Fr Leonard Dollentas
In a new Apostolic Letter entitled Patris corde (“With a Father’s Heart”), Pope Francis recalls the 150th anniversary of the declaration of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. To highlight this occasion, the Holy Father has proclaimed a “Year of Saint Joseph” from December 8, 2020 and extending to the same feast in 2021.
In his letter, the Holy Father reflectively describes Saint Joseph as a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father; a father who is creatively courageous, a working father, a father in the shadows. At a time when a global pandemic has forced millions to live hidden, away, isolated and alone we can see Joseph as indeed a father in the shadows. A model of the hidden life, someone who understands our struggles with the pandemic.
St Joseph is described with only a few lines in the Gospels. In the genealogy of Jesus, we are told that he belonged to King David’s line. The gospel tells us also that he was engaged to Mary, a young woman from Nazareth, who was found quite unexpectedly to be pregnant. Facing his dilemma, the scriptures tell us that Joseph was a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. He planned to dissolve the engagement quietly. Indeed, even before Jesus was born, Joseph had already shown his tender compassion and forgiving heart.
The adolescent and young adult life of Jesus is often called his hidden life. Much of this hidden life was time spent by Jesus learning from his foster father, and Joseph caring for his foster son and teaching him carpentry. In Joseph’s workshop in Nazareth, Jesus would have learned about the raw materials of his craft, the art and trade of carpentry. Joseph would also have passed on to Jesus the values required to become a good carpenter – the need for patience, for waiting until the wood is dry and ready to be fashioned according to customers’ needs, persistence at finishing a project and honesty for charging people a fair price. Hence, we can imagine that Jesus learned patience, prudence, persistence and honesty from his adoptive father which would serve him well in his later ministry.
As Jesus matures and starts his ministry, Joseph disappears from the gospel narratives. We may recall, for example, that Joseph was not mentioned among the guests at the wedding feast at Cana, which marked the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Did he die before Jesus had reached adulthood?
In Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’ The Death of Joseph,Jesus is shown present at the deathbed of Joseph. Joseph is dressed in a long golden robe. It is a very human scene with Mary at the side of Joseph and Jesus tenderly touching the hands of Joseph as if to lead him into paradise. The painting stunningly captures the sadness that must have surrounded the early death of Joseph. Although Macau has been spared from COVID-related deaths, I believe we can feel a similar sadness that surrounds the deaths of so many from the coronavirus.
Joseph is traditionally invoked as the patron of a happy death. But, the death of Joseph could not have been a happy death for Jesus or Mary, though the gospels tell us nothing about their mourning; there are no lines about Mary’s grief, no verses about Jesus’s sadness. The Holy Family therefore, is like many families today who grieve the loss of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and children. Understandably, during this pandemic, much of their grief too must be done in isolation and does not in any headlines. The hiddenness of Joseph’s life can also speak to those overwhelmed by the pandemic, those who wonder if God is with them as they were confronted with the horrific danger and overwhelming grief they have courageously faced.
Joseph has led a life that remains almost totally unknown to us. But, his life, filled with countless, hidden, unseen, unrecorded acts of love was of immeasurable value. His hidden life is intimately shared today by millions of people making their way through the pandemic. The health care workers on the front lines whose sacrifices are hidden even from their families. The single parent who is alone and intensely worried about his or her children. Those with aging parents living in a nursing home terrified about the spread of the dreaded virus. Those working people who have no way of working from home: the police, the public transit workers, the maintenance persons, those foreign domestic workers, barely earning and worrying much about their family at home. Priests who have celebrated countless funerals for those who died from COVID and their families, worried that they were not able to comfort them as they would hope to. The COVID patient dying alone weeping in frustration and anguish wondering what is happening. So many hidden lives. So many unseen acts of love in this pandemic. So many secret prayers raised to heaven. St Joseph, our patron in the shadows understands them all. St Joseph patron of the hidden life, patron in this pandemic, pray for us this new year 2021 and forever.