by Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
Living the Truth in Love
Presentation at the Virtual Saint Joseph Summit
Let Us Dream as St. Joseph
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, this past year, Pope Francis proclaimed a Year of St. Joseph which will conclude on December 8, 2021. The Pope issued an Apostolic Letter, Patris corde (With a Father’s Heart), on the occasion in order to reflect upon the unique role of St. Joseph in the life of the Church as a model for all of us.
Pope Francis reminds us in his letter that St. Joseph was a man with whom we can all identify, since he is “so close to our own human experience.” He likens St. Joseph to so many “people often overlooked,” especially during the pandemic, but who have assisted so many others during this time. Pope Francis reflects, “St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
Pope Francis has a great personal devotion to St. Joseph and has referred to him and spoken about him on many occasions during his papacy. It was Pope Francis who added the name of Joseph as the Spouse of Mary to all of the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass. One of the few things which he requested be sent to Rome from his residence in Buenos Aires after his election as Pope was an unusual statue of St. Joseph in a sleeping position. The statue is carved out of wood, about one foot and four inches long, portraying St. Joseph as dressed in gold trim dark green and red vestments which is typical of Hispanic American iconography. In his talk to the families of the Philippines during his January 2015 visit, Pope Francis attested, “I would also like to tell you something very personal. I have a great love for Saint Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength. On my table, I have an image of Saint Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! Yes! We know that he can do that. So when I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath Saint Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words, I tell him, ‘Pray for this problem!’”
St. Joseph, as a dreamer, is very significant as he is presented to us in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Here, we read how the angel of God appears to St. Joseph in dreams to make known God’s revelation in regard to His will for him. Matthew tells us of how St. Joseph was told, in a dream, not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, since the child conceived in her was through the power of the Holy Spirit. This child would be Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. We hear in St. Matthew’s Gospel that it was also in a dream that the angel warns Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to avoid the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. It is also in two additional dreams that the angel advises him as to his eventual safe arrival to Nazareth with Mary and Jesus where the Lord is raised. It was in dreams of sleep that St. Joseph came to know the will of God and carry out a special mission as the foster father of God’s own Son for which he was chosen. This is especially endearing to Pope Francis who often speaks of the “dreams of God,” and recently published a book of personal reflections, Let us Dream.
The Gospel of St. Mark does not refer at all to St. Joseph. The only possible reference is Mark 6:3, where Jesus is referred to as a carpenter. Some manuscripts of the New Testament have a variant text for this passage which reads “son of a carpenter.” The Gospel of St. John only twice refers to Joseph. In these passages Jesus is referred to as “the son of Joseph ” (Jn 1:45, 6:42).
We are most familiar with St. Joseph from the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Both of these Gospels present genealogies of Jesus that trace His birth back to Joseph (Mt 1:2 – 16; Lk 3:23 – 38). Their aim is to demonstrate that Jesus was descended from the Davidic line and to affirm that Joseph was the legal father of Jesus. While St. Matthew tells us of the dreams of St. Joseph, St. Luke tells us of Joseph’s role at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Lk 2:1 – 15), the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:22 – 39), and the finding of Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:41 – 51). All in all, the Gospels present Joseph as a strong but silent man whose integrity of character and faith are extraordinary. It is believed that Joseph died shortly after Jesus reached the age of twelve and nothing is heard about him in the Scriptures again.
It is important to realize the significance of St. Joseph in regard to the sanctity of the family. It is especially critical today to understand the true nature of marriage as a gift from God when family life faces so many challenges and threats in our culture. St. Joseph reminds us of the sanctity of marriage and family life, not only for Jesus, Mary and himself, but for all of us. At one of his addresses to the Roman Rota, Pope Francis specifically referred to marriage and the family as “the dream of God.” The Pope explained how, from the beginning, God created man and woman in His image and likeness in order that they might give themselves to each other for mutual support in life as well as for participating with God in giving the gift of life to children. The Pope described “God’s dream” in marriage as “indissoluble, unitive and procreative” which is not an ideal, but a fundamental vocation for most men and women.
It is well to reflect upon the family as the direct image of the life of God in the Trinity. The love of Joseph and Mary for each other and for their Divine Son was a reflection of the loving life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So much were Joseph and Mary involved in the life of the Trinity that Christ, the Son of God, was the union between them as He is between the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murílo (1617 – 1682), has given us a wonderful image of this union in a painting entitled, The Two Trinities. In this almost mystical work, the Father and the Holy Spirit hover above Mary and Joseph with the Christ child common to both Trinities. It is not an exaggeration to say that St. Joseph completes the mirror of the image of the triune God in the Trinity of the Holy Family.
Perhaps what is not so obvious is that St. Joseph has an important association with the Eucharist. St. Joseph points to the Eucharist in his usual quiet but powerful way. We can almost say that the Eucharist was the ultimate dream of St. Joseph.
As a laborer, St. Joseph literally provided bread for the table of Jesus and Mary. He gave bread to the One who is the Bread of Life. As Jesus spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life (cf Jn 6:1-71), and of the gift that He would give of Himself in the Eucharist, He must have thought back to the bread which St. Joseph provided as the sustenance of His life. With loving memories, Jesus must have recalled His foster father and the sacrifices he made to provide Him food when He was a growing young man. With the same sacrificial love that Jesus experienced from His earthly father, He would give Himself to us as our food in the Bread of Life. How fitting that it is, in the Johannine discourse on the Bread of Life, that Jesus is referred to as “the Son of Joseph” (Jn 6:42). In this context, St. Joseph can truly be said to lead us to the Eucharist.
The Solemnity of St. Joseph, on March 19, associates Joseph with bread. It is customary to bless bread on this day in honor of St. Joseph as a sign of devotion to him. This custom came about as a result of a drought in Sicily one year during the fifteenth century. The people of Sicily prayed to their patron, St. Joseph, for rain, and when it came, they prepared a feast in his honor. The celebration became known as “St. Joseph’s Table” with St. Joseph bread being the centerpiece of the table. The bread and the table carry a Eucharistic significance which is quite obvious.
As the patron of workers, St. Joseph has a special significance at Mass when the bread to be consecrated is offered up for the sacrifice. The priest prays, “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer, fruit of the earth and work of human hands. It will become for us the Bread of Life.” No one more fittingly epitomizes these words than St. Joseph who provided bread for the Bread of Life Himself.
St. Joseph’s Eucharistic significance is also emphasized in his role as the husband of Mary. This role is a spousal one. Joseph gave himself to Mary as her husband and he is a model of spousal fidelity. Before their marriage and before Joseph knew that Mary had conceived Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, he would do nothing to hurt Mary and would only stay faithfully by her side. Joseph was totally loyal as a spouse to Mary. The relationship of Christ to the Church is a spousal one. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Like St. Joseph gave himself to Mary, Christ gives Himself to the Church in complete love and surrender. This surrender of spousal fidelity is fully realized in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In this context, St. Joseph can be said to lead us to the Eucharist.
On more than one occasion, both St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have referred to the Eucharistic significance of St. Joseph. When St. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Poland in June of 1997, he referred to the fact that it was his custom to pray to St. Joseph before celebrating Mass. The reason he expressed was that he was to hold in his hands the Body and Blood of Christ which St. Joseph held in his hands in such a loving and caring manner. In May of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the Eucharistic significance of St. Joseph in his Angelus message. Here, he referred to St. Joseph as the one whom God placed at the side of Mary, “the Woman of the Eucharist.” With such a significant role next to “the Woman of the Eucharist” Pope Benedict invoked St. Joseph, his own patron, to bring Christ’s love to all humanity through the celebration of the Eucharist.
St. Joseph does indeed hold a prominent place in the life of the Church and in the lives of each and every one of us. By his own life, he has much to speak of the sublime mystery of His Son, especially through God’s gift to us of marriage, the family, and the Eucharist. Pope Francis has given us a great gift in this Year of St. Joseph, reminding us that we must also dare to dream as God and St. Joseph in a world that does not hold marriage, the family, and the Eucharist in the same manner as God has dreamt.
Pope Francis concludes his Apostolic Letter with the following prayer, so fitting during this special year. I will conclude this reflection with it:
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 the grace of mercy and courage and defend us from every evil. Amen.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach