Questions People Ask about Saint Joseph, by Father Francis L. Filas, S.J.

1. What is meant by the devotion to Saint Joseph?

The devotion to Saint Joseph means that we give Saint Joseph special honor and recognition, first because of his dignity, and second because of his outstanding holiness. The Saint obtained this dignity because of his relationship to Jesus and to Mary.

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2. How can we show our devotion to Saint Joseph?

We show our devotion to Saint Joseph by asking his intercession in our needs, by showing sincere trust in his fatherly protection, by loving him as our friend, and most of all by imitating his love of Jesus and Mary.

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3. When did the devotion to Saint Joseph arise in the Church?

The devotion to Saint Joseph as such did not become prominent until the fourteenth century.

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4. Why was Saint Joseph obscure for so long in the devotional life of the Church?

Saint Joseph’s position was not emphasized in the Church:

a) mainly because of the danger that his position might be misunderstood, and he would be thought to be the natural father of Jesus;

b) because early heresies attacked the doctrines of the Blessed Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. Little attention could be given to Saint Joseph until the Church’s dogmas were clearly stated and thoroughly defended with regard to Mary as Mother of God, and Jesus as our divine Savior;

c) because in the early Church the pressure from frequent persecution tended to emphasize the veneration of martyr saints. Thus, Saint Joseph was overlooked in favor of local martyrs.

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5. Did the Church ever refuse to honor Saint Joseph?

No, the Church never denied Saint Joseph the position which the Gospels describe. The Church for a while did not bring forward his exceptional dignity and holiness, but it never denied them.

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6. How and when was March 19 first chosen to be Saint Joseph’s day?

The first independent known commemoration of Saint Joseph stems from an unknown church in northern France or Belgium in the 700’s. The date assigned was March 20. The theory is that the March 20 date was changed to that of March 19 by a historical accident. The Benedictine monastery at Reichenau in Germany commemorated Saint Joseph’s memory on March 19. This was done between the years 800 and 840. A Reichenau martyrology (or calendar of martyr saints) changed an African martyr’s name to “Josephus” when it was listed on March 19. The copyist seems to have made an accidental mistaking, thinking that the “Joserus” in question should have been spelled “Josephus”! As a result, the changing of the name evidently was thought to refer to our Saint.

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7. What can we know about Saint Joseph’s birth?

The evidence suggests that Saint Joseph was born at Bethlehem in about 25 B.C. To explain: We know from history – after making allowances for the error in our “A.D.” calendar – that Jesus was born in about 6 B.C. We also know that according to the Jewish customs of the time, Joseph must have been about eighteen years old when he and Mary were espoused, so that he was almost twenty years old when Jesus was born. Hence, we can calculate the probable year of his birth. As for his birthplace, we recall that when the census of the Christmas story was proclaimed, Joseph had to return to Bethlehem with Mary to register there. He also wished to settle down in Bethlehem after the return from Egypt. The best explanation for these actions is that he must have been born at Bethlehem.

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8. What can we know of Saint Joseph’s death?

We have no direct evidence to tell us where or when he died, but again the evidence suggests that his death occurred at Nazareth before he was over fifty. We are certain that he was dead at the time of the Crucifixion because Jesus on Calvary gave Mary into John’s care. Moreover, during the Public Life our Blessed Lady is mentioned several times together with her relatives and no one else. The constant silence about Mary’s husband can only mean that his life came to an end some time before the Public Life of Jesus began, when Jesus would have been about thirty, and Joseph hardly fifty.

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9. How did the legends of Joseph’s great age originate?

Pious tales which expanded on the Gospel story sought to make it doubly sure that no one would think Saint Joseph the natural father of Jesus. They did this by attributing so hoary an age to him (eighty-nine and even more!) that he would have been too old to generate a son. The legends also denied he was the husband of Mary, because they supposed that the existence of the marriage contract was not compatible with our Lady’s virginity.

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10. How do we know that Saint Joseph could not have been so old?

We have several reasons.

a) It was against the customs of the time for men to remain unmarried until advanced age.

b) An “old” Joseph could not have carried out the exacting requirements of his vocation as head of the Holy Family. Even the task of protecting Mary and Jesus on long, wearisome journeys would have been out of the question.

c) God wanted Joseph to appear temporarily in the public eye as the natural father of Jesus. Joseph could not have safeguarded the reputation of Jesus and Mary if he had been of an age when physical generation was no longer likely.

d) Evidence from the Dead Sea scrolls and from rabbinical data implies that the normal marriageable age occurred in the middle teens for the male.

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11. How did the legends originate which claimed Saint Joseph was a widower when he took Mary in his charge?

These were pious but misguided fabrications which tried to guarantee the truth of the Gospels for the popular mind. The Gospels occasionally refer to the “brethren” of Jesus. (The “brethren” were actually our Lord’s blood relatives through Mary His mother.) The legends, however, attributed them to Saint Joseph as children from a former marriage. In this way, they thought, people would not suppose that the “brethren” were children of Mary and Joseph and blood brothers of Jesus. The legends’ purpose was good, but their fables were useless!

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12. Were Joseph and Mary true husband and wife?

Yes, they were united in a genuine marriage. They belonged to each other as husband and wife, but they did not make use of their marriage rights because of the special vocation God had planned for them. God inspired them to make theirs a virginal union. The validity of a marriage does not require that the marriage rights be used. The marriage contract, the spiritual oneness, is what is essential.

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13. When were Joseph and our Lady actually married?

The actual marriage occurred at the time of the espousal. The period of espousal lasted about a year, and was much more binding than the engagement of our own day. During it the spouses did not live together, but they already belonged to each other and were given the title of husband and wife. At the end of the year the wedding ceremony occurred, solemnizing the espousal. The Gospels tell us that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb at the time our Lady was already the espoused wife of Saint Joseph. Jesus was born of Mary some time after Joseph had “taken unto himself” our Blessed Lady – in other words, Jesus was born some time after the wedding ceremony had occurred.

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14. When Saint Joseph learned of our Lady’s miraculous conception of Jesus without knowing its cause, did he actually doubt Mary’s purity and loyalty?

Saint Matthew’s Gospel merely tells us that Joseph was “minded to put her away privately.” If Joseph had been convinced Mary had been unfaithful, he could not have kept her as his espoused wife without condoning adultery. The fact that he intended to put her away privately is proof enough that he was in an uncertain and painful situation. He could not keep her, so he reasoned, because he could not explain how she became pregnant. At the same time, in conscience – “being a just man” – he could not denounce her publicly because his conviction of her innocence and of her wonderful goodness would not let him believe she was guilty of sin. His perplexity shows the depths of his faith in the goodness of Mary. An unknown ancient writer expressed this thought in these words: “Joseph believed that it was more possible for a woman to conceive without a man than for Mary to be able to sin.”

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15. Was Saint Joseph a carpenter?

The Greek word in the Gospels which we translate as “carpenter” actually means craftsman. However, since Joseph worked with wood, the title of carpenter is correct. However, this must be understood in a very wide sense as one who builds houses as well as doing wood-working. Hence, Saint Joseph must have worked as a stone mason as well.

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16. How can we best describe the fatherly relationship that existed between Joseph and Jesus?

It is easier to say what Joseph is not as a father rather than what he is. His fatherhood is absolutely unique. Probably the clearest way to describe it is to say that he is father of Jesus in every respect save physical generation. With the one exception that he did not generate Jesus, Joseph’s relationship is that of a natural father toward his natural son. In other other words, the spiritual bond of true parenthood exists between Joseph and Jesus.

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17. What is the reason why God the Father did not want God the Son to have a natural human father when He took on our human nature?

Here we are speaking weak language, trying to overcome the limitations of our created intellects. But even with such limitations we can discern the fittingness of God’s plan for the Incarnation. Because Jesus had no natural human father, it is easier for us to believe in the divinity of Jesus.

The ultimate reason lies in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, whereby the generation of God the Son by God the Father was not shared with a human father even in an analogous sense.

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18. Then it is correct to call Saint Joseph only the adoptive father of Jesus?

No. The strict meaning of “adoptive father” does not apply to Saint Joseph. It is true that certain similarities exist between Joseph’s fatherhood of Jesus and that of an ordinary human adoptive father toward his adopted son. In the case of Saint Joseph as well as in the case of the adoptive father, neither parent has generated the child in question. Both Saint Joseph and the adoptive father accept their son as their own.

But here the similarities stop. The outstanding difference between Saint Joseph and an adoptive father is this: An adopted son is a stranger or alien to the marriage of his adopted parents, or to one of them; he is not the fruit of that particular marriage. In the case of our Lord, however, Jesus did not come from outside the marriage of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. The very purpose of the virginal union, as ordained by God, was that it should receive Jesus miraculously within it. God bestowed Jesus on the marriage as its miraculous fruit. God gave Jesus not only to Mary, but also to Joseph through Mary and because of Mary who was Joseph’s wife. In doing this God followed His own law, that all children should be conceived and born within the bonds of marriage.

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19. What is meant when we call Saint Joseph “putative father” of Jesus?

“Putative father” does not tell us precisely what Saint Joseph’s fatherhood is; it merely means that the neighbors of Jesus thought (Latin, putare) that Joseph was Jesus’ natural father, which Joseph was not.

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20. Can Saint Joseph rightly be called the “legal father” of Jesus?

This term is correct if it is taken to mean that in the eyes of Jewish law Joseph was the natural father of Jesus. In such a sense it is identical with “putative father.” But it also means that Joseph possessed the rights of a father, and that Jesus was the heir to Joseph’s property.

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21. What is to be said of the title “foster father”?

“Foster father of Jesus” is undoubtedly the most popular title given Saint Joseph. It is correct for what it says, because it refers to the ties of parenthood that arise not because of a blood relationship but because of the foster father’s rearing and loving of the child as his own.

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22. What is the meaning of “virginal father”?

This is a relatively recent title, and is contained in a prayer to Saint Joseph indulgenced by the Church. It can mean that Saint Joseph, by his virginal marriage with our Lady, obtained his position as father of Jesus through and because of the marriage; and also that he, Saint Joseph, was the father of Jesus insofar as he, a virginal man, could be such. Thus it is another way of saying that Joseph is father of Jesus in every respect except physical generation.

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23. What are we to believe concerning Saint Joseph’s holiness?

It is commonly taught in the Church that with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph surpasses all human beings in holiness, and most likely all the angels as well.

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24. What reasons do Catholic theologians give to prove the outstanding holiness of Saint Joseph?

a) Josephus dignity with respect to Jesus, Always excepting our Lady, no human being or angel was ever lifted to an office equal to that of Saint Joseph. Joseph’s vocation brought him into most intimate contact with Jesus. He was to protect our Lord’s reputation, to provide Him with the necessities of life, to guard and rear Him to the full stature of His manhood, to keep the secret of the Incarnation intact, to keep in his charge the very Author of all salvation, and most of all to love Jesus as his son.

b) Joseph’s dignity because of Mary. God would have failed to provide sufficiently for Mary if He had not prepared Saint Joseph to be the worthy husband of the Blessed Virgin.

c) Joseph’s closeness to the Source of all grace, and to the Mediatrix of all grace. No other creature was ever given such intimacy as to be the chosen companion and protector of Mary and Jesus, the two who loved Joseph as husband and as father. Because Jesus was the perfect son, He would love His father and would desire to obtain for him every benefit, especially for his soul. Because Mary was the perfect wife, she would love her husband in the same way.

d) The force of example. We have a proverb, “Words exercise influence, but example draws one in its wake.” Only Joseph was privileged to live for so long a time in the daily company of Jesus and Mary. No one else has ever been so blessed with so superlative an example.

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25. What is the Church’s most explicit teaching on the dignity and the holiness of Saint Joseph?

This is found in Quamquam Pluries, the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII: “Joseph was the husband of Mary and the father, as was thought, of Jesus Christ. From this arise all his dignity, grace, holiness, and glory. The dignity of the Mother of God is certainly so sublime that nothing can surpass it; but nonetheless, since the bond of marriage existed between Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, there can be no doubt that more than any other person he approached that super-eminent dignity by which the Mother of God is raised far above all created natures.”

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26. Do not certain words of our Lord indicate that John the Baptist is greater in dignity and in holiness than Saint Joseph?

The words of Jesus (quoted in Matthew 11:11) are the following: “Amen, amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Luke (in 7:28) gives the substance of these words in slightly different form: “There is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” We must remember that Christ is using a strong comparison which bears witness to the holiness of John the Baptist and at the same time points out the dignity of the New Law. Our Lord’s words about the “least in the kingdom of heaven” refer to the nobility of living amid the rich graces of the New Testament. In itself this is a greater gift than being the greatest prophet of the Old Law. Moreover, Jesus evidently understood that proper exceptions would be made to His words. Otherwise, He would have been saying that John the Baptist was holier than Mary and even Himself, since Mary and Jesus also were “born of women.” Legitimately, Saint Joseph should be the third exception, for his closeness to Jesus and Mary far surpasses that of anyone else.

Yet even this reply is not accepted by all modern scholars, on the basis that the words of Jesus do not refer to any theoretical listing of levels of holiness and dignity, so that no conclusion can be justly drawn about the relative holiness of Saint Joseph and John the Baptist. In this interpretation, the text is to be read in the context of the argument among the disciples of John the Baptist. “The lesser in the Kingdom of Heaven” would in this interpretation be Jesus Himself.

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27. Was Saint Joseph conceived without original sin?

No. The privilege of the Immaculate Conception was reserved to Mary alone. With the one exception of our Lady, when human beings are conceived, they come into existence lacking the sanctifying grace which they should possess – in other words, being in “original sin.” This rule is so universal that no one has the right to invoke an exception to it without the strongest reason to do so. In the case of our Lady, the Church’s teaching is that her privilege was “singular.” Catholic theologians agree that there is no evidence the privilege was shared with any other human.

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28. When was Saint Joseph purified of original sin?

This is the difficult question whether or not Saint Joseph was purified of original sin in the womb of his mother, before he was born. Holy Scripture and the official tradition of the Church are silent on the point. Hence, many theologians think we do not have sufficient grounds to form a final judgment. Other theologians suggest reasons which they believe quite strongly imply that the Saint was freed of original sin in a very special manner. It is proper, they argue, that the man whom God chose to be the virgin husband of Mary and the virgin father of Jesus should have been sanctified by a special privilege of God in a more excellent way than any other human. Such a privilege is commonly attributed to John the Baptist, as having occurred when Mary visited John’s mother Elizabeth. By a much stronger right, it would seem, this privilege was granted Saint Joseph, and he was freed from original sin even before birth.

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29. What do Catholic theologians hold concerning Saint Joseph’s sinlessness?

Because of the Saint’s vocation, they say, and because of his intimacy with Mary and Jesus, it is certain (as a minimum) that Saint Joseph never sinned grievously, nor did he commit habitual deliberate venial sin. The logic is simple: Joseph’s dignity required corresponding holiness. God in His providence gave the Saint special graces to make him fit for so unique a calling, and Joseph obeyed these inspirations in an equally special way. In fact, his vocation was so sublime that he must also have been free (so it would seem) from semi-deliberate venial sin and even from all inordinate indeliberate tendencies. Otherwise he would have been unfit for his responsibility, either when he was prepared for it as a youth or when he carried it out as an adult.

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30. Was Saint Joseph’s body gloriously assumed into heaven?

An impressive number of Catholic theologians – men like Saint Bernardine of Siena, Suarez, Saint Francis de Sales, and Cardinal Lepicier – present the assumption of Saint Joseph as at least probable, even as a sufficiently authoritative tradition. Good reason exists for holding that according to the text from Saint Matthew’s Gospel (27:52) certain souls were united to their bodies when Christ rose from the dead, and these were later taken into heaven with Jesus at the time of the Ascension. Josephus intimacy with the sacred body of our Lord as well as his spiritual likeness to Mary are the most cogent reasons to think he was granted this privilege.

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31. What was the content of the petitions for Saint Joseph’s advance in the liturgy?

Ever since 1815, petitions have been sent to the Holy See from thousands of bishops, priests, and lay people, asking that Saint Joseph’s name be invoked in four prayers of the Mass, namely, in the Confession (Confiteor), the “Receive, O Holy Trinity” (Suscipe Sancta Trinitas), the “Sharing and Venerating the Memory” (Communicantes), and the “Deliver Us, We Beseech Thee” (Libera Nos Quaesumus). The ultimate object of these petitions was granted by Pope John XXIII when on 13 November 1962, he announced to the first session of the Second Vatican Council that the name of Saint Joseph was to be included in the Communicantes prayer of the Canon of the Mass, directly after the name of Mary.

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32. What is Saint Joseph’s patronage?

Like every patron saint, the Saint of Nazareth receives from God a quasi-right to protect his clients. In the case of Saint Joseph, his patronage is the logical extension of his duties on earth. Pope Pius IX in 1870 proclaimed him Patron of the Universal Church. As Pope Leo later pointed out, Joseph’s protection of the Church carries on his earlier protection of the beginnings of the Church in the Holy House at Nazareth. Saint Joseph is also patron of the Church’s campaign against atheistic communism, having received this title from Pope Pius XI in 1937. Finally, because the Saint’s guardianship is the outgrowth of his protection of Jesus and Mary, his patronage logically embraces all who can participate in the fruits of the Redemption – everyone, everywhere – and so Saint Joseph can rightly be called the universal patron of the Universal Church. We should never forget that John XXIII declared Saint Joseph heavenly protector of the Second Vatican Council on 19 March 1961.

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About This EBook

The text of this ebook is taken from the booklet Questions People Ask About Saint Joseph, by Father Francis Lad Filas, S.J. The edition used was printed by Divine Word Publications of Techny, Illinois. It has the Imprimi potest of Father Daniel H. Conway, S.J., Praep. Prov. Missourianae; the Nihil obstat of Father Frederic C. Eckhoff, Censor Librorum; and the Imprimatur of Cardinal Joseph ELmer Ritter, Archdiocese of Saint Louis, Missouri, 30 November 1953.

The cover image is a detail of a stained glass window of Saint Joseph, date and artist unknown, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Olomouc, Czech Republic. It was photographed on 9 September 2006 by Michal Ma┼łas, and the image swiped from Wikimedia Commons.