The article of the month
Saint Joseph the Worker by Father Toby Lees, o.p.
One of my TV guilty pleasures is the singing talent show The Voice. It’s one of the better formats of such shows. There are no dud acts invited solely for ridicule’s sake, and, refreshingly, there is little concern with image, with the first-round auditions “blind”, and the judges’ backs to the contestants.
However, it does still suffer from one of my talent show bugbears: performers, asked what they do for a living, having that tendency to reply, “I’m just a ….” And, normally, their profession is something mundane, and the sort that doesn’t usually attract recognition. They might get clapped by the audience for being a carer or a cleaner, but nobody questions their desire for the spotlight and the big time.
There’s something in all this that makes me think of Saint Joseph the Worker. In his December letter, Patris Corde, announcing the beginning of this year of Saint Joseph, Pope Francis calls him “a Father in the shadows”, borrowing a rather beautiful image from Polish writer Jan Dobraczyński. Most of the life of Saint Joseph goes unseen, with the gaze of human history elsewhere. It will be the same for most of us. Is it enough for him, for us?
There can be a tendency when writing about Saint Joseph to be uncomfortable with this, to read between the lines of the little we hear of him, and the absence of any recorded words. Perhaps it’s a projection of our own discontent? But we know he was a just man (Mt 1:19), and we know that he did just what God asked. And that is enough. It did, after all, lead him to become the saviour of the Saviour!
So, Saint Joseph is not the heavenly Father, whose voice bursts forth with fanfare from the heavens at the baptism of the Son, and he is not even the biological father of Jesus. Saint Joseph is the carpenter, whose carpentry goes without remark. He’s the foster father of Jesus, and the spouse of Mary, always defined by relation to another, and no sooner do we hear of him, than he passes back into the shadows. There’s a flickering moment in the spotlight, but it turns out his work was all about protecting, nourishing, and giving shelter to the Word until the Word began to speak. What he was doing in the shadows was just what was needed.
Speaking of Saint Joseph, the Pope observes: “Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person.”
It seems to me that this is the work that Saint Joseph is modelling for Catholic men in our age: the work of becoming fathers to the children who have none. So many children in our society, knowing no meaningful love from an earthly father, cannot conceive of the heavenly Father’s love. They feel the need for it, but they have no human analogy by which they can understand it. This is work that might take place in the shadows with little fanfare, but like Saint Joseph who was “just a father”, “just a carpenter”, there can be few greater works than making known the Word in the life of a child, the Word which leads to “Our Father who art in heaven”.
Father Toby Lees, o.p., is a Dominican priest and a chaplain to both a university and a hospital in London. In a former life he was a city lawyer and avid rugby player.