Can anyone imagine what was going through the mind of St. Joseph as he discovered the responsibilities he had? Coming to realize that his wife was pregnant with the Son of God, he would be responsible for safeguarding, supporting, and caring for the Son of the Most High and the Mother of God.
It is a remarkable thing to consider the life and work of St. Joseph. So many of us down through the centuries have implored Our Blessed Mother for help and comfort, pleaded with Our Lord to be with us in dark times, or thanked him for our blessings. St. Joseph was at the side of Mary and Jesus, caring for them, laughing with them, looking lovingly into their eyes. He is the patron saint of a happy death, as tradition holds that Mary and Jesus were at his side as he died. Who can imagine a happier death than that?
While St. Joseph may not have been the biological father of Jesus, Scripture constantly refers to him as the father of Jesus (see Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43; Matthew 13:55). We often refer to him as Jesus’ stepfather, or foster father. But none of these adequately capture the reality of the relationship he had with Our Blessed Lord. He is the father of Jesus, and his life as he lovingly fulfilled the responsibilities of that role is an incredible example to all fathers — and, in a special way, to stepfathers today.
On Aug. 15, 1889, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Quamquam Pluries (On Devotion to St. Joseph). In the document the Holy Father calls St. Joseph the patron of the Catholic Church, and implores everyone to pray for his intercession.
Joseph was the spouse of Mary and […] he was reputed the Father of Jesus Christ. From these sources have sprung his dignity, his holiness, his glory. (Quamquam Pluries, 3)
Devotion to Mary had grown over the centuries, but the Holy Father wanted to emphasize in a new way the unique role of St. Joseph in the life of Our Lord, the life of the Church, and the life of every Christian.
As Joseph has been united to the Blessed Virgin by the ties of marriage, it may not be doubted that he approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses so nobly all created natures. … Thus in giving Joseph the Blessed Virgin as spouse, God appointed him to be not only her life’s companion, the witness of her maidenhood, the protector of her honor, but also, by virtue of the conjugal tie, a participator in her sublime dignity. And Joseph shines above all mankind by the most august dignity, since by divine will, he was the guardian of the Son of God and reputed as his father among men. (Quamquam Pluries, 3)
This shows that St. Joseph is worthy of veneration and a wonderful example to follow. Leo XIII continues by exploring in more detail the question that concerns us here: As a husband and father, how can St. Joseph be an exemplar and a role model to men today?
One point that needs to be clear to us is that St. Joseph was as much the father of Jesus as a biological father would have been. This is recognized scripturally, as noted earlier, and his contemporaries saw this as well.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the recorded genealogies of Jesus go through Joseph, even though Joseph had no biological relation to Jesus, as the evangelists of course knew and emphasized in their telling of the virgin birth. They affirm that Joseph is truly Jesus’ father through his marriage to Mary. Joseph treated Jesus as one of his own. Joseph followed the precepts of the law and had Jesus circumcised, conferred a name on him, and presented him in the temple — because he is one of his own. In Luke 2:48, Mary says to Jesus, “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Even Our Blessed Mother does not mince words when talking about Joseph’s fatherhood of Jesus.
Our Lord was respectful of Joseph as a father, too. Pope Leo XIII says Jesus was humbly subject to Joseph, obeyed him, and “rendered to him all those offices that children are bound to render to their parents” (Quamquam Pluries, 3). Joseph’s responsibilities as head of the Holy Family were great:
From this two-fold dignity flowed the obligation which nature lays upon the head of families, so that Joseph became the guardian, the administrator, and the legal defender of the divine house whose chief he was. And during the whole course of his life he fulfilled those charges and those duties. (Quamquam Pluries, 3)
St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers, and the work that fathers do has a special and unique import.[Joseph] set himself to protect with a mighty love and a daily solicitude his spouse and the Divine Infant; regularly by his work he earned what was necessary for the one and the other for nourishment and clothing; he guarded from death the Child threatened by a monarch’s jealousy, and found for him a refuge; in the miseries of the journey and in the bitternesses of exile he was ever the companion, the assistance, and the upholder of the Virgin and of Jesus. (Quamquam Pluries, 3)
Joseph is the ultimate personification of the love, vigilance, and unfailing steadfastness of a father and the fidelity, peace, and love of a spouse. Joseph’s fatherhood is a reflection of God the Father.
On the centenary of Quamquam Pluries, Aug. 15, 1989, St. John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation called Redemptoris Custos (On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church). The document (its Latin title means “the guardian of the redeemer”) deals extensively with the life and work of Joseph. In particular, St. John Paul II speaks of how Joseph can be a guide as a man, a husband, a father, and as the special patron of the Church.
St. Joseph was called by God to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood. … His fatherhood is expressed concretely “in his having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation, and to the redemptive mission connected with it; in having used the legal authority which was his over the Holy Family in order to make a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart, and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house.
There is another prominent Christian figure who can be a stellar role model when it comes to fatherhood, and in particular stepfatherhood: C.S. Lewis. In 1950, Lewis began a correspondence by letter with Joy Davidman, an American divorcee who then moved to England with her sons in 1953 to live near Lewis.
By this point, her younger son, Douglas, had already read the Narnia stories and fallen in love with them. He looked up to Lewis as a sort of mythic figure, but after they met, Douglas would say that he never knew “C.S. Lewis,” the famous man of letters — he simply knew “Jack,” the man he would come to love dearly as his father.
Lewis and Davidman married in 1956, at which point Davidman was already sick and dying from cancer. Lewis knew that he would end up as the sole caregiver for Douglas and his older brother, David, and he dove headlong into this responsibility. He had adopted the boys when he and Davidman married, and when she died in 1960, he lovingly continued to care for the boys as his own.
There is a particularly interesting parallel between St. Joseph and Lewis, in that they both helped their children follow the precepts of Jewish law. Lewis’ stepson David had converted to the Orthodox Judaism of his maternal ancestors while living with Lewis, who made an effort to accommodate David’s wishes by finding kosher food for him — a difficult task in mid-20th century Oxford, England.
For Lewis, these boys were not merely his wife’s children, they were his own. He loved them. He provided for them. He nurtured and cared for their souls, which he certainly saw as important above all else.
Lewis is a wonderful example of what Fr. John Hardon, SJ, wrote that we should learn from St. Joseph.
Fr. Hardon said that true fatherhood begins with a lifetime commitment of the husband to his wife; it builds on the selfless love of the husband for his wife; it depends on the generous love of the husband for the offspring of his wife; it means that the husband cooperates with his wife in the spiritual upbringing of the children; and it is not only or even mainly about generating a human body in this world, but rather mainly about collaborating with the mother in developing the human soul for everlasting life in eternity.
It is not an easy thing to be a father, let alone a stepfather. Thank God for the role models of St. Joseph and C.S. Lewis. St. Joseph, pray for us!