On March 19, as the Church celebrates the solemnity of Saint Joseph, it is interesting to note the important role the Franciscan family played in spreading devotion to him.
Popular devotion to Saint Joseph became a product of the renewed focus on the humanity of Jesus during the High Middle Ages, which Franciscans had a major role in emphasizing through their preaching and writing. As people followed Francis’s example at Greccio and contemplated the scene of Jesus’s humble birth, they began giving more attention to this silent figure who played such an important role in Jesus’s life.
Franciscan works such as the very popular Meditations on the Life of Christ, long attributed to Saint Bonaventure, but most likely by the friar John “de Caulibus” of San Gimignano in the early 1300s, were significant in the process of drawing attention to Joseph.
Franciscans were especially important for extending devotion to Saint Joseph in the following century through the popular preaching of such friars as Bernadine of Siena and Bernardine of Feltre. In 1480 a Franciscan Pope, Sixtus IV, permitted the Franciscan Order to celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19, and gradually this observance spread throughout the Church.
“Adoration of the Christ Child” by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1500). One sees here a much more human presentation of Saint Joseph—no longer a man on the periphery but a caring parent, responsive to the child Jesus’s needs. The sinless Virgin gives adoration to the divinity of the child she bore, who is presented in the image for the viewer to do the same. In the background, we see Joseph leading his little family on the Flight into Egypt. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, public domain)
Two Secular Franciscan Popes were also important in this process: in 1870 Pius IX declared Saint Joseph patron of the Universal Church, and in 1962 Saint John XXIII inserted Joseph’s name into the Roman Canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I). In 2013, Pope Francis placed Joseph’s name into the other three standard Eucharistic prayers. Today Catholics recall Joseph’s name every time they celebrate the Eucharist.
Joseph appeals to people because, like so many “silent” Christians who go about their work quietly and are devoted to their families, his holiness lies in bringing Gospel values into the tasks of ordinary life.
When our Lady was living with her husband Joseph, and Jesus was growing in his mother’s womb, Joseph saw that she was pregnant and grieved inwardly. He observed his wife again and again, in great grief and trouble, his face agitated. Then he turned his eyes away, with evil thought, suspecting this to have come about through adultery. Now you see how the Lord permits his own to be tormented by tribulations. . . Thus Joseph thought of leaving her secretly. . . But he was a just man, of great virtue. Joseph virtuously restrained himself from accusing her, patiently disregarding the injury and not seeking revenge; but overcome by pity, he wished to leave her secretly. . . But then the Lord sent his angel to Joseph in his sleep to tell him his wife had conceived by the Holy Spirit and he should stay with her confidently and happily. Thus his torment ceased and turned to great happiness. This would happen to us too, if we knew how to remain patient in the face of tribulation, for the Lord causes tranquility to come after the storm. . . . (Meditations on the Life of Christ, 21)
“The Flight into Egypt” by Carlo Maratta (Maratti) (c. 1653–55), adorning the altar of St. Joseph, Franciscan Colegio di San Isidoro, Rome. This college housed Irish Recollect Franciscan student friars preparing for mission in Ireland. The chapel was built through the generosity of a lay benefactor, Flavio Aleona, and the painting commissioned by Luke Wadding, OFM. Photo courtesy of Fr. Aidan McGrath, OFM. For background, see G. B. Fidanza, “Luke Wadding’s Art” (Franciscan Institute Publications, 2016).
Pope Francis has often pointed to the figure of Joseph as an example. At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said:
How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. . . . Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call. (March 19, 2013)
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.