Saint Joseph

“Saint Joseph was a just man, a tireless worker, the upright guardian of those entrusted to his care. May he always guard, protect and enlighten families.” – Saint Pope John Paul II

There is something quite intriguing about a saint we know so little about – yet often (as with Saint Jude) – it is possible to reflect on these saints further, helping us to understand them better. With that in mind, let’s find out what we can about Saint Joseph…

First, let’s look at the sources. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their accounts of Jesus years after he had died and rose again. Mark was the first to write around 60AD and then the others followed. Luke and Matthew had copies of Mark’s Gospel to utilise, and they also shared another source – which was a collection of sayings of Jesus – long since lost. Mark never mentions Joseph, but Joseph does appear in Luke and Matthew. Additionally, many of the facts of Jesus’s life were provided by those present at the time of his life but, over time, these were embellished or added to. Memory is never perfect. Finally, it is important to remember that the authors of the four Gospels were not writing a historical biography – such things were relatively rare in this period and often ‘historians’ of the period included fictional bits*. The Evangelists are therefore not writing about what Jesus had for dinner, or what he did on Tuesday Kalendis Maiis (Roman for 1st May!) – they are writing about what will matter for the followers of Jesus. Unfortunately, this lack of biographical detail applies to Joseph too. 

Our information about Saint Joseph is fleeting at best and we have to piece things together and reflect on what we know. This, of course, makes him even more intriguing. I have always been fascinated by Saint Joseph, as a boy I was lucky to attend Saint Joseph’s Primary School – and then speeding through time – we ended up naming our son, Joseph – so we are big fans here in the Betts household. The Carmelites are big fans too. Why? Let’s investigate Saint Joseph further…

There is no information about Joseph as a boy or as a young man. The first we read about him is as an adult – that he has Davidic lineage (descended from King David), he is a carpenter and is a righteous man. The evangelists tell us that he is the spouse of Mary, from whom Jesus was born, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph accepts this fact with faith after receiving the message from an angel in his dreams: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” the angel said. “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” He accompanies Mary to Bethlehem, names the baby Jesus, goes to the temple with Jesus and Mary, and then is told to flee to Egypt: all assisted by God. Eventually, the family return together to Nazareth in Galilee. All these dreams are like the occurrences of his namesake in the Old Testament – our Joseph is thus a connector to the Old and New through his heritage and his name, but also through these little reminders. 

The last time we hear about Joseph is when Jesus is twelve. He accompanies a large group of their relatives and friends to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. On the day of their return, Jesus “lingers” staying in the Temple – Joseph and Mary don’t realise straight away and are not able to return to Jerusalem until three days later. They find Jesus is fine and in discussion with the elders “listening to them and asking them questions”. Mary and Joseph are surprised about his advanced learning, considering his young age, but ask him why he disobeyed them by staying. Jesus answers: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”. In these small moments, we are given an indication of what is to come. We don’t read about Saint Joseph again, which suggests that he dies before the public ministry of Jesus begins.

As the quote from Saint Pope John Paul II above indicates, Saint Joseph throughout these fleeting appearances is a just man, a tireless worker, an upright guardian for Jesus. All mentions of Joseph are about him protecting and saving Jesus and Mary – making sure that Jesus can save us. Joseph is thus our friend and guardian, protecting and enlightening our families and making sure the future is safe…

Perhaps Saint Joseph should also be the patron saint of faith?

Devotion to Saint Joseph began almost immediately with the early Christians. In the East, the Greeks celebrated Joseph three times in a year, whilst in the West, Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bridget were all big advocates of the power of prayer to Saint Joseph.  Sixtus IV was the first Pope to officially recognise the feast of Saint Joseph in 1474. By 1955, the memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker was added to the calendar by Pius XII and celebrated each year on 1 May – so Joseph becomes a rare but special saint with two feast days. On 8 December 1870, Pius XI declared Saint Joseph patron of the Universal Church; Leo XIII invoked him as a model for family fathers and workers. 

Every Lent, we suspend the penitential season on the 19 March to celebrate the Solemnity Feast of Saint Joseph, the Husband of the Virgin Mary and, for the Carmelites, the Principal Protector of the Carmelite Order. Why is he important to the Order? 

First, the Carmelite charism is so deeply rooted in the Gospels where Joseph has an important part to play – Carmel was also founded on a mountain in the land of Joseph and Jesus. 

Secondly, as the Carmelites spread across the world, their dedication to Saint Joseph grew, for example Saint Teresa of Jesus became a huge advocate for him. In her Book of her Life, Teresa explains when she was younger, she suffered from a serious illness; so severe that her grave was already being dug. In this painful time, she took Saint Joseph as her advocate and earnestly commended herself to him. Later, Teresa could not recall any occasion when Saint Joseph had failed to grant what she had petitioned. The saint suggested that “anyone who cannot find a master to teach [them] prayer, they should take this glorious saint for [their] master, and [they] will not go astray”. Teresa wanted everyone to be devoted to Joseph because of her own impressive experience of the good she obtained from God. 

In 1680 the general chapter of the Carmelites unanimously chose Joseph as the principal protector. Ever since, the Carmelites have prayed to Saint Joseph as protector. 

Dedication to Saint Joseph continues and develops in so many ways too. Recently, Fr. Ged told me about a dedication of Pope Francis to ‘Sleeping Joseph’. The Pope has a statue of ‘Sleeping Joseph’ in his study and whenever he has a prayer intention that needs God’s intervention, he writes it on a note and puts it under the statue so he can dream about it. 

Let us all pray to Saint Joseph, a man who protected Jesus and Mary (he could have easily decided not to!) and ask him to intercede for all our needs. Saint Joseph, pray for us.

* The Ancient Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus would add fictional speeches to their ‘histories’, but this method carried on throughout biographies in the ancient world.

Matthew Betts

Weekly Reflections

Steps on the Journey - weekly Reflections from Carmel
Scroll to Top