My mother raised my sisters and brothers and me in the Catholic faith. While my dad supported her “nonnegotiable” decision, he wasn’t baptized until just before my seventeenth birthday. That was an extremely moving day for all of us, especially my mother. She had never forced my dad to believe, but she did provide him with an outstanding example of what it means to be a person of faith and service.
Because of the way my mother lived her faith, going to church was a natural and normal part of our lives and never merely a duty or an obligation. Life in the parish was simply an extension of our life at home. Dad would often complain that Mom spent more time at church than at home, that she took better care of the priests than she did of her family.
Yet he was always teasing. He was proud of the woman he had married. Dad, too, would later become involved in service to the Church. I can still remember the first time he stood next to me to help distribute Holy Communion. And how proud and overwhelmed I was when he called to tell me that he and my mother would be taking Communion to the housebound and the dying. This wasn’t too long after he buried his youngest child, my sister, who died at age thirty-six.
My mother met my father at a wedding reception. She had been saying a novena to Joseph to help her find a spouse, and when she first laid eyes on my father, she knew at once that he was the man God intended for her. And she was right; my parents have been married for fifty-four years. Even now my mother will gladly tell you that it was Joseph who brought the two of them together.
This amazing man has always been my mother’s favorite saint. He was her patron when she was growing up: her guardian, provider, teacher, and father. Saint Joseph quite literally raised her in the faith. As a child, she would go to Mass with only Joseph accompanying her. Through his prodding, she told her parents that she wanted to be confirmed and attend Catholic high school.
Joseph instilled within my mother the courage to explain how important her faith was to her and to confidently express it.
It is little surprise that when our family moved to Orange County, we settled in at Joseph parish. All five of us children attended the grade school; went regularly to Mass, confession, and adoration; and enjoyed what was arguably our second home. Mom would speak openly to Joseph, just as if he was physically with us in the house. She was so at ease with the friendship they shared that I never thought such behavior strange.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that many Catholics don’t live the communion of saints the way my mother does and the way she taught us to. Through my mother’s relationship with Joseph, I learned that the great fellowship of Christ’s companions that now share life with him are present to us in the mystical body of Christ.
They can challenge, encourage, comfort, and care for us to the extent that we let them. These holy men and women of God are real friends to us; their presence in our lives is a great gift of God to which we do well to make recourse. They are alive in Christ, and they share his desire to gather the whole world to him.
A Beloved Father
I’ve long wanted to write a book about Joseph for my mother. When I first began sharing with people this hope, many of them asked how such a project could be possible. Over and over again I was told, “But he never says a word,” and, “We know so little about him.” While it’s true that the Scriptures record no spoken words of Joseph, all four Gospel authors make reference to him, and Luke and Matthew speak of him directly.
On two key occasions, Matthew goes so far as to tell us what Joseph is thinking and feeling: He “considered” whether to send his pregnant betrothed away quietly (Matthew 1:20), and “he was afraid to go” back to Judea, a fear that an angel confirmed in a dream as justifiable (Matthew 2:22). Joseph is an icon of our faith precisely because there are no recorded words of his. I believe that words would be a distraction. His love of Our Lady, care for Jesus, obedience, faith, purity, simplicity, courage, and hope speak loudly from the home he built in Nazareth.
Joseph is the headmaster of that home school. And I believe that we know a great deal about Joseph—more than if he had penned a Gospel of his own—from the person he raised, a man we know a great deal about. The descriptions of Joseph’s life and character that follow, while rooted in the Scripture passages that mention him, are chiefly inspired by Jesus’s teachings. For some thirty years Jesus lived, prayed, celebrated, studied, and shared in the home Joseph established. The years in Nazareth were a real foundation upon which Jesus would build his saving ministry. Joseph is best known through Jesus’s words and deeds.
Joseph was the man who risked everything to care for Mary and her son, safeguarding them from harm and cherishing them with the purest love. His life is thus a catechism writ large, a flesh-and-blood testimony of what it means to live according to God's will, with one’s mind and heart centered on Christ.
And in him we also see a man with a wholesome Marian spirituality. There are three critical moments of Joseph’s life recorded in Scripture: the time of his betrothal to Mary, the moment he learns she is with child, and the revelation in Joseph’s dream about her condition. Each offers a glimpse of the natural virtues of this laborer and upstanding Jewish man, the carpenter who will build something beautiful for the God of his forefathers.
These moments teach us about the transition from the old Law to the new and its resulting hope. They also indicate the shift that must occur in our own lives when God asks us to do the unimagined.
Historically speaking, Joseph is the father of the new covenant of God’s love and thus possesses an insight into the work of God that complements that of Mary. We can say then that Joseph doesn’t merely raise Jesus according to God's plan: Joseph raises every Christian. He is rightly called the patron of the Universal Church because the attentive care he exercised on behalf of Mary and Jesus he continues to lavish upon us.
He loves the precious bride whom Jesus will one day present to God. He longs to help us live and express our faith, just as he helped my mother. I encourage you to look at St. Joseph, to gaze upon this man who lived in such close proximity to our Lord. You will find a window that opens to the divine in vibrant ways. As my mother knew, St. Joseph has much to teach us.