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Professor Tracey Rowland: The Greatest of the Patriarchs

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A crucifix and a statue of St Joseph are seen as Pope Francis leads his general audience at the Vatican on 26 August 2020. PHOTO: CNS, VATICAN.1

This week, three key talks on raising men who will be true fathers for their families will focus on what’s needed most. In this article, a leading Australian theologian looks at the man who, more than any other, models what – and who – a real father should be

A recurring question about St Joseph is that of his age at the time of his marriage to Our Lady. It seems from Scripture that St Joseph had died before the start of Jesus’s public ministry but how old he was at the time of his death is impossible to tell from scripture.

In the Eastern churches and especially in the Coptic Church the tradition has been that St Joseph was of mature years when he married Our Lady, and according to some Eastern traditions he was a widower. However in the western Church the stronger tradition has been that St Joseph was a virgin at the time of his marriage to Our Lady.

Three contemporary figures in western Christianity have argued that St Joseph was not an old man when he married Our Lady but someone who was young vigorous and chaste. First, Mother Angelica, the founder of the global EWTN television network with some 264 million subscribers. She was also a mystic who claimed to have had a vision of the child Jesus. She remarked, “who has ever heard of an old man walking to Egypt?” In other words, we are told that St Joseph had to take Our Lady and the baby Jesus away from the territory of King Herod so that he would not be slaughtered and this had to be done in the middle of the night.

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Flight into Egypt

What we now call the flight into Egypt sounds like getting out of Vienna to a neutral country just hours before the Anschluss. Mother Angelica’s point was that if Our Lady and Our Lord needed someone to protect them and manage the logistics of secretive border crossings and then the task of earning a living in the foreign country, assuming they managed a safe passage, the Holy Spirit would have chosen a young and athletic man. St Josemaria Escriva agreed that St Joseph was probably not elderly. He wrote:

“I don’t agree with the traditional picture of St Joseph as an old man, even though it may have been prompted by a desire to emphasise the perpetual virginity of Mary. I see him as a strong young man, perhaps a few years older than our Lady, but in the prime of his life and work. You don’t have to wait to be old or lifeless to practice the virtue of chastity. Purity comes from love; and the strength and joy of youth are no obstacle for noble love.”

Venerable Fulton Sheen made the same argument in his book The World’s First Love:

“To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God”.

Archbishop Sheen concluded that St Joseph was probably young, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined … Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love … Instead … of being “dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power”.

No country for old men: a detail of a stained-glass window shows Jesus, Mary and Joseph on their flight into Egypt. A man who can rise in the middle of the night, flee with his family, embark on a long and arduous journey, make secretive border crossings and then work to provide for his wife and child is not likely to be an aged retiree, argues theologian Tracey Rowland. IMAGE: CNS, CROSIERS

Without buying into the question of St Joseph’s age at the time of his marriage, another Catholic figure has argued that St Joseph, far from being feeble and retiring, was more like what in contemporary parlance we would call an alpha male. Stratford Caldecott, an English Catholic writer best known for his works on Tolkien, wrote an article called The Chivalry of St Joseph in which he compared St Joseph to the medieval knights and presented his spirituality as a form of Christian chivalry. Caldecott took as his definition of chivalry “the magnanimity of noble blood, deference to women, protection of the weak, refinement in manners and courage in battle”. He wrote:

“The first and truest “Universal Knight”, the mirror of chivalry and of all the courtesy that belongs with it and manifests it in everyday life, is found much earlier than medieval Christendom, and earlier than the birth of Islam. It is found in Joseph of Nazareth. In him the ideal appears in all its spiritual glory, long before it is partially and imperfectly rediscovered by the Crusaders. In St Joseph justice is combined with tenderness, strength and decisiveness with flexibility and openness to the will of God. He was an adventurer, too, like the “questing knights” of later legend.”


Like many knights of the medieval era, St. Joseph was born of a noble family. This is beyond dispute. He was a member of the Royal House of David. St. Matthew makes a lot of this. This is important because from the time of King David, God’s covenant with his chosen people was made through the king of Israel, anointed by God as shepherd of Israel, heir of the promises made to Abraham. When David decided to build a temple, God promised him a descendent, a son of God, who would establish his reign forever (2 Sam 7:12-16). Not too long after David’s reign, the kingdom was divided and eventually the Herodians took over, and there were a number of bad King Herods, but the messianic hope in the promise did not die.

The purpose of the genealogy in St. Matthew’s gospel that makes St Joseph a descendent of King David is to demonstrate that Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of the promises that God made to Abraham and David.

Jesus is called the Son of David 17 times in the New Testament.

What is particularly fascinating about this aspect of St Joseph’s biography, however, is that there is a theory that he was not merely a common garden variety Prince of the Davidic House, but a Crown Prince – the actual heir to the throne of David no less.

St Bernardine of Siena, a 15th Century Franciscan, wrote: ‘St Joseph was born of a patriarchal, royal and princely race in a direct line. St Matthew establishes the direct line of all the fathers from Abraham to the spouse of the Virgin, clearly demonstrating that all patriarchal, royal and princely dignity came together in him’.
More recently, St Peter Julian Eymard, the 19th Century French priest and founder of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, wrote:

… there is a theory that … [He] was not merely a common prince of the Davidic House but a Crown Prince – the actual heir to the throne of David no less

… since Christ was King, of the line of David, He made Saint Joseph to be born of this same royal line. He wanted him to be noble, of earthly nobility. In the veins of St Joseph, therefore, flows the blood of David and Solomon, and of all the noble kings of Judah. If his dynasty still sat on the throne, St Joseph would be the heir and would have sat on the throne in his turn.

The mystic Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) claimed from her visions that St Joseph was the third of six sons, direct descendants of King David. This raises the question of how he could be the crown Prince if he was a third son. The standard answer to this is that the Patriarch Joseph of the Old Testament was not an eldest son either – that the strict succession of primogeniture could, in the Jewish dispensation, be departed from for good cause and at the instance of the progenitor father. So, if St Joseph did indeed have older brothers, his father Jacob may have disqualified the older two for some grave reason, just as his namesake, the original Old Testament Jacob, did with his eldest sons Reuben and Simeon.

St Joseph the Old Testament and New Testament

This issue raises another fascinating topic and that is the relationship between Joseph, the Old Testament Patriarch, and St Joseph. Scripture scholars use the word ‘typology’ to refer to Old Testament biblical persons or events that foreshadow persons or events in the New Testament. Thus Christ is the new Adam and Our Lady the new Eve. When it comes to the two Josephs – the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph, there are extraordinary similarities: both had fathers named Jacob, both spent time in exile in Egypt, both had the power to interpret dreams, both were, in different senses, rulers of the king’s household and possessions, and both were responsible for feeding people. St Bernadine of Siena said: “The Patriarch Joseph stored up corn for the people but St Joseph is the watchful guardian of the Living Bread that came down from Heaven”.

Catholics have often been used to mass produced devotional art, usually saccharine and sentimental, which is not of high aesthetic beauty. Yet artist Daniel Mitsui is part of a new generation of artists who have struck out in creative ways and new directions when it comes to expressing faith. The illustration above depicts the second dream of St Joseph, in which an angel (traditionally identified as St Gabriel) warns him to flee into Egypt with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Writes Mitsui: “This is the sixth commission I have received to draw Christian subjects in the style of Japanese art. In this work, I especially imitated the style of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a late ukiyo-e master. I referenced his series of woodblock prints 100 Aspects of the Moon for many parts of my drawing. “St Gabriel holds a fan containing a vision of the Flight into Egypt and the Miracle of the Cherry Tree. I attempted to convey a sense of otherworldly urgency by having the angel’s robes and hair blown by a strong wind that affects nothing else in the picture. St Joseph sleeps in the stable of Bethlehem, next to the gifts of the Magi (in antique Chinese vessels). The text is from Emile Raguet’s Classical Japanese New Testament translation of 1910, and says Gabriel and Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him.” Image:

In his 1889 encyclical Quamquam Pluries Pope Leo XIII declared that “the Joseph of ancient times, son of the patriarch Jacob, was the type of St Joseph, and the former by his glory prefigured the greatness of the future guardian of the Holy Family’” Pope Leo noted that the Patriarch Joseph provided for all the needs of the Egyptians with so much wisdom that the Pharaoh conferred upon him the title “Saviour of the world”.

Leo XIII concluded: as the first Joseph caused the prosperity of his master’s domestic interests and at the same time rendered great services to the whole kingdom, so the second, destined to be the guardian of the Christian religion, should be regarded as the protector and defender of the Church, which is truly the house of the Lord and the kingdom of God on earth.

It is because of this typology that one often finds in prayers to St Joseph the phrase: “He made him the lord of his household and Prince over all his possessions.”
Moving now from St Joseph’s royal and chivalrous nature, it is common to find St Joseph being compared to the angels and even described as ‘the Angelic man’. This idea is developed most fully in the work of Jerónimo Gracián, a 16th Century Carmelite friar, who was the spiritual director of St Teresa of Avila.


Gracián follows the tradition of Psuedo-Dionysius, a neo-Platonic philosopher of the late 5th and early 6th Century. Pesudo-Dionysius is famous for his work on the celestial hierarchy where he identified nine choirs or species of angels sub-divided into triads. The first choir – consisting of seraphim, cherubim and thrones – are in direct contact with God. Whereas seraphim are characterised by the excellence of their love, cherubim are characterised by the excellence of their knowledge. The thrones, as their name suggests, are the carriers of the throne of God.

The second triad consists of the dominions, virtues and powers. The dominions are angels of leadership who regulate the duties of the other angels and make known God’s commands. They are the business managers of the heavenly court. The virtues have control over nature and are therefore in charge of miracles. The powers are warrior angels who fight evil spirits. Finally there is the triad of principalities, archangels and angels. The principalities are in charge of whole nations and groups of peoples and the guardian angels are in charge of individuals. What Gracián argued was that St Joseph managed to fulfil the duties of each and every sub-species of angelic being.

By comparing St Joseph to each of the ranks of pure spirits, Gracián justifed the title “the Angelic Man” for him. He argued that St Joseph surpassed all the angelic orders of heaven in his excellence. He was nearer to God and served him more closely and constantly than even the angels. For this reason, Joseph received close attention from the angels. Gracian also argued that in heaven St Joseph is regarded as a prince and this is consistent with the mystical visions of St Gertrude the Great who in her visions saw St Joseph seated on a throne in heaven.

At this manifestation … the priests declared St Joseph as the spouse selected by God Himself … for Mary

It is also consistent with the mystical visions of the Venerable Mary of Agreda (1602-1665), a 17th Century Spanish Franciscan nun, who had the gift of bilocation. She is also one of those saints, known as the incorruptibles, whose body has never decayed. In her book The Mystical City of God she quoted Our Lady as saying to her:

My daughter, although you have described my spouse, Saint Joseph, as the most noble among the Princes and Saints of the heavenly Jerusalem, still you cannot properly manifest his eminent sanctity, nor can any mortal know it fully before he arrives at the vision of the Divinity.

Venerable Mary of Agreda also had a vision of St Simeon’s choice of St Joseph as the spouse of Our Lady in a ceremony in the temple. She wrote:

On the day on which our Princess Mary completed the fourteenth year of her life, the men, who at that time in the city of Jerusalem were descendants of the tribe of Juda and of the race of David, gathered together in the temple. The sovereign lady was also of that lineage. Among the number was Joseph, a native of Nazareth, and then living in Jerusalem; for he was one of the descendants of the royal race of David. He was then thirty-three years of age, of handsome and pleasing countenance, but also of incomparable modesty and gravity … While they were thus engaged in prayer, the staff which Joseph held was seen to blossom, and at the same time a dove, of purest white and resplendent with admirable light, was seen to descend and rest upon the head of the saint … At this manifestation and token from heaven, the priests declared Saint Joseph as the spouse selected by God Himself for the maiden Mary.

A similar vision was also experienced by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), who was German, not Spanish, and who was born a century and a half after Mary of Agreda.


Moving forward to the last couple of centuries various pontiffs have encouraged devotion to St Joseph. In 1870 Pope Pius IX declared St Joseph to be the Patron of the Universal Church. In 1921 Pope Benedict XV inserted the phrase “Blessed be St Joseph, her most chaste spouse” into the Divine Praises and in 1955 Pope Pius XII established the Feast of St Joseph the Worker on 1 May. The idea was to give Catholic workers an alternative reason to celebrate May Day from fellow workers who had fallen under the spell of Communist trade union leaders. In the 1937 encyclical on atheistic communism Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI placed “the vast campaign of the Church against world Communism under the standard of St Joseph, her mighty Protector.” For his part, Pope Pius X formulated the prayer to St Joseph for success in work. It reads:

Glorious St Joseph,
model of all those who are devoted to labour,
obtain for me the grace to work conscientiously,
putting the call of duty above my many sins;
to work with thankfulness and joy,
considering it an honour to employ and develop,
by means of labour,
the gifts received from God;
to work with order,
peace, prudence and patience,
never surrendering to weariness or difficulties;
to work, above all,
with purity of intention,
and with detachment from self,
having always death before my eyes
and the account which I must render of time lost,
of talents wasted,
of good omitted,
of vain complacency in success
so fatal to the work of God.
All for Jesus,
all for Mary,
all after thy example,
O Patriarch Joseph.
Such shall be my motto in life and death.

After the successive reigns of the Pian popes, St John XXIII added St Joseph’s name to the list of saints mentioned in the Canon of the Mass and in 1989 St John Paul II issued an Apostolic Exhortation titled Redemptoris Custos, on St Joseph as the custodian of the redeemer. In this document St John Paul II emphasised St Joseph’s affinity with God the Father. Here he was following the theological argument of Jean Jacques Oiler (1608-1657), the founder of the Sulpician Order, that St Joseph is unique among the saints because of the mysterious bond that exists between him and God the Father. Oiler observed that while a multitude of saints have represented Christ in this or that aspect of their heroic virtue only St Joseph, among all the saints, has a special vocation to represent God the Father.

After the reign of St John Paul II Pope, Benedict did not institute any new feasts to St Joseph but he is known to be rather fond of this saint because his own first name is Joseph. In an interview with the Bavarian Catholic paper Die Tagespost in 2021 he also proposed a reading of the prophecy of the “tree of Jesse” in the book of Isaiah, which he considers to be a “silent reference” to St Joseph.

In the Old Testament, this dead tree, described as a sterile stump by the prophet, must give birth to a branch from which the Messiah will come. While the branch is traditionally described as a rose, to associate it with Mary, the mystic rose, Pope Benedict argued that the texts indicate that it is actually a sprout of rice. This is an important detail, he points out, because it is perhaps the only text in the Old Testament to make the connection with the city of Nazareth. He further explained that the etymology of the name of the city where Christ spent his childhood, that is Nazareth, could derive from the Babylonian word nezer, meaning “rice.” Even if it is only a hypothesis, the village of Joseph and Mary would thus carry within it a reference to the tree of Jesse.

The pontificate of Benedict XVI also saw the canonisation of Brother Andre Bessette, a French Canadian member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and the canonisation of Mother Mary McKillop, both in the same ceremony. McKillop we all know founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Brother Andre is not so well known in Australia but he is a huge name in Canada. He had such a strong devotion to St Joseph it is said that in his lifetime (1845-1937) thousands of people received miraculous cures through his intercession. He was so popular in Canada over a million people passed by his coffin to pay their last respects. He was also responsible for the building of St Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, a national shrine to St Joseph, which is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in that city.

Pope Francis’s declaration of St Joseph

To conclude our list of recent papal engagements with St Joseph we have Pope Francis’s declaration of 2021 as the Year of St Joseph in his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde.

Finally, of all the saints who have fostered devotion to St Joseph, the one who tends to be most famous is St Teresa of Avila. In her autobiography, she wrote that she could not recall any time that she ever asked St Joseph for anything that was not granted. She was the promoter of the Holy Cloak 30 day novena to St Joseph which ends with this prayer:

O holy protector of the Holy Family, protect us children of the Lord Jesus Christ, keep far from us the errors and evils which corrupt the world, assist us from heaven in our struggles against the powers of darkness. And as thou once protected the Divine Child from the cruel edict of Herod, now defend the Church and keep her safe from all dangers and threats; spread over all of us thy holy patronage so that by following thy example and aided by thine spiritual guidance, we may all aspire to a virtuous life, look to a holy death and secure for ourselves the blessings of eternal happiness in heaven.

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