Feast Day: March 19
Patron of: Austria, Belgium, Bohemia, Canada, China, Croatia, Korea, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, carpenters, Catholic Church, families, fathers, homeless, pregnant women, workers
Invoked: for family protection, to find work, for a happy death, to sell a home, against doubt, against hesitation, Symbols: Lily, Baby Jesus, Flowering branch, Carpenter’s tools
“I know by experience that the glorious Saint Joseph assists us generally in all necessities. I never asked him for anything which he did not obtain for me.”
Saint Teresa of Avila
A working man descended from royal lineage, Joseph is said to have been chosen by God to protect His greatest treasures, Jesus and Mary. In the few descriptions of him in the Gospels, Joseph never speaks. He displays the depth of his faith by listening and quietly doing what he is told. In the face of possible public scandal he marries Mary when she is pregnant with a child that is not his. When an angel tells him that the child she has conceived is of the Holy Spirit, he accepts it.
When all citizens were required to register on the tax rolls Joseph dutifully takes a very pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem. As the city is severely overcrowded, they cannot find a proper place to sleep and Mary is forced to give birth in a stable. The holy family settles back into Nazareth until an angel warns Joseph in a dream of the impending slaughter of the innocents, and instructs him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Without hesitation Joseph relinquishes his business and home to take his wife and young son on a perilous journey to an unknown land. Following the angel’s order, they stay in Egypt for seven years, with Joseph caring for both the financial and spiritual needs of the holy family.
The final mention of Joseph is in the story of the twelve year old Jesus straying from his family during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is believed that Joseph died well before Jesus began his public life and his patronage for a good death stems from the probability that he was surrounded by Jesus and Mary as he lay on his death bed.
While the gospels concern Joseph only in regard to his relationship to Jesus, other histories of Joseph passed down from the fifth century state that Joseph was a widower who had been married 49 years and had six children before his first wife died. When the priests announced that all unmarried men from the tribe of Juda were to be candidates to marry Mary, Joseph went to Jerusalem with great reluctance. He was elderly and did not think he should be seriously considered. While the other men presented themselves by putting their walking sticks on the altar, Joseph held back and did not participate. To everyone’s amazement the tip of his staff burst into a bloom of flowers, a sign from God that he was to be named the fiancee of Mary. This tale is where the early visual depictions of Joseph as an elderly man with a flowering branch come from. It was also thought that since Joseph had to respect Mary’s virginity throughout their marriage, that in all probability he would have been older.
During the beginnings of the church, only martyrs were recognized as saints. Despite the importance of Joseph in the life of Christ, his cult was only found in the East. It did not arrive in the West until the ninth century when he was honored in church as the Foster Father of Our Lord. The Carmelite order brought his cult to Europe when they were driven out of Jerusalem during the Crusades and the first church dedicated to him was in 1129 in Bologna, Italy.
European Evangelists recognized Joseph’s reputation as the perfect father figure as useful in gaining conversions. Common people forced to put the needs of their family before personal ambition saw Joseph’s life mirror their own. Church mystics and scholars Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and Bridget of Sweden all stressed the importance of Saint Joseph in their religious devotions. While reforming the Carmelite order in Spain, Teresa of Avila chose him to be the patron of her Discalced Carmelite order. She did much to spread his public devotion spread throughout the Spanish Kingdom. During the Middle Ages when drought and famine struck Sicily, residents throughout that island prayed to Saint Joseph for help. At midnight on March 19th rain began pouring and good weather immediately followed. Sicilians have venerated Saint Joseph ever since, by setting up altars, cooking special food and sweets which are given to friends and to the poor. These festivities were adapted by the rest of Italy where Saint Joseph is greatly revered. It is said that Saint Joseph has the power to overturn natural law, because Jesus had to obey his earthly father while he was a boy, that he would still do whatever Saint Joseph asked of him.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the new class of laborers it produced, patronage to Saint Joseph became universal. By the end of the 19th Century he was named patron of the Catholic Church out of gratitude for the care he took of Jesus. Because Joseph had to move on a moment’s notice with the flight into Egypt and was responsible for providing shelter for his family, he is invoked for buying or selling a home. The tradition of burying a Saint Joseph’s statue on the grounds of a home to initiate a quick sale goes back to the 17th Century. When Teresa of Avila was in need of more land to set up her religious houses, she had her nuns bury their Saint Joseph’s medals in the ground. Gradually, these medals evolved into a statue of Saint Joseph that would be buried upside down until the house was sold, then dug up and taken to the new home. Today, even nonCatholics do this as a superstitious rite, buying Saint Joseph’s Home Sale Kits off the internet.
In art, Saint Joseph is always depicted with the infant Jesus. He sometimes has carpenter tools and because of his chastity he carries a lily for purity. The flowering staff became a popular attribute for him because it is also the emblem of shepherd kings who forcefully defended their flock. This staff is also the ancestor of the Bishop’s crook. An additional feast day was declared for Saint Joseph as May 1st. May Day to the rest of the world, the church in its attempt to combat Communism dedicated this day set aside for the working man to the Patron of Workers.
Prayer for Saint Joseph’s Intercession
Remember, O most chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary,
That never was it known that anyone who implored your help
and sought your intercession was left unassisted.
Full of confidence in your power,
I fly unto you and beg your protection.
Despise not, O foster father of the Redeemer,
My humble supplication, (request here)
but in your bounty, hear and answer me.
Excerpted from the book “Saints:Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua.