July 9, 2021

Christ the Cornerstone

Reflecting on fatherhood in the Year of St. Joseph

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

We are now more than halfway through the Year of St. Joseph (December 2020–December 2021) proclaimed by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter “Patris corde” (“With a Father’s Heart”) which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as patron of the universal Church. Sacred Scripture does not tell us much about St. Joseph. He is never quoted, but as the saying goes, his actions speak louder than words.

In Hebrew, the name Joseph means “he will multiply” or “he will make grow.” As the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus, St. Joseph’s fatherhood was not expressed in the physical procreation of many (if any) children. It was a form of spiritual paternity that is especially needed in our world today.

Pope Francis emphasizes the role of Joseph as a protector or guardian of his wife and child. This means, of course, that he was present to them—both physically and emotionally. Today, perhaps more than in past generations, we need to encourage and support fathers who are not absent or disengaged, but who involve themselves personally and as completely as possible in the lives of their families.

In the case of St. Joseph, fatherhood was clearly his vocation, a call he received directly from God through the intervention of the angel of the Lord who appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. 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” (Mt 1:20-21). The vocation of Joseph, according to God’s messenger, is to be a husband and father who takes Mary into his home and who names her child Yeshua—God saves.

Joseph is an excellent patron saint for fathers. He reminds us that true fatherhood is not simply the result, whether accidental or planned, of the physical relationship between a man and a woman, or today, of the artificial insemination of a man’s seed into a woman’s womb. True fatherhood is a choice and a commitment that goes far beyond the conception of children. It is a calling that requires humility, courage and no small amount of perseverance.

In “Patris corde,” Pope Francis speaks of the virtues of fatherhood that St. Joseph exemplifies. In addition to the humility, courage and perseverance just mentioned, these fatherly attributes include tenderness, creativity, hard work, acceptance and obedience. An additional virtue identified by our Holy Father is Joseph’s “chastity.” Because this term can be misunderstood, what Pope Francis has in mind here deserves some special attention. As the pope says:

“Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a ‘most chaste’ father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the center of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus” (#7).

Fathers should not be controlling or possessive. They should encourage their children to exercise responsible freedom and then be willing to stand back and allow them to learn from their experiences, including their mistakes and failures.

In his book, To Be a Father with Saint Joseph, Fabrice Hadjadj, a theologian and the father of nine children, writes:

“To put it succinctly, we are fathers through the force of nature, while Joseph is a father through the Creator of the force of nature. … Joseph’s paternity is more radical than our own. It is more directly linked to that of the Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name in heaven and on Earth” (Eph 3:14-15).

Let’s pray that in this Year of St. Joseph, all fathers will embrace their vocations and look to St. Joseph as a model for all parents and guardians of children, youth and young adults. May the most chaste spouse of Mary teach us all the dignity and the joy of being a father with St. Joseph. †

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