Joseph was Jesus’ earthly father, not just a guardian of sorts, is the main organizing theme of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), announcing this year as dedicated to St. Joseph. The letter is a deep and profound reflection on the many dimensions of St. Joseph’s fatherhood. We cannot hope to do the Pope’s meditation justice in such a short article, however, there are a few of his points that we will consider this week and next, in hopes of enticing readers to read the Apostolic Letter on their own.
Joseph was a tender and loving father (PC 2). When I was growing up, the stereotype of the father was that of the good man, who worked all day, made the money, and protected the family, but was otherwise somewhat aloof and unapproachable. I must admit, probably because he was much bigger and therefore much scarier than my mom, I tended to allow this stereotype to set my expectations and color my perceptions about my dad. But as I grew older, I realized that my father’s love was just as tender, only different. While acknowledging the complexities of the roles that parents play in the family, the Pope points out that a father’s love is different from a mother’s, because God intended it to be so. It is primarily the father’s job to introduce his children to life and to the real world (PC 7). It is the father’s job to be the primary disciplinarian; to teach his children what obedience looks like: obedience to their mother, obedience to him, and most of all obedience to God (PC 3). My brothers and sisters and I learned very early that the fastest way to get on dad’s bad list was to be disrespectful of mom.
Joseph was an accepting father (PC 4). Part of being the primary teacher about the real world means that on of the father’s jobs is to teach his children how to deal with failure and troubles. The Holy Father points out the many cases, in the few verses of text that we have about St. Joseph, where he had to deal with sudden unwelcome changes of plan. Mary’s pregnancy. Fleeing to Egypt at night. No room at the Inn. We covered the topic of St. Joseph’s obedience to God’s plan in part 2. But doing the right thing is only half the battle. Equally important is the attitude we adopt when we do obey. Do we accept the new situation and own it, or do we allow our disappointment to fester and begin to harbor anger and resentment in our hearts? Joseph owned his problems with creativity and an active acceptance.
One of strongest memories of my dad happened when I was a teenager. My father had been working at a job requiring lots of driving for many years and it was wearing on him. He was very enamored by a new business opportunity and convinced the manager to hire him. He resigned his job and was due to start the new venture the very next day when the business owner came back from a trip and revoked the agreement. I was in the room when my father received the phone call, and I could tell how deeply it hurt him. But the next day, he went back to his old job and asked for it back. He never mentioned the episode again, nor did he allow it to poison his attitude toward life.
Pope Francis has many more insights, and we will explore a few of them in part 6. But, in the meantime, if you are a father and need a good guide to fatherhood, “Ite ad Joseph—Go to Joseph” (Gen 41:55).