Wife, Like Husband
Reflection on St.
Brother John M. Samaha, SM
asked by a questioner about the dignity of St. Joseph in
Christian tradition, the late Father Francis L. Filas, S.J., the U.S.A.'s
leading authority on the subject, responded simply, "Like wife, like
husband." The man closest to Jesus and Mary rightly deserves all
honor and praise.
- St. Joseph rarely enjoys great press.
Usually he is forgotten, or at least left standing obscurely in the
background. His self-effacement seems to have influenced the scant
attention given him by many Church teachers.
- In a hymn honoring the Holy Eucharist,
St. Thomas Aquinas describes the inadequacy of human language to
express full appreciation of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Bernard and
other great devotees of Mary voiced the same idea regarding our
Blessed Mother. I think we may say the same about St. Joseph, the
husband of Mary and the virgin father of Jesus.
- Such appreciation unfolds slowly after
much study and reflection. It does not become evident at once in a
single glance. Even today many Catholics are inclined to think that
St. Joseph is a wonderful saint, but he was not the real father of
Jesus, so we honor him as protector of Mary. With that passing
comment, such persons promptly forget St. Joseph and relegate him to
- Actually this opinion was the common
outlook in the first thirteen centuries of Christianity. Church
history shows that St. Joseph was the victim of benign neglect in the
lives of our early saints and Fathers and Doctors of the Church. St.
Augustine and some other thinkers wrote of St. Joseph, but his mention
is sparse. The tide turned slowly in the next five hundred years and
we find simple beginnings of a solid devotion to St. Joseph.
- The theology of his vocation, dignity,
holiness, and intercession began to flower only in medieval times; and
the seventeenth century was the golden age. The enthusiasm of St.
Teresa of Avila for St. Joseph was remarkable, vividly expressed in
her writings, and perpetrated in the twelve new convents given his
- The ground swell of attention began with
the popes of the late nineteenth century. All the popes of .modern
times, from Pope Pius IX until our present Holy Father, have issued
substantial teaching about Joseph on their official documents. Since
1870 the Church officially gave impetus to this new trend when Pope
Pius IX declared St. Joseph Patron of the Universal Church. The next
pope, Leo XIII, set St. Joseph before us with a rank and place best
described in his encyclical about Joseph, Quamquarn Pluries,
1889: "There can be no doubt that, more than any other person, he
approached that supereminent dignity by which the Mother of God was
raised far above all created natures."
- Such an exalted understanding and
appreciation of St. Joseph's dignity do not blossom all at once.
Sustained study and meditation on his twofold vocation are required.
The extremes of too much or too little must be sedulously avoided. A
typical reaction often encountered is that the Gospel says Joseph was
a just man. What more can be said?
- Plenty! In 1989 Pope John Paul II
offered us a masterful explanation and reflection on the unique
vocation of St. Joseph in God's plan of salvation with Redemptoris
Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer). This inspirational
pastoral letter marking the centenary of Leo XIII's landmark
encyclical, treats the person and mission of St. Joseph in the life of
Christ and of the Church. It recalls what makes him special, not only
for us personally, but for the universal Church.
- Some muse that Joseph's role is not
treated in any detail in Holy Scripture. But neither is the vocation
of Mary. However, what little is said is highly significant.
Theologians have reasoned to many of the functions and privileges
granted Mary. The same process is followed in regard to Joseph. Once
the divinity of Jesus and the divine virginal motherhood of Mary were
firmly established in Catholic doctrine and in popular understanding,
Joseph began to emerge without concern that his unique position as
virgin father of Jesus and virginal husband of Mary would be
- The evolution of devotion to St. Joseph
is in reality another facet of devotion to Mary. Probing more deeply
Joseph's mission leads us to knowing more deeply the greatness of
Mary. St. Joseph's position in relation to Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
stems from his position with regard to Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.
The parallel holds true also for Mary and Jesus. The better we know
Mary, the better we will know her Son, from whom she derives all her
dignity and whom she reflects so faithfully. Pope Benedict XV clearly
expressed this idea: "By St. Joseph we are led directly to Mary,
and by Mary to the fountain of all holiness, Jesus Christ, who
sanctified the domestic virtues by his obedience to St. Joseph and
- Absolutely certain is the fact that God
did not choose an unworthy man to be the husband of Mary, who was to
be the Virgin Mother of God. Even if St. Joseph had been merely Mary's
protector and not her husband, he would still have occupied a position
far surpassing that of any other human being. But Joseph is her
husband, related to the Mother of God in a marriage that was no less
genuine because it was virginal. The marriage was brought into
existence by God for the express purpose of serving the Incarnation,
so that the Son of God might be received and reared within that holy
conjugal union. Since, in all creation God could find none more worthy
than Mary to be the Mother of Jesus, God could find none more worthy
than Joseph to be the husband of Mary, and to be related to Jesus by
the spiritual ties of a true fatherhood.
- In the words of Leo XIII, "If God
gave Joseph as a spouse to the Virgin, He assuredly gave him not only
as a companion in life, a witness of her virginity, and the guardian
of her honor, but also as a sharer in her exalted dignity by reason of
the conjugal tie itself."
- On Calvary when Jesus entrusted Mary to
St. John's care for the rest of her earthly life, it was a sign of
divine predilection. And we marveled at John's holiness. Yet, what
must have been the divine predilection when Joseph was chosen to be
Mary's husband for the many years of the Hidden Life; to be one of the
few persons entrusted with the secret of the Incarnation; to be the
only man to receive the primacy of Mary's affections for humans, and
to return that love? Mary would not have been perfect in her wifely
vocation if she loved any creature more than her husband. And for
Joseph the converse was true.
- The similarity of holiness between Mary
and Joseph must, of course, be kept in balance. Mary's relationship to
Jesus was far superior to Joseph's. But Pope Leo XIII reminded us that
after Mary no one was of greater dignity than Joseph, none possessed
greater holiness than Joseph.
- How shall we understand that Joseph is
all that he is because of Mary? This means Joseph was given his
fatherly responsibility for Jesus because of his virginal marriage
with Mary. Through this marriage Joseph was not a mere fosterer, nor
was he an adoptive father of Jesus. He was much more than that. Jesus
was given to Mary not simply because she was a single maiden, but
because she was the virginal and true wife of St. Joseph. Jesus was
given to the family of St. Joseph, and that was accomplished
only through Mary. Even though St. Joseph was not the physical father
of Jesus, he was given the spiritual ties of fatherhood over a Son who
was his own because he was the Son of Mary.
- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph comprise the
Holy Family, the basic human unit of God's strategy for the
Incarnation and Redemption. They belong together in the history of
salvation. The three are inseparable, and should always be seen and
understood together theologically, pastorally, and in church art.
Their special identities in God's plan are interrelated. To see them
separately is regrettable and misleading.
- Let's not forget St. Joseph. What St.
Joseph did for Jesus and Mary, he will do for us personally and for
the universal Church.
- Like wife, like husband.