This year’s celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19 is special, coming as it does within the Year of St. Joseph, called by the Vatican to mark the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph’s being declared patron of the Church.
While the solemnity is clearly one of the highlights of the Holy Year, it shouldn’t be regarded as the climax, if that means everything else thereafter will be treated as a denouement. The Year of St. Joseph, after all, lasts for almost another nine months, until December 8. The solemnity should, rather, be treated like running the finish of the first leg of a four-lap race: Spiritually we should be just hitting our stride.
How can Catholics who haven’t really been taking advantage of this time of grace get going? How can those who have been focused on it pick up speed?
There are some very good resources, like Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Patris Corde (“With A Father’s Heart”), St. John Paul II’s 1989 apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (“Guardian of the Redeemer”), or Father Donald Calloway’s 2019 best seller, “Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father.”
But the book I have profited most from, recommend most heartily, and have been emailing to everyone who has asked how to grow closer to St. Joseph this year is Father Henri Rondet’s 1956 classic, “St. Joseph,” a translation of his 1953 French original “St. Joseph: Textes Anciens Avec Une Introduction.” It’s the most helpful book on St. Joseph I have ever found.
Father Rondet (1898-1979) was a French Jesuit theologian, professor and prodigious author of more than 50 books on almost every theological subject one could conceive: the Sacraments, Confession, Marriage, grace, original and personal sin, purgatory, hell, the communion of saints, the apostolate, the parable of the Pharisee and Publican, the Sacred Heart, Mary, St. Augustine, the development of dogma, Vatican I and Vatican II, the Christian faith and divorce, the theology of work, obedience and peace.
In novitiate and at the Gregorian University in Rome, he assiduously studied St. Thomas Aquinas. He eventually taught patristics. But his real passion was to pass on to the wider public the treasures of the faith, something that led to his becoming, in 1955, the French national director of the Apostleship of Prayer, founded in 1844 to help lay Catholics take up their role in the Church’s mission through the morning offering, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and praying for the monthly intentions of the pope. Theology was meant to lead us to our knees.
Father Rondet said he wrote this work because “St. Joseph is still not properly known and understood. Devotion to him is widespread and enthusiastic, and there is a very large number of books that seek to minister to this devotion. But too often these writings are lacking in the spirit of critical scholarship or in theological competence, and one result of this is that others among the faithful are put off. The aim of this book is to put St. Joseph’s place in the economy of Salvation before both classes of the faithful.”
What I love about this brilliant and zealous priest’s work about St. Joseph is its structure.
He begins with a superb and readable 49-page summary of the presentation of St. Joseph in the Gospels, the apocryphal writings, Sacred tradition, popular legends, medieval art, religious authors, and the 15th- to 17th-century rebirth of devotion. He describes the development of the feast of St. Joseph and the decision of Blessed Pius IX to name him patron of the Church. And he finishes with a brief synthesis of the theology of St. Joseph.
In the section, Father Rondet demolishes the idea that St. Joseph was a super-old man at the time of his betrothal of Mary, which would not only diminish St. Joseph’s chastity and undermine his capacity to work as a carpenter to support the Holy Family, but basically put him in the weird category of really old men who marry really young women. He argues that St. Joseph was a young virgin marrying a younger virgin and that their Marriage, though remaining virginal, was fruitful. He shows that he was a true father in the way he committed himself to the life and growth of Jesus. And against those who try to argue, out of excessive piety, that St. Joseph was essentially the male equivalent of Mary, and therefore sinless, even immaculately conceived, Father Rondet shows not only that this is not part of the tradition, but not upheld by the evidence.
In the second section of the work, Father Rondet gives us a 185-page anthology of the most important writings on St. Joseph from the fourth through the 20th century. He includes great saints like St. John Chryostom, St. Bernard, St. Bernardine of Siena, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. John Henry Newman; famous writers and orators like Jean Gerson, Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Father Frederick Faber, Cardinal Vaughn; Popes Leo XII, Benedict XV, and Pius XII; as well as various of the most influential prayers and hymns throughout the centuries.
To have access in one place to the greatest thoughts expressed, at least until 1953, about St. Joseph, is like diving into the powerful river of graces pouring out of Heaven for many centuries with regard to St. Joseph. I’d like to finish with a taste of the citations you can read in the book.
The first is by St. Teresa of Avila about praying to St. Joseph. She had been cured at the age of 26 of a crippling illness after invoking his intercession. She wrote:
“I do not remember once having asked anything of him that was not granted. God seems to have given other saints power to help us in particular circumstances, but I know from experience that this glorious St. Joseph helps in each and every need. Others, who have turned to Joseph on my advice, have had the like experience. All I ask, for the love of God, is that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test and learn for himself how advantageous it is to commend oneself to this glorious patriarch Joseph and to have a special devotion for him. Prayerful persons, in particular, should love him like a father.”
The second is from Cardinal Herbert Vaughn, Archbishop of Westminster about the role of St. Joseph in the Christian life. He stated:
“Of old it was said to the needy and suffering people in the kingdom of Egypt: ‘Go to Joseph, and do all that he shall say to you’ (Gen 41:55). The same is now said to all needy and suffering people in the kingdom of the Church — ‘Go to Joseph.’ If you labor for your bread; if you have a family to support; if your heart is searched by trials at home; if you are assailed by some importune
temptation; if your faith is sorely tested, and your hope seems lost in darkness and disappointment; if you have yet to learn to love and serve Jesus and Mary as you ought, Joseph, the head of the house, the husband of Mary, the nursing father of Jesus —Joseph is your model, your teacher and your father.
“Go, then, to Joseph, and do all that he shall say to you. Go to Joseph, and obey him as Jesus and Mary obeyed him. Go to Joseph, and speak to him as they spoke to him. Go to Joseph, and consult him as they consulted him. Go to Joseph, and honor him as they honored him. Go to Joseph, and be grateful to him as they were grateful to him. Go to Joseph, and love him as they loved him, and as they love him still. However much you love Joseph, your love will always fall short of the extraordinary love that Jesus and Mary bore to him. On the other hand, the love of Joseph necessarily leads us to Jesus and Mary. He was the first Christian to whom it was said, ‘Take the Child and His mother.’”
All those who want to go to Joseph, and from him to Jesus and Mary, would be wise to go first to Father Rondet.
(To download a free copy of the book, click this link “Father Henri Rondet, St. Joseph”)
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.