The Year of St. Joseph for the whole Church has been most fitting, because it recalls his central role as patron of the universal Church. This title was formalized by Pope Pius IX in 1870. In Quemadmodum Deus, Pope Pius IX makes special mention of St. Joseph’s role of overseeing in the raising and rearing of Jesus, as well as his role as the Lord’s protector. Both these roles were his way of cooperating with the work of salvation, and is a role he continues to this day in heaven.
Caring for the Body of Christ
St. Joseph’s role as foster father of Jesus implies that he was given a mission: to raise Jesus and to be a model from whom Jesus could learn (cf: Lk 2:52). He provided for Mary and Jesus, fed Jesus, washed him, hugged him, helped put him to sleep at night. Every fatherly duty was performed for Jesus by Joseph with care and devotion, certainly done with as much love and devotion as if Jesus was his own. As Jesus grew up, St. Joseph taught Jesus how to walk, speak, and, most importantly, how to seek out the Father in prayer. St. Joseph modeled faithfulness to Jewish practices, not just as an external observance, but as a sign of God’s love that flowed from his heart. In the Holy Family’s poverty and simplicity, St. Joseph taught Jesus the riches of human love and that what matters most is love of God and love of neighbor. In all this, St Joseph cared for Jesus.
This, then, begins opening a mystery for the Church, which itself is mystically united to the body of Jesus. The Church is the body of Christ, built up through communion and Eucharistic reception of his body. This extension of Jesus’ body into space and time means the Church is already cared for by St. Joseph in the Holy Family’s home at Nazareth. This means that the mystery of life today is close to the saintly foster father in mystery in Jesus. It is also what allows St. Joseph’s role as foster father of Jesus to now extend to the whole Church. His care for Jesus is now extended to all who are mystically united to Jesus through baptism in the Church. St. Joseph’s universal patronage of the Church is grounded in this reality. As he cared for Jesus in Nazareth, so now he cares for Jesus as he is extended through His Body, the Church. It is the Church, which also finds its perfection in Mary, the Mother of the Church, that St. Joseph has a closeness to because of the closeness of life he shared with the Blessed Virgin.
Protector of the Holy Family
Another central duty of St. Joseph was protection of the Holy Family. He guided Mary to Bethlehem (Lk 2:4), was commissioned to stay near the mystery of the Incarnation by St. Gabriel (Mt 1:24), protected the Holy Family from danger in the early years of Jesus’s life (Mt 2:13-23), and went in search of Jesus in the Temple after they had lost him (Lk 2:41-49). As a protector from danger, St. Joseph now maintains the role of protecting the Church from the encroaching gates of Hell, cited by Pope Pius IX as one reason for declaring him the universal patron of the Church.
Through the mystical unity of Christ and the Church, and in considering his role for the Christ child, it becomes clear that St. Joseph has a principal role in protecting all the Church, including us as well. Thus we must build a relationship with him since we belong to Jesus in his Church, and thus share in Jesus’ relationship with St. Joseph. We should foster devotion to St. Joseph, invoke his help and emulate him. He is a scourge to the devil, a principal help in time of temptation, and one whose mission now extends to the whole Church.
Cooperator with Redemption
Finally, in caring for Christ and protecting the Holy Family, we see a mission entrusted to St. Joseph. Gabriel calls him to this mission of looking after both Mary and Jesus. And without him, the course of salvation history would have taken a drastically different turn. St. Joseph’s generous response not only reveals his great character but also the humility of God manifested by his dependence on us vulnerable creatures in the work of salvation. St. Joseph, then, reveals to us that true humility is what allows one to receive God’s call so as to be a cooperator with redemption. Since the work of salvation is still at hand in the Church, St. Joseph continues to cooperate with God’s Son, our Redeemer, and with the Church in the work of salvation. By asking his intercession, we invoke his biblical role as a cooperator in the grace of salvation. Being close to St. Joseph means we are close to the work of salvation, which is both the end and root of the Church’s existence and mission.
In light of these aspects of St. Joseph’s mission, we find greater meaning in his role as the universal patron of the Church. His mission as intercessor, protector, cooperator and caretaker of Christ’s body, the Church, is a role that continues to this day. It is vital that we as Christians continue to lean on St. Joseph. His importance for the whole Church helps protect our communion by drawing us closer to God’s Son. In St. Joseph we have an example of well-lived faith, and we have a friend and a helper who draws us closer to Christ.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.