Pope Francis has declared a “Year of St Joseph” from December 8, 2020, to December 8, 2021. My first thought was, why would the Pope do that now? On reading his short, but simple, apostolic letter Patris Corde, I understood better his motivation. Pope Francis writes that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he noticed the doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, the cleaners, caregivers and transport workers, who often go unnoticed, but sustain our life by their work and presence. This goes on in families and communities where people pray, make sacrifices and help others, all in an often unrecognised way. This observation moved him to think about St Joseph and the way he expressed his fatherly love for Jesus.
Pope Francis sees Joseph as the great example of this hidden love and care. “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble.” During our time of COVID lockdown in New Zealand, I noticed many people from our parishes and communities who carried out this unrecognised work for others. St Joseph is the great patron of these people, who look for no special thanks, but gain a joy from serving others when there is a need.
Within Christian spirituality, St Joseph has often seemed the forgotten man. He hovers in the background, in the shadows. It was a struggle to fit him into the usual biological definition of a father, so he was often called a foster father. Pope Francis points out that “fathers are not born but made…When a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person”. The importance of fatherhood is being reassessed in our society; it is not primarily biological but rather based on a responsibility to love and care for a child. St Joseph provides a great model for those men who wish to be good fathers.
I have a personal affinity with Joseph. My own father’s name was Joseph and he was named after his uncle Joseph, who died at a young age. In the next generation, my 16-year-old nephew has the name Joseph. For me, the name Joseph and the idea of family go together. In our Diocese of Dunedin, the cathedral church is dedicated to St Joseph, who is our patron. In his quiet, fatherly way, Joseph intercedes for us in this southern outpost of the Church. He watches over the family of God’s people much like he watched over Jesus as he learned to walk, as he worked at a trade, and as he eventually left home to carry out his mission. Joseph shows us that holiness is found in a very normal and human way, carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of family life, and being a caring citizen in the community.
I am sure that this year will bring out further reflections on how St Joseph can show us how to live. He shows us something important about the dignity and importance of work, he reminds us of the significance of good fathering, and he teaches us to place our trust in God in the midst of problems and anxieties.
St Joseph is certainly a very relevant and helpful saint for the times that we live in.
Bishop Michael Dooley is Bishop of Dunedin. He wrote this reflection in response to a request from NZ Catholic.
Reproduced with permission from the 27 December 2020 – 23 January 2021 (issue 605) edition of NZ Catholic, the national Catholic newspaper of New Zealand, published by the Catholic Bishop of Auckland.