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Finding St. Joseph

Imagine a world where no Christian is named for St. Joseph, where no church or religious organization bears his name. Picture St. Joseph absent from the Mass, the Breviary, the Church’s calendar, and the Litany of the Saints. No shrines, no special devotions, no hymns, no solo images, no popular customs, no festive foods pay homage to St. Joseph.

This world without St. Joseph was Christendom until the 14th century. Up to that point, St. Joseph was almost universally ignored, reduced to a mere spear-carrier in the pageant of Salvation.

He still remains in the background for Byzantine Christians today. Their tradition accords St. Joseph no independent cult or feast day but merely includes him among other holy ancestors of Christ remembered on December 16. In fact, St. Joseph is an ecumenical stumbling block for some Greek Orthodox, who rate him as only a minor figure in the story of Christ’s life.

The long obscurity of this saint, whom we now account one of the greatest, seems incredible, especially to people who can remember when his altar stood on the Epistle side of every Catholic church. With all its twists and turns, St. Joseph’s long march to fame is a fascinating episode in the history of Catholic spirituality — and one relevant to certain contemporary problems in the Church.

An Absent Father?

Scripture provides minimal material for a popular cult of St. Joseph. The gospels mention him by name (the name “Joseph” means “God adds” or “God gathers”) only 15 times: He appears briefly in connection with the early life of Jesus, then simply disappears. The Evangelists record not a single word spoken by St. Joseph. And without a traditional burial place, he didn’t even leave bodily relics.

None of the above would have necessarily pushed St. Joseph into the background. Imaginative histories were concocted for nameless New Testament cameo players later called Saints Longinus, Veronica/Bernike, and Martial.

But the early Church was anxious to defend the Virgin Birth and the perpetual virginity of our Lady. It seemed to many Christians that minimizing St. Joseph magnified Mary. The Church fathers remained studiously incurious about his life. Although they mention him occasionally in passing, there’s not a single listing for St. Joseph in the saints’ index to Migne’s Patrologiae Latina, a 221-volume collection of Church writings up to 1216.

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