In December 2020, the Holy Father, Pope Francis declared the year 2021 to be a year of St. Joseph through the apostolic letter, Patris Corde (with a father’s heart). There are two feasts celebrated in honour of St. Joseph: 19th March and 1st May (St. Joseph the worker). The Holy Scriptures say very little about Joseph the husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus. In our days, one could rightly speak about the “fatherhood-crisis” because many children are forced to grow up without the presence of their biological fathers. However, there is a lot that fathers can learn from the personality of St. Joseph in order to reclaim their fatherhood.
A mysterious fatherhood
Before looking at the qualities that characterized St. Joseph as a father, we ought to contemplate on the mystery that he was taking on himself. From the Gospels, we know that Jesus revealed God as Father. He called Him “abba = daddy”. One would humanly say that Joseph grappled with this mystery of fatherhood which he only took charge of.
Reflecting on the mystery of fatherhood, Pope Francis has this to say: “Joseph took on a paternity that was not his own: it came from the Father. And he went ahead with that fatherhood and all it signified: not only supporting Mary and the Child, but also raising the Child, teaching Him his trade, bringing Him up to manhood. Joseph took up a paternity that was not his, but God’s. He accepted to be in the shadow of God the Father without saying a word. The man Jesus learned to say “daddy” from the life and witness of Joseph, an obedient and silent father. This makes Saint Joseph a great man. In his silent greatness, he carried forward the mystery of leading people to a renewed recognition of being beloved children of a loving Father.” Pope Francis further invites us to look at Joseph, Jesus’ father on earth as a father who knew: “how to walk in darkness, how to listen to the voice of God and how to go forward in silence.”
In the gospel of Luke, Joseph is presented as one who has to cancel his plans to allow God to carry out His Plan. He had been betrothed to Mary. He obediently let God carry on His divine will of giving a saviour to the world. In his obedience, Joseph forfeited natural fatherhood and accepted to be a foster-father. Joseph’s obedience to God can be traced mainly in the infancy narratives of the Gospel of Matthew: Joseph listened to the angel of the Lord explain the virgin birth in a dream and then took Mary as his wife (Mt 1: 20-24). He was obedient when he led his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem (Mt 2:13-15).
Joseph obeyed the angel’s commands to return to Israel (Mt 2, 19-20) and settle in Nazareth with Mary and Jesus (Mt 2, 22-23). Christian fathers ought to ask themselves: “How often does my pride as a man and willfulness get in the way of my obedience to God?” Am I willing to let go of my small plans to let God lead me into a bigger plan? This may sound very strange for many men to whom “cultures” ascribe an exaggerated sense of superiority. Men who make good fathers let their masculinity be liberated from the controlling games they are forced to play.
Selfless and loving father
Saint Joseph was selfless. In St. Joseph, we see a man who selflessly dedicated himself to serving and protecting Mary and Jesus. He understood that it was not about himself and his profile, but he was the faithful steward whose duty as a father was to be wholly present for those entrusted to him. His entire life was a manifestation of selfless love. His devotion to his family is a model for fathers today who may be allowing disordered attachments to the things of this world to distort their focus and hinder their vocations.
This calls for a transformation from “man-love” which is many a time superficial, to a “father-love” which involves the sacrifice of self for others.
It is true that many men are the bread earners for their families, but real fathers never sacrifice their families for their jobs. The prolonged or permanent absences of fathers from their families cause a “father hunger” for many. Fr. Richard Rohr (From wild man to wise man 2005) expresses this tragic fact succinctly: “Father hunger is a great gaping wound that many carry, without realizing it or, at least, without being able to name it. It is a deprivation that many are constantly trying to overcome, a need that they are always seeking to satisfy”. The many “over-mothered” children are in need of healing through the presence of father figures who are strong enough to offer them a shoulder to lean on and set limits to the often wild freedom.
In his apostolic letter, Patris Corde (with a father’s heart), Pope Francis points to a fatherhood crisis which is a result of many men absconding from their responsibility to care for the children. There are, thus, many orphans with living parents who are not doing their job.
Leading and working father
Saint Joseph was a leader by example. None of his words are written in Scripture, but we can clearly see by his actions that he was a just, loving and faithful man. He led as a loving and creative husband when he improvised to find a stable for Mary to give birth to Jesus when he never found a place in the inn at Bethlehem. He led as a man of faith when he obeyed God in all things, took the expectant Mary as his wife and later brought the Holy Family safely to Egypt. He led as the family provider by working long hours in his workshop to make sure they had enough to eat and a roof over their heads. He led as a teacher by teaching Jesus his trade and how to live and work as a man.
Joseph’s style differs from the way we may view leadership today. Many people think that they primarily influence others by what they say, when so often; they look out for our actions. Fathers will play their role not through their authoritative commands in families but through their actions and choices in life. Masculinity must be brought to productivity. St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers has a great lesson to teach us all. From him, we learn the value of our daily work however simple it may be. Work exists to glorify God, support our families, contribute to the development of society and above all, preserve the dignity of the human person meant to be a co-worker with God and steward for the rest of creation.
Initiation into fatherhood
In his apostolic letter Patris Corde, Pope Francis points to the fact that “fathers are not born; they are made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child.” St. Joseph is both a model and challenge for the men of all times in assuming their responsibility as mature fathers and husbands, leaders and lovers. In order to achieve this, young men should be initiated into manhood and fatherhood.
We see in Joseph a mature and wise man who mentored and taught the young Jesus. Societies that still treasure initiation rites endeavour to inculcate the value of community/family in the young boys. This initiation has to do with the hardness of life, limit situations and an opening to a bigger picture. “It prepares young men to deal with life in other ways than logic, managing, controlling and problem-solving.” (Fr. Richard Rohr).
Modern cultures seem to be lacking elders who are able to pass on wisdom, identity and boundaries to the next generation. The under-fathered young men rarely become risk-taking partners. The image and presence (absence) of the biological father will certainly influence the relationship we all have with God the Father who is the origin of all fatherhood.
By Fr. Anthony kibira MCCJ
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