Our Patron through the Pandemic
How St. Joseph teaches us humility, diligence, meekness, generosity, chastity and kindness in trying times
Because we are not victims of human circumstance, but rather objects of divine clemency, we might consider the seeming coincidence that coronavirus coincided with the Year of St. Joseph. Perhaps the divine invitation is to ponder how we dealt with COVID-19 challenges compared to how the patron of the Church dealt with his challenges. St. Joseph exemplifies many virtues to which we might aspire.
To the extent we appreciate the social norms of Israel in 1 B.C., we’re astonished by the humility of St. Joseph. Men made all significant decisions. But not Joseph. Through Mary’s fiat, she agreed to the plan that the Angel Gabriel set forth for her from God. Joseph was only informed afterward. Men discovering their fiancée was pregnant by someone else were so publicly humiliated they could legally stone the woman to death. But not Joseph.
Innate humility rather than injured pride guided him to seek a quiet divorce. Also, men spoke in public for the family. But not Joseph.( Even while mute, the people asked Zechariah rather than his wife to name John the Baptist.) However, at the finding in the Temple, Mary was the family spokesperson. There is no record of Joseph ‘s words. Mary was exulted by Elizabeth, and later admired by complete strangers proclaiming, “Blessed the womb that bore you and the breast that nursed you.” But who complimented or acclaimed Joseph?
What happens when priests are prideful rather than as humble as St. Joseph? When we’re complimented on a homily, do we puff out our chest or fall to our knees in gratitude? Do we fantasize about becoming the next celebrity priest or do we pray to serve in whatever capacity the diocese has a need? Therefore, we may ask St. Joseph for the grace to be as humble a father of souls as he was a humble father to Christ.
Of course, St. Joseph the worker was also diligent. An easy way to remember to be diligent is to be dutiful, because diligence means fulfilling the duties incumbent upon our office even when those duties are boring, repetitious, difficult or unappreciated. How difficult was carpentry before the invention of power tools? Carpentry was a skill that required great diligence to master. It took even greater diligence to teach your son because it is always easier for the master to just do the work himself.
It is difficult to master a craft, more difficult to teach that craft to one’s son. However, it is most difficult to abandon your craft, your workshop, your tools, your customers and flee like a felon to Egypt! Likely, Joseph was a day worker in Egypt just as immigrants often are today, taking whatever odd jobs were offered. And when he finally returned home, he had to start all over again.
Diligence is doing whatever it takes, such as building a home and business, abandoning both to Herod’s henchmen, and then starting again.
What duties do we owe our parish, our diocese and our presbyterate? Have we a duty to care for the rectory as we would our own home? Have we a duty to honor our parishioners by listening even when it is tiresome? Or a duty to fulfill our promise to pray for others? We learn the diligence required of the priesthood by fulfilling our duties even when duty is boring, repetitious, difficult or unappreciated.
Meekness seems an odd virtue to ascribe to the “Terror of Demons.” After all, what superhero is meek? Is any popular male cultural icon meek? Joseph demonstrates that the power of meekness is the strength of restraint.
A meek person is not controlled by his anger, impatience or resentment. Therefore, he doesn’t waste time and energy overreacting to every offense, disappointment or mistake. A meek person is aware of offenses, disappointments and mistakes, but chooses to be active rather than reactive. Joseph never reacts thoughtlessly to every bother, but rather always acts carefully for everyone’s benefit.
When Joseph felt offended by Mary’s pregnancy, he did not react by stoning her, but rather acted in her best interest by pursuing divorce. When Joseph discovered the Magi’s mistake in informing Herod of Jesus’ birth, he didn’t react by grabbing a hammer from his shop to wreak revenge in an attempt to protect his family. Rather he acted effectively given the constraints of his situation. And if he was disappointed to discover that he would never have biological children of his own, he must not have reacted by begrudging his foster son anything, but rather acted in such a way that he became a model not only for us but for Jesus himself.
Meekness channels our powerful male passion in a way that bullies no one and benefits everyone.
How do priests practice such meekness? How do we exercise authority? Do we make decisions based on what is best for all, or more to please friends? Do we express more gratitude than grumpiness toward the people who pay our salary yet themselves work as volunteers for the parish? Clericalism is the result of a bully who’s been ordained.
Joseph had a man’s natural desire to marry and raise children. That good and holy choice led him to do what all Jewish men at the time needed to do. He earned a good reputation and enough of a good living to assure Mary’s parents that he could provide for her and their children. He asked for and received her hand in marriage. He planned for a feast, perhaps like the one we read about in Cana. Nothing leads us to think Joseph chose celibacy. Joseph did not choose, but he was chosen.
Joseph had every reason not to choose celibacy. Celibacy was virtually unknown among Jewish men. Not marrying and having children would not only have been considered odd, but shameful. Barren couples were considered cursed. Joseph would have been unprepared for celibacy. How can anyone not be totally unprepared for something so totally unexpected?
Tradition holds that Joseph had been widowed, explaining biblical references to Jesus’ siblings. Thus he was well prepared for marriage and family life. Celibacy would not have been a choice simply because it was completely outside his experience, his training, his religion and his culture. He was so unprepared for celibacy that it probably never entered his mind. Joseph did not choose, but he was chosen.
Priests may not be greedy, but we might be calculating. Before we give or commit, we calculate how much time or money we can comfortably afford to donate. Of course, even that is better than hoarding, but it is not the virtue of generosity.
Generosity is saying yes to God even when we know we are wholly unprepared. Generosity is an act of faith in God’s providence, not a statement about our preparation. We know we are unprepared, but we have faith God will provide. A generous person doesn’t calculate his own capacity, but rather counts on God’s capability. God chooses the weak because a man who knows his limitations doesn’t depend upon his own always finite capabilities, but rather always depends only on God’s infinite capacity. A generous man like Joseph knows he is unprepared, but trusts God will provide.
Might we accept a position of leadership for which we were chosen but did not choose? Accept spontaneously the invitation to be dean or member of the priest senate? Or when the annual bishop’s appeal arrives, remind ourselves that God will provide the extra time it requires?
Of course, Joseph was Mary’s most chaste spouse. A chaste person uses rather than abuses God’s gift of sexuality. However, the opposite of chastity, lust encompasses much more. We talk about someone’s “lust for power” because lust is always about domination. A lustful person relentlessly seeks power and abuses power to dominate others. Lust is the miscarriage of love because lust couples with power, but without ever birthing responsibility. Sex can certainly be the midwife of lust, but lust also spawns ambition and breeds manipulation, and never births virtue.
Of course, St. Joseph was a most chaste spouse, which required enormous chastity, in the sense of dominating or mastering his own desires rather than being dominated by them. If as a priest we think it difficult to control our sexual urges in the absence of a woman we could love, imagine lying down each night next to the woman you love, a woman eminently lovable, who is your own lawfully wedded wife, and night after night, choosing divine love over the purest of human loves.
It’s been said that “ambition is the lust of the clergy.” Some priests refuse what they refer to as “garbage parishes,” which often refer to poor parishes. Or maybe a priest feels exiled from further elevation if he takes that remote country parish rather than one closer to the chancery. At any rate, purity is an antidote to all lust because, according to Søren Kierkegaard, purity is the ability to will just one thing. When we have ambition for anything other than God, we risk impurity, that is, willing something that is not God.
Kindness, like meekness, is not often considered a masculine virtue. Charm perhaps, but rarely kindness. Perhaps kindness is disrespected because we men are so competitive; it is difficult to rejoice in the good fortune of others.
However, consider that in the New Testament only two people are called “Son of David”: Jesus and Joseph. Despite Joseph’s genealogy, Gabriel does not address him as “son of Jacob,” his father, but “son of David,” his distant ancestor. Why?
Joseph, like David, was “a man after God’s own heart.” And the heart of God is kindness. God is never petty or jealous, never rejoices in anyone’s misfortune. God competes with no one and is kind to everyone whether deserving or undeserving. Joseph, too, reacts with kindness.
Kindness is an attribute of God himself and the mark of true majesty. King David was as sinful as Saul, but never jealous or envious. No one jealous or envious inspires the respect of royalty or reverence due to divinity. The scepter of a confident monarch is kindness.
When Pope Francis declared the Year of St. Joseph, our much-needed patron during the pandemic, all priests were challenged to be humble, diligent, meek, chaste, generous and kind during trying times. Many were also creative and courageous. The coronavirus filled all humans with perplexity, but also opened many priests to divine clemency. As with St. Joseph, God only tests us to bring out the best of us.
FATHER KENNETH G. DAVIS, OFM Conv., has published and taught extensively on many aspects of ministerial formation. He is currently prefect of formation for his province.
Exploring Meekness in the Terror of Demons
Consider: Jesus could have used any metaphor or model to describe God. The Old Testament brims with models of God, such as God is a fountain, a rock, a fortress, a shield. Jesus could have preached any of those models without risk. However, he chose to call God “Abba,” Father, which risked charges of blasphemy. Why did Jesus proclaim this one deadly, dangerous model rather than any of the many safe options? Apparently because when Jesus considered the best analogy to God, he could think of none better than his dad.
Jesus may well have been recalling St. Joseph when he said: “Come to me all you who are burdened and you will find rest. Because I am meek …”
A meek man is not controlled by his passion, but rather controls or channels the passion of any emotion through the rifle of restraint, which always aims with the barrel of everyone’s benefit. And whenever the passion of man is fired only through the rifle of restraint, he always terrorizes demons, but never humans who are the beneficiary rather than the bull’s eye of his passion.