Is St. Joseph a Model for Fathers?

At first glance, St. Joseph is so hardly known in the sacred scriptures, how can he be a model? Joseph did not consummate the marriage to his wife, the Virgin Mary. He lived a life of complete and total celibacy and chastity within his marriage. His son Jesus was truly God and really had no need to learn anything from him. Further, he was a carpenter and most fathers do not have that kind of a job. However, in his time the carpenter was a kind of “Mister Fix-it” of all kinds of problems within his home or the homes of other people. As far as we know, he also helped out in the spring time with getting the harvests in from the various farmers nearby Nazareth.

Joseph seems remote from the problems of contemporary life. He did not participate in governmental issues such as voting, keeping informed about the government by reading newspapers or the internet, and did not have the worry of losing his job or the value of his money. He lived a hidden life unaware of inflation, world events, terrorism, and certainly did not have to worry about losing his job or home due to massive debt. His wife, being completely filled with grace, did not cause him the trials stemming from bitter arguments about the details of daily life, and other marital difficulties and tensions that come from human frailty. And he did not have to commute to work with all its headaches of traffic, and taking care of a car. He also did not have to take care of the household or healthcare expenses.

Joseph had a privileged supernatural life even though he was relatively well off as a carpenter but certainly not rich. He was given special graces to lead the Queen of Heaven and the King of Heaven, being head of the human-divine household. He had an unusual and extraordinary ministry over the Word made flesh, which is much more profound and higher than that of being a priest or a pope.

Given everything stated above, why would anyone ever say Joseph is a model for fathers? It seems unlikely unless we dig deeper into his reality. Joseph was graced for his unique role for our salvation. He became part of a necessary plan linked to the Incarnation in a way most unlike Mary who gave of her genetic material to the flesh of Jesus. Joseph offers single or married males some real guidance. He taught Christ what it means to be a man in the Jewish society of his times as fathers today must teach their boys how to develop their “masculine” spirituality. What does this all mean?

First, we know that marriages at the time of Christ were ordinarily arranged by families. Engagement meant a consent to take a spouse and so already was a true marriage even before its solemnization. So, when Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy and decides to divorce her quietly knowing this is from God and feels he has to withdraw because of his unworthiness to serve as the foster father of the Son of God.

However, he freely changes his mind because of a special intervention by an angel. In other words, he is flexible and supple enough not to absolutize his will on a matter that is not a moral absolute. This is something men have to learn when raising their children and making decisions for the whole family, taking into consideration changing circumstances and not turning small items into absolutes with no negotiation with the rest of the family, especially with one’s spouse.

Second, looking at the whole issue of the holy family’s journey into a foreign country, being able to lead the family into unknown surprises without losing courage is vital for a man. To face trials of dangerous roads, a new country away from the familiar such as extended family and friends requires a certain inner assurance and confidence not only in God but in one’s self. In such a situation a person has to make new friends, find a job, and then make the best of a very difficult situation. Joseph did this and gives men a sense of direction when the going in life becomes problematic and often riddled with distress and anxiety. Men are called to be courageous like Joseph who does not give up even if it means leaving the familiar for the unknown unlike the wimp that gives up when faced with the smallest difficulty.

Third, we know that after the age of six or seven, a child at the time of the Holy Family would be more under the tutelage of its father. It was his responsibility to teach his son how to read, sing and help with his particular work. This would take quite a while. To think that Jesus would learn all the “nuts and bolts of life” by a series of miracles, while certainly possible, is very unlikely if he was to really assume human nature.

Jesus’s human knowledge would grow in a normal and natural way notwithstanding his divine knowledge and even infused knowledge. In addition, he would learn from his father how to act like a man in his culture, a mode of character building. Good actions make for character but male character requires learning from one’s father or a mentor of sorts.

We see in the gospels, something of Joseph’s masculine influence in Jesus. Our Lord is sure of himself and He never wavers on essential things. Jesus is polite to women not condescending. He knows how to argue his case and answer his enemies, and face opposition without flinching. He shows reasonable anger not only to his enemies but even to his friends when it is expedient. Jesus is not simply a “nice guy” also praising and ingratiating himself. His kindness is very masculine without being manipulative or snarky. Christ never bullies but appeals to reason. Granted that he is also God, still one can see that he would learn these lessons from the one placed over him by God the Father.

In conclusion, it is very helpful for men especially to pray to St. Joseph to attain those masculine strengths that he gave by a kind of osmosis to his Son. He was not merely an adoptive father of Jesus but was commanded to take him as his son by God himself.

As we men discover Joseph, we will not become impeccable given the wounds of original sin. But in our “spiritual” fatherhood, whether as married, religious, priestly or single men, we will imperfectly transmit an elan to the character of those given to us by God to care for. It is not by chance that theologians teach that we owe St. Joseph proto-dulia that in ordinary terms means he is the first among the saints after Mary and we should honor him as such.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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