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Work, faith, fatherhood: Reflection on St. Joseph

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Reflection on the various attributes of St Joseph, the patriarch of the holy family, should begin with a prayer and hymn. The hymn I have chosen is “black spiritual” and a jazz standard that evolved about 1900, titled: “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

The first two stanzas are reproduced here: “Oh, when the saints go marching in/Oh, when the saints go marching in/Oh Lord I want to be in that number/When the saints go marching in./Oh, when the drums begin to bang/Oh, when the drums begin to bang/Oh Lord I want to be in that number/When the saints go marching in.” And the prayer that follows is “Good Works by William Langland [?] (1330-c.1400): “God give us grace as we go hence,/Such works to work while we are here./That after our death Do-well may say,/At the day of doom, we did as he taught.”

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This is a celebration of the work, faith and fatherhood of St. Joseph, the legal father of Christ, in other words, the Patriarch of the Holy Family. The centrality of this saintly figure in Christendom gained attention for quite a long time before the formal establishment of the memorial of St. Joseph, the Worker by Pope Pius XII in 1955. A number of “divine indicators” in this regard have been catalogued by Fr. Donald Calloway of the Marian Fathers of Immaculate Conception (MIC). In 1868, Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste, OP, wrote Blessed Pope Pius IX asking him to declare St. Joseph the “Patron of the Universal Church.”

In 1879, there was Apparition at Knock, Ireland where St. Joseph appeared with the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Apostle, and Jesus (appearing as the Lamb of God). In 1909, St. Pope Pius X officially approves the Litany of St. Joseph. In 1917, there were Apparitions at Fatima, Portugal. In one of the appearances on October 13, St. Joseph appeared with the Child Jesus while blessing the world. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV inserted the phrase “Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse” into the Divine Praises. And last year, Pope Francis decreed a Year of St. Joseph for the Catholic Church (December 8, 2020 – December 8, 2021). He has also written Patris Corde, an apostolic letter on St. Joseph which reads in part, “Joseph had the courage to become the legal father of Jesus, to whom he gave the name revealed by the angel: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21). As we know, for ancient peoples, to give a name to a person or to a thing, as Adam did in the account in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:19-20), was to establish a relationship.” Therefore, it is in consonance with the decree of the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis.

Beyond the “spiritual indicators”, there are objective societal conditions that underline the place of St. Joseph in our mortal lives. One is the global assault on marriage and family institutions. Today, the marriage institution has been reduced to live-in-partners without fidelity while same-sex marriages flourish. Traditional marriages have themselves become mere veneers of what they call in wrestling parlance “hell in a cell’. As Fr. Calloway has rightly noted: “First, we need the spiritual fatherhood of St. Joseph to help us protect marriage and the family. Marriage and the family have always been under attack, but in modern times, the threats have reached extraordinary heights. Many people no longer know what it means to be a man or a woman, let alone what constitutes a marriage and a family. Many countries even claim to have redefined marriage and the family. There is great confusion on these matters, greater confusion than in any previous era of human history. The Servant of God Sr. Lucia dos Santos, the longest-lived visionary of the Fatima apparitions, knew the seriousness of the times and made a powerful statement about this issue. She wrote: The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”

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A second factor is the ideological assaults on Christianity by capital in its neoliberal reincarnation where we are forced to worship Marmon, in Milton Friedman’s words, the “electronic herds” in ways that reduce us to what Karl Marx called “callous cash payment”. In our environment, this reality has spawned what we call “yahoo, yahoo and yahoo-plus and other sundry manifestation of the get-rich-quick dispositions. In the ideological war against the word of God, as Fr Jacques Philippe has rightly noted, all paternity or authority is autocratically implicated, caricatured and displaced for matriarchal valour. The paternity is in crisis in the family, politics and the Church. This translates into a “crisis of masculinity, which is inevitable, really, given that true virility, in the end, can’t be accomplished without a certain form of paternity.” Again, Calloway’s articulation is appropriate here: “… the entire world needs to be re-evangelized, including the vast majority of baptized Christians. Saint Joseph was the first missionary. Today, he desires again to bring Jesus to the nations. Many nations and cultures that were previously Christian have fallen away from their Christian roots and are on a path of self-destruction. Countries once established on Judeo-Christian principles have become overrun by ideologies and organizations that seek to strip society of all that is sacred. Without a major turnaround, civilization itself is going to self-destruct.”

Let us now to turn to the virtues and values of the life of St. Joseph “who though only a village carpenter, served God in an extraordinary way.” St. Joseph possessed simple but substantial values, namely, workmanship, faith and fatherhood. These accentuated his pride of place in the Holy Family. P. Savchenko averred that “Labour is man’s purposeful activity through which he adapts natural objects and uses them to satisfy his needs. In any labour process, man expends his physical, nervous and mental energy. Labour results in the emergence of useful products.” It is further stressed that labour is a key element in the advancement of human civilisation and the signature character of “social humanism and optimism”. It is through labour, which involves both mental and physical exertions that man produces his material wealth. Joseph was a worker, a carpenter whose identity Jesus shared and was accordingly referenced: Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? (Matt.13:54-58). Fr. Christian Ehimen Usifoh added a spiritual aspect thus: “Work is not only to be taken materially, but also spiritually. Prayer is work. Bearing patiently sickness is work. Work is above all a gift from God. It is God, in fact, who calls us to work. It is God who placed in our nature the need and thus the right and duty to work. It is God who has brought us to understand the meaning, purpose and the conditions of our work. Even more, it is God who in the first pages of the Scripture has presented himself as the first model and exemplary cause of our work.” He noted that “God himself worked, suffered and died for our salvation. God thus elevated work as a means of our salvation.”

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On the question of faith, St. Joseph was exemplary. Deacon Steve Greco in an interview with Catholic World Report summed up this attribute of St. Joseph. In his words: “He was a compassionate man. Imagine how hard it was for him to see his betrothed come back from seeing her cousin Elizabeth, but with a child he knew wasn’t his. Some men at that time would have had their wives stoned in such a situation, but Joseph instead planned to quietly divorce her. Joseph was also open to the Holy Spirit, the promptings of God. When God revealed to him in a dream that Mary had not sinned, but that the child was of the Holy Spirit, he accepted what God told him and brought Mary into his home. He did not have to accept that dream; he had to discern that it was from God. Joseph was a man of great faith, of great patience, and one who loved his family. Imagine the stress on him when it was time for Mary to give birth. He must have been frantic, but in the end, was able to secure the perfect place. I’m sure a stable in Bethlehem was not the script he would have been written, but when he saw this was the direction God pointed him, he went with it.” This is also supported by Tracy Rowland who in her “Chivalry of St. Joseph” adverted to the prudence and bravery of St. Joseph in the protection of pregnant Virgin Mary’s dignity and his heed of God’s instruction to protect mother and child from the machinations of the powers-that-be. According to Stratford Caldecott, “In St. Joseph, justice is combined with tenderness, strength and decisiveness with flexibility and openness to the will of God,”
To be continued tomorrow.

Professor Akhaine delivered this paper delivered in Honour of St Joseph, Father of Christ at the Instance of the Catholic Men Organisation, Agbara Parish, Agbara, Ogun State, June 20, 2021.

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