No, this is not a piece about John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald or the 1952 film directed by John Ford. As we enter the month of March we are surrounded by signs of new life and spring. There is, as the scriptures say, a feeling of expectancy growing among the people. The numbers that we have been watching so closely are showing signs of improvement and the rollout of the vaccines is giving us a reason to hope with all our hearts for a brighter and better tomorrow.
The month of March is also the month that includes the feast of St. Joseph and he is the quiet man to whom I am referring. We will celebrate his feast day on the 19th of this month and he is certainly the quiet man of the scriptures. Unlike so many of the Gospel figures, we never hear him speak. There is no record of anything he ever had to say and there are just a few stories recounted about him and his central place in the story of the nativity of Jesus. Despite the paucity of information about St. Joseph he is nonetheless a towering and important figure, not only in the Gospel, but also in the story of the Church. He is a shining example of faith and trust in God. In the story of St. Joseph, the maxim that actions speak louder than words certainly rings true.
Perpetually under the pillow of my grandmother’s bed there was little black and silver crucifix with the figure of Christ. Above his head was the banner with the letters INRI and at his feet was a skull and crossbones. In my naiveté, as a child, I presumed that this meant Jesus was some kind of a part-time pirate but Granny explained that this was her happy death crucifix. Every night she prayed with this crucifix to St. Joseph to protect her from sudden and unprovided for death. It’s a prayer she passed on to me; O Blessed Joseph, you gave your last breath in the loving embrace of Jesus and Mary. When the seal of death shall close my life, come with Jesus and Mary to aid me. Obtain for me this solace for that hour – to die with their holy arms around me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I commend my soul, living and dying, into your sacred arms. Amen.
Many traditions believe that Joseph died in the arms or presence of Jesus and Mary. It’s a beautiful image, one that has led the Church to proclaim Joseph the patron saint of a happy death. It’s an image that features prominently on the altarpiece in the Church of St. Joseph in Tuamgraney. Sculpted by James Pearse, (father of the 1916 leaders Pádraig and Willie), it is called the “repose of St. Joseph.” It depicts the death of St. Joseph, cradled in the loving arms of Jesus, his foster son and redeemer. There is a serenity about the faces of the figures that allows the sadness and loss of the moment to give way to a confidence that this is not the end of the journey for Joseph but rather the beginning of a new way of living.
As well as being the patron saint of a happy death, fathers, husbands, workers, carpenters and even for some reason house sellers and buyers, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph to be the patron of the Universal Church. To mark the 150th anniversary of this declaration, Pope Francis has proclaimed a special “Year of St Joseph,” which began on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2020 and extends to the same feast in 2021.
In the Apostolic Letter proclaiming the year of St. Joseph entitled Patris Corde (“With a Father’s Heart”), Pope Francis describes Saint Joseph as a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father; a father who is creatively courageous, a working father, a father in the shadows. The Holy Father wrote Patris corde against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, he says, has helped us see more clearly the importance of “ordinary” people who, though far from the limelight, exercise patience and offer hope every day. In this, they resemble Saint Joseph, the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence, who nonetheless played an incomparable role in the history of salvation.
It is precisely here that we see the glory and greatness of Joseph. He was willing to trust God amid doubts and unanswered questions. He was willing to follow God’s will for today even though tomorrow was totally unclear. Joseph is the patron saint for all of us who must live by faith in difficult and uncertain times. Joseph had a marvellous kind of faith which trusts God in both the low and the high places, the kind of faith which believes that God can take the most unpromising set of circumstances and make them work together for good.
Fr. Brendan Quinlivan, Tulla is Vicar Forane for the Ceantar na Lochanna Parishes of East Clare