Poor St. Joseph. If religious art is any indication, his role in the Holy Family was almost useless. Most of the time he is shown as an old man, sitting in the shadows, trailing behind Jesus and Mary, sleeping on the flight into Egypt. Not exactly an inspiring example of leadership.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, however, has no doubts about Joseph’s role. “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety,” she says to the child Jesus in the Temple. (Lk 3:48) “Your father.” She, who knew more than anyone else about our Lord’s heavenly Father, does not qualify Joseph’s fatherhood at all.
Joseph was not our Lord’s pretend or “make believe” father. By way of his marriage to the Blessed Virgin, Jewish law afforded him true paternal responsibility and authority over her child. To be sure, Christ’s divine nature comes from God the Father alone and His human nature from Mary alone. Yet God entrusted to Joseph the headship of the Holy Family. For that reason Mary gives Joseph the title “father” of Christ. He, who was neither the eternal nor the biological father of our Lord, nevertheless demonstrates true fatherhood.
To understand the importance of St. Joseph’s example, we must take seriously the crisis of fatherhood today. Our culture has little use for fathers, except perhaps as the butt of jokes on sitcoms and commercials. (Can you name one respected father in popular culture?) In fact, there exists a deep hatred for fatherhood, as demonstrated by irresponsible men who abandon their families, and radical feminists who proclaim that fathers are unnecessary. We see the father’s legitimate headship betrayed by both extremes: on one hand, a father abuses his authority by using it for his own desires; on the other hand, a father neglects his authority and leaves his family without a leader.
Therefore, we look to St. Joseph, the “foster-father” of our Lord, for the example of a true father. His paradoxical situation calls attention to the truth about fatherhood. First, because he stood as father to a boy who was his son only in the legal sense, he was keenly aware — as every father should be — that he served as the representative of God the Father. Second, because he was the least of the three members of the Holy Family in personal dignity, he exercised his authority with the greatest humility — as every father should.
St. Joseph understood that he, a mere man conceived and born in sin, had been entrusted with the headship of the Holy Family. He was to rule over the Incarnate Word and the Immaculate Conception. He neither neglected this authority, nor used it for selfish gain. Rather, he exercised his headship in perfect humility, in the service of his family. Joseph protected and provided for Jesus and Mary. He named Jesus, taught him how to pray, how to work — how to be a man. This “foster-father” reveals that fatherhood is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children.
Several years ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that, “the crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity.” To recover the true teaching on fatherhood — this most important element of humanity — let us take St. Joseph as our unfailing example on earth and our powerful intercessor in heaven.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with kind permission.