In many ways he is the unsung hero of the Christmas story. We focus each year on the Virgin Mary and the Lord, and St. Joseph, although present in our nativity scenes, can easily be overlooked. Yet his role and his faith are central to the way in which God chose to be part of a human family. This ordinary man, a carpenter and craftsman, finds himself in the middle of God’s plan of salvation. It is impossible for us to truly grasp or appreciate fully how overwhelming and shocking this must have been for him. It is the importance of his role and the example of his faith that has inspired Pope Francis to declare the year of St. Joseph. What a gift this is to the Church and to the ministry of encouraging vocations to the priesthood.
We live in a time when there is a serious crisis of fatherhood. In so many areas of our culture, the role of a father or the impression of fatherhood is very troubling. In a variety of shows or sitcoms, the father is hardly the kind of person that someone would want to imitate or admire. Very often he is almost like an older adolescent, buffoonish at best or irresponsible and selfish at worst. This is a sad commentary on how our society and culture view fathers and the importance that a father plays in the life and health of his family. Perhaps more than any time before, young people are growing up without a father or a positive example of what it means to be a father. On a purely sociological level we see the devastating effects of this. The overwhelming majority of incarcerated young men have grown up without a father and according to W. Bradford Wilcox a sociologist at the University of Virginia, a young woman who has a father present and involved in her life is seven times less likely to have a teenage pregnancy than those who don’t. In no way is this meant to denigrate the heroic work done by so many single mothers, who make enormous sacrifices for their children, but rather to show how serious it is when a father abdicates his responsibility.
The connection to priesthood should be clear. A priest, among his many important roles and responsibilities, is essentially a father first. It is why we have this title for our people. It is not an honorific like calling someone “doctor” but rather one of relationship. In our time when we see a crisis of natural fatherhood it seems that it is even more important for us to exercise the gift of our supernatural fatherhood. I remember a few years ago I was attending an event and a priest brought some of his parishioners. I glanced at the registration forms and when the line asked about “father’s name” they put the name of the priest. These young men either had no father present or one who was absentee and they saw their parish priest as their father. I was struck by what a profound sign of the fatherhood of the priest this was.
In a number of ways St. Joseph is the model for us as spiritual fathers. It makes sense that the seminary here in the archdiocese is named in honor of him. St. Joseph is a chaste spouse, a man who was mature and responsible. He was a man of prayer and was docile to the promptings of the Spirit. Above all, he was a great family man. He was fiercely devoted to Mary and was a protective father of the young Jesus who was not his own in the order of nature. So too a priest must be strongly devoted to Mary and protective of the Lord present in the Eucharist. In this year of St. Joseph, we ask his intercession for all of us who currently minister as priests and those discerning. May the Lord grant us a heart like that of the foster father of Jesus.