Devotion to St Joseph is ultimately based on the Scriptural affirmation that he was a “just man” (Mt 1:19), which is high praise in itself, but on reflection, it must be the case that Joseph’s holiness was of a truly astonishing nature. That is, he must have been second only to Our Lady in terms of sanctity; and yet devotion to him developed only quite slowly in the Church. If we consider that he was given the immense privilege of protecting Mary and the Baby Jesus from Herod’s rage after the visit of the Magi, then we can see that this privilege – which was not without grave concerns and great responsibilities – was an immense one.
And then further consider his role in providing for them as the child grew to maturity. St Joseph was also the human model of fatherhood that Jesus grew up with, the person on whom he would pattern his own life, in a human sense, and who would provide him with his first ideas of human fatherhood, and thus of the fatherhood of God. He must also have been the perfect husband to Mary, totally attentive to her, and totally devoted to her welfare.
St Joseph’s exalted vocation
To be chosen to be the foster-father of the God-man, and the spouse of the Virginal Mother of God, are signs of an incredibly exalted vocation, and we can get a glimpse of this if we consider his position in relation to the Holy Trinity. Our Lady’s relationship to the Trinity, as Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit, is absolutely unique. No other creature comes even remotely close to her in terms of sanctity, and it is this status which has traditionally seen her as being more exalted than all the angels and Saints put together.
With St Joseph, we are obviously on a much lower plane, but even so, he was given the extraordinary responsibility of being the spouse of Our Lady, and the foster-father of Jesus, which clearly puts him in a separate and very eminent category with regard to the rest of humanity.
In the light of such reflections, it is clear that St Joseph’s sanctity was of an astounding nature, and that the devotion to him which has developed in the Church in recent centuries is in no way exaggerated.
The cult of St Joseph
Despite all this, it is understandable why the cult of St Joseph was relatively slow to develop in the early Church, and indeed for a long time after that. The early years were times of fierce persecution, and it was usually only the martyrs who were venerated. In addition, the theological focus during that period was on clarifying the trinitarian nature of God, and on trying to understand the mystery of how Jesus could be both God and man. And there was a focus, too, on the role of Our Lady as the Theotokos, or God-bearer. Even so, St Joseph was mentioned by some of the Church fathers, and from what they said it seems clear that there was devotion to St Joseph present in the Eastern Church.
In the West though, it developed quite late, and it was only in the twelfth century that a church was first dedicated to him, in Bologna. It was mainly through the influence of figures such as St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Thomas Aquinas, St Gertrude, and St Bridget of Sweden, along with the work of some religious orders, such as the Carmelites and the Dominicans, that devotion to him began to develop more widely. By the early fifteenth century a feast day in honour of St Joseph was celebrated in various dioceses in Western Europe, and his cult was strongly promoted by influential figures such as St Vincent Ferrer and St Bernadine of Siena, while Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) approved a universal feast day for him in the Roman calendar, on 19th March.
As the cult of St Joseph grew, succeeding popes elevated the status of his feast progressively. And other feasts associated with him, for example celebrating his espousals to Our Lady, were also introduced. Under the influence of St Teresa of Avila, the reformed Carmelite Order chose him as their patron in 1621.
More recent devotion to St Joseph
By the nineteenth century, devotion to St Joseph had become very widespread in Catholic circles, to the extent that, in 1847, Pope Pius IX, who was personally very devoted to the saint, extended the feast of his patronage to the whole Church. In 1870, he declared him the Patron and Guardian of the Universal Church, and further raised the status of his feast day. At first glance, this might seem excessive, but if we consider that in relation to Christ, Joseph acted as foster-father and guardian, then, in the economy of salvation, he holds the same position in a spiritual sense with regard to the Body of Christ, that is the Church. So it is no exaggeration to describe him as the Guardian of the Church.
Pope Leo XIII also strongly supported this devotion, and ended his encyclical on devotion to St Joseph, Quamquam pluries, issued in 1889, with these thoughts about his wonderful holiness: “No other saint . . . so nearly approaches that place of dignity which in the Mother of God is far above all created natures.” The Pope associated a special indulgenced prayer to St Joseph with this encyclical and ordered that it be added to the public recitation of the rosary during October. He also praised the practice of dedicating the month of March to St Joseph.
This blog is extracted from St Joseph: Prayers and Devotions. Explaining the effects of devotion to St Joseph over the centuries, this booklet is a practical and simple way for people to foster a devotional spirit and can be used individually or in parish groups.