St. Joseph Takes His Place
Still, this slowly building interest would not necessarily have brought St. Joseph to his later prominence. What propelled him to saintly stardom were the calamities of the 14th century. That era opened with unprecedented famine around the shores of the North Sea. The Hundred Years' War broke out between France and England. Civil war tore at Castile. Portugal, Scotland, and Poland-Lithuania battled for their national lives. Peasants and urban artisans rose in revolt from Tuscany to Flanders, England to Estonia.
Heresies, corruption, and religious hysterias disfigured the Church while she suffered the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism. And over all these miseries rode the Black Death, killing a quarter of Europe's people in its first assault alone.
The horrors inflicted on families and communities needed heavenly healing. Reform-minded French theologian Jean Gerson (d. 1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and a noted spiritual writer, turned the spotlight on St. Joseph as the ideal family model and protector. Gerson's 2,957-line poem about St. Joseph, the Josephina, promoted the saint and his marvelous virtues across western Europe.
Gerson's ideas were echoed by his contemporary, St. Bernardine of Siena, a spellbinding preacher and reformer of the Franciscan order. St. Bernardine labored to evangelize Italy's powerful city-states, whose proud consumerist culture let money distort marriage patterns among the elite. Sodomy and widespread attempts at contraception also disfigured these societies.
Gerson and St. Bernardine gathered up existing fragments of devotion to St. Joseph and rewrote his role in the Church. Rejecting the elderly St. Joseph of the Church fathers and the Greek Church, they declared that the saint must have been a strong young man, well able to care for the Holy Family. St. Bernardine struck an especially sympathetic note with his urban audiences by calling St. Joseph a "diligent administrator" who anxiously worked day and night to support his loved ones.
Furthermore, according to Gerson and St. Bernardine, St. Joseph was a virgin, not a widower, and he had been cleansed from original sin before birth so that he would be a fit spouse for Mary. Gerson and St. Bernardine also believed that St. Joseph was assumed into heaven after death. Thus the Holy Family had already been reunited, in body as well as in soul, maintaining the same bond of charity that had held them together on earth. Gerson wrote, "O venerable trinity Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, which divinity has joined, the concord of love!"
By the 16th century, devotion to St. Joseph was flourishing in Spain. St. Teresa of Avila became his great advocate because she believed his intercession had healed her of paralysis. Referring to "the glorious St. Joseph" as her "father and lord," St. Teresa praised him as a helper in every need and burned with eagerness "to persuade all to be devoted to him."
By the 1550s, St. Teresa was also dreaming of reforming her Carmelite order. She placed this difficult project — and the dangerous journeys it required — under St. Joseph's protection. Twelve of the 17 new monasteries she founded were dedicated to the saint, and all of them were adorned with his statue — honors hitherto unknown.
St. Teresa's enthusiasm spread to others, notably her friend and fellow Discalced Carmelite, Jeronimo Gracian. This friar's highly popular Josephina (1597) repeated earlier praises for the saint, adding the significant proposal that St. Joseph was the man who most resembled Christ in "countenance, speech, physical constitution, custom, inclinations, and manner." Gracian also plucked the command "Ite ad Joseph" ("Go to Joseph") from the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph (Genesis 41:55) and made it the New Testament saint's catch phrase, a quote that was often inscribed on his altars and images.
Carmelite devotion to St. Joseph spread to other orders within Spain and throughout the Spanish empire. The first foundation of St. Teresa's nuns in France (1604) planted her spirituality into the French "Century of Saints." In particular, her love of St. Joseph took root in St. Francis de Sales, the great champion of holiness in everyday life.
St. Francis built Joseph-based piety into the Order of the Visitation, which he founded with St. Jane de Chantal. The Visitandine nuns were directed to say a daily chaplet, litany, and meditative prayers to St. Joseph. St. Francis himself preached eloquently to them about his favorite saint.
Conference 19 in St. Francis's influential Spiritual Conferences celebrates the chastity, humility, courage, constancy, and strength of St. Joseph — virtues that are envisioned as flowers embroidered on his heavenly garments. As the Savior's guardian, St. Joseph had to be "more valiant than David and wiser than Solomon." As the human being closest to Mary in perfection, he was worthy of the special intimacy he enjoyed with Jesus.
St. Francis was also the liveliest advocate of a special resurrection and assumption for St. Joseph, following that of Christ. He presented the saint as "the glorious father of our life and our love," a tremendous intercessor and patron of parents, workers, and the dying.