Reflections on Saint Joseph in St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos

In 1989, Pope John Paul II (a recently canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church) promulgated Redemptoris Custos, an apostolic exhortation “On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.”  In the Introduction of this document, the Pope notes that, in composing the exhortation, he wished to highlight the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries by offering reflections regarding St. Joseph, into whose guardianship the Father entrusted the precious treasures of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus.  Additionally, the Pope hoped that his thoughts would evoke greater devotion to St. Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church and the one who served the Savior in an outstanding way.  

Section I of Redemptoris Custos, which is entitled “The Gospel Portrait”, focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  The Pope refers to the angel’s annunciation to Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife, that she is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should name the child to be born – Jesus, that is, God saves. (See Mt. 1:20 – 21)  The Pope notes that Mary was already betrothed, that is, married to Joseph so that the angel’s words to Joseph that he “not fear to take Mary as his wife” meant that Joseph should not hesitate to take Mary into his home, which was, at the time, Jewish practice after a year of betrothal. The Pope explains that before the angel’s annunciation to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was faced with the possibility that Mary had committed adultery.  If this were the case, Jewish Law demanded that Mary be stoned to death and, since Joseph was legally her husband, he would have to cast the first stone at his wife. Before the angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream, Joseph had resolved his dilemma: he would quietly divorce Mary. However, when Joseph awoke from his dream, he acted in faith; he settled Mary into his home in Nazareth (though this was before the year of betrothal was completed) and awaited the unfolding of the mystery of her astonishing maternity.   

In Section II of his apostolic exhortation, the Pope discusses Joseph as the “Guardian of the Mystery of God.”  With Mary, Joseph assented to the revelation he received concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God and the mission of Redemption associated with it.  The Pope stresses that, by virtue of his marriage to Mary, Joseph was able to enjoy great intimacy with her son Jesus and that, in the shared life of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the true meaning of family which is  “to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (p. 5*) was eminently evidenced. As the head of his family, Joseph provided for his wife and exercised great fatherly care of Jesus. In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope states

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfill it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus all the love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know. (p. 6)

Section II of the apostolic exhortation also includes reflections on  the census, the birth at Bethlehem, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt,  Jesus’ stay in the Temple, and the support and education of Jesus. Because Caesar Augustus had declared an empire-wide census, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  It was here that Joseph became an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth, which took place, as the Pope describes “in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing – a first announcement of that ‘self-emptying’ (cf. Phil. 2:5 – 8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins.” (p.7) Also, in Bethlehem, along with Mary, Joseph watched shepherds adore the newborn baby and later witnessed magi from the East pay homage to him. Of note is the fact, as the Pope explains, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph officially inserted the name Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:45) into the registry of the Roman Empire. In effect, in this civil way, Joseph secured the legitimacy of Mary’s son.   

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his religious obligation to have his adopted son circumcised.  During the ceremony, Joseph declared that the boy’s name was Jesus. In his exhortation, the Pope explains that “In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and, in speaking the name, he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.” (p. 8) Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his fatherly obligation to present his son in the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Pope, in this Jewish rite, “Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God.” (p. 8) As the Pope notes, since Jesus already belonged to God by virtue of his being the Word of God, while formally fulfilling the Jewish rite, in actuality Jesus transcended it.

After the presentation in the Temple, in a dream Joseph received a message from an angel that King Herod, in fear that the newborn child would usurp his throne, had ordered the mass murder of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or under that age. Given the angel’s instruction to flee to safety in Egypt, Joseph immediately departed from Bethlehem with his family, where he sought asylum until after Herod died.  As the Pope indicates, this experience fulfilled the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hos. 11: 1)

After returning to their homeland, Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, a quiet village wherein it was improbable that Herod’s son, Achelous, who, like his father sought to kill Jesus, would succeed in his plot. When Jesus was twelve years old, as was customary in the Jewish religion, Joseph arranged for his family to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  After a day’s travel back to Nazareth after the feast, realizing that Jesus was nowhere to be found, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem. Three days later, they discovered Jesus in the Temple conversing with learned Jewish teachers. Jesus’ reply to his mother’s statement that she and Joseph had anxiously been searching for him: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49 – 50) was Jesus’ way of communicating to his parents that he understood that his Father in heaven had sent him to earth to fulfill the messianic mission of redemption. After this Temple encounter, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary.  With his wife, Joseph raised Jesus to adulthood. In keeping with a father’s responsibilities, Joseph made sure Jesus was educated in the Law and apprenticed his son as a tekton, a highly skilled artisan who worked in wood, iron and, perhaps, stone.

Section III of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation is entitled “A Just Man, A Husband”.  As the Pope indicates, that Joseph was a just man is most evident in his decision to take his pregnant wife Mary into his home.  In so doing, Joseph chose to protect his wife’s honor and to honor her virginity as communicated to him by an angel who explained Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.  According to the Pope, as a spouse “Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God and gave her a husband’s ‘gift of self.’” (p. 11) Just as Mary’s motherhood was taken up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, so, too, was Joseph’s fatherhood and, as the Pope notes, this was possible as a consequence of the hypostatic union, that is, “humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ.” (p. 12)

Section IV of the apostolic exhortation is entitled “Work as an Expression of Love”. Here, the Pope stresses that Joseph’s work as a tekton gave expression to the sanctification of daily life through his labor of love in support of the life of his family at Nazareth.  Referring to Joseph and Jesus’ co-laboring in the carpenter/artisan trade, the Pope asserts:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way.  At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption. (p. 12)

In Section V of his exhortation, “The Primacy of the Interior Life”, the Pope discusses Joseph’s mature spirituality that enabled him to consistently respond positively to the graces he received in his life as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.  In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope stresses that “Joseph experienced … that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ and the demands of love … required for his [Joseph’s] vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.” (p. 14) Furthermore, the Pope reflects upon the fatherly love of Joseph and Jesus’ filial love as mutually beneficial in the ongoing deepening of their relationship.  

In the final section (Section VI) of Redemptoris Custos, the Pope highlights Joseph as the “Patron of the Church in Our Day”. Just as Joseph kept watch over the Holy Family so, too,  he safeguards the Church in its ongoing history. Referring to Joseph’s role in the “economy of salvation” and to him as a model for all Christians, the Pope writes:

Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, she asks God to grant that she [Church] may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate Word; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession. (p. 15)

Conclusion:  

In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II depicts St. Joseph as an icon of faith, that is, one whose life exemplifies what it means to listen to God’s words and, in an unwavering way, act courageously upon them.  Redemptoris Custos marks a watershed moment in reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the history of Christianity.  In this document, the Pope interweaves biblical exegesis and profound theological insights regarding Joseph’s pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.   In an outstanding way, the Pope highlights St. Joseph as loving father, faithful spouse, laborer, and patron of the universal Church. It is most fitting that the Pope concludes his exhortation with the following prayer:  “May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Department of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

In this essay, all references to Redemptoris Custos (August 15, 1989) – John Paul II are taken from the online document at http://w.2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15 retrieved on 1.22.2018.

Bibliography:  Gary Caster, Joseph, The Man Who Raised Jesus, Servant Books, 2013; Francis L. Filas, Joseph Most Just: Theological Questions About St. Joseph, The Bruce Publishing Co, 1956; J. . . B. Midgley, Companion to Saint Joseph, CTS Publication, 2002; Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries: Encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, 1889,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Joseph, The Silent Saint [DVD], Art and Design, 2008, A&E Television Networks. (Note: In composing the above essay, the author read all texts in this listing and watched the DVD.  Hence, the essay reflects the author’s study of Redemptoris Custos viewed through the lens of insights gained from these other sources.)

 

 

 

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