St. Joseph Thrives In The Counter-Reformation
St. Joseph, the stalwart family saint, meshed nicely with Counter-Reformation strategies for reevangelizing Christendom. His strength and dignity fit early modern ideals of patriarchal authority: Families were encouraged to imitate the harmonious order of the Holy Family headed by St. Joseph.
The saint's growing reputation also left its mark on Renaissance and Baroque art. At the turn of the 16th century, Italian paintings of St. Joseph's wedding to Mary exalted the religious significance of matrimony over its social and economic aspects. He became a model husband dutifully marrying in a Church ceremony, unlike Tuscan aristocrats who wed at home before a notary. Raphael's Betrothal of the Virgin (1504) is one famous example. This public relations campaign was rendered moot after the Council of Trent required everyone to marry before a priest and two witnesses.
In 1570 Johannes Molanus, the Counter-Reformation's arbiter of religious art, demanded a clean sweep of legendary material in Christian art. Among the subjects his writings denounced were the Holy Kindred and apocryphal accounts of St. Joseph's selection as Mary's spouse. Molanus insisted that St. Joseph be depicted as young and vigorous, with the Christ child firmly under his paternal authority.
Baroque artists didn't entirely obey these rules: St. Joseph kept his miraculous flowering staff and sometimes his grayness. But they did meet market demand for fresh images of St. Joseph, especially in the Hispanic world, where he enjoyed royal support. Among the masters, both El Greco and Zurbaran painted a strong, black-bearded St. Joseph walking hand in hand with the Holy Child. This motif of a man leading God by the hand would be often imitated because of the way it captured the saint's fatherly love for our Lord.
A more formal treatment is Zurbaran's Coronation of St. Joseph (1636), in which the risen Christ awards His foster father a floral crown of glory. Murillo's delightful genre scene The Holy Family with Little Bird and his tender St. Joseph with the Christ Child (1670s) depict the saint as a young, darkly handsome Spanish father.
Engravings made in the Spanish Netherlands spread such imagery throughout Catholic Europe and carried it to the New World. In Mexico and the Andes, where the Spanish Conquest and European diseases had left cruel scars, the Indians embraced St. Joseph as their own. Colonial artists created charmingly naïve paintings of their saint well into the 18th century, often depicting him with a bell-shaped Baroque crown and spangling his garments with gilt flowers.
More honors were showered on St. Joseph in early modern times. He was named official patron of Mexico (1555), Canada (1624), Bohemia (1655), Austria (1675), the Chinese missions (1678), and all of Spain's dominions, including Belgium (1689), which still remains under his patronage. Of course, St. Joseph continued to be invoked by families, carpenters and woodworkers, doubters, travelers, househunters, and the dying.
Although the Roman calendar had first listed St. Joseph's feast day in 1479, it wasn't until the 17th century that grandiose Latin hymns were written for this celebration. He received his own special office in the Roman Breviary in 1714, and his name was inserted in the Litany of Saints in 1729.
The first religious order dedicated to the saint was the Congregation of St. Joseph, founded in Le Puy, France, in 1650. Most of the three-dozen orders now operating under his name in the United States stem from that original French community.
But this glorious period of Joseph-centered piety was rudely disrupted by the French Revolution and the coming of the modern era. Familiar habits of hierarchy collapsed under pressure from industrialization, liberalism, and anticlericalism. As the backdrops of their lives changed, family, community, and the Church were under immense pressure throughout the Western world.
In troubled times, St. Joseph remained the refuge of the faithful. Not only were new religious orders dedicated to him, but the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded by the Breton Blessed Jeanne Jugan (d. 1879), made St. Joseph the de facto patron of all its homes for the aged.
Blessed Andre Bessette (d. 1937), a Canadian brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, reportedly healed thousands by rubbing them with "St. Joseph's oil."
Montreal's Oratory of St. Joseph, begun by Brother Bessette in 1904, grew into a huge basilica that still draws legions of pilgrims and promotes the saint worldwide.
Popes likewise saw St. Joseph as a prime healer of modern woes. In 1847, Blessed Pius IX ordered the feast of his patronage to be celebrated everywhere on the third Wednesday after Easter. In 1870, the same pope, now "the Prisoner of the Vatican," declared St. Joseph patron of the Church.
Leo XIII's 1889 encyclical on devotion to St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, invokes the saint against the religious and social crises of his day. Besides echoing familiar thoughts on the saint's singular virtues, Leo XIII asks the poor to take St. Joseph, not socialists, as their guide in seeking justice.
The rise of communism made this last thought more timely than even Leo could have predicted. In 1930, Pius XI named St. Joseph a special promoter of Russia to counteract Soviet persecution of the Church; he invoked him again in 1937 against atheist communism in general. In 1955, Pius XII replaced the Patronage of St. Joseph with a new feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, the traditional holiday of the working class. (Since then, new images of the saint show him holding carpenter's tools rather than lilies.)
To draw blessings from the Church's patron, Pope John XXIII made St. Joseph patron of Vatican II (1961) and inserted his name in the canon of the Mass (1963). But John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (1989) broadens his predecessors' concerns.
For John Paul II, the mystery of St. Joseph's heroic obedience to God plays out in the family, the "sanctuary of love and cradle of life." He emphasizes the reality of the saint's marriage and paternity despite the absence of sexual activity: Self-giving love is what matters most. Outside the family, St. Joseph "brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption." He's our model for harmonizing the active with the contemplative life. Inheritor of the Old Covenant, his association with Jesus and Mary in their "domestic church" makes him a fitting patron of the universal Church born of the New Covenant.
Redemptoris Custos places St. Joseph firmly in the foreground of efforts to renew family, society, and the Church. With married fatherhood disparaged, workers devalued, and the true faith fading, now more than ever we must "Go to Joseph."