Pope Francis gave us an early Christmas present last week, on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Good historian that he is, the Holy Father realized that, 150 years earlier, Pope Blessed Pius IX had declared the chaste spouse of our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, as Protector of the Church Universal.
Wanting to rekindle our devotion to Good St. Joseph, Pope Francis declared this year—December 8, 2020-December 8, 2021—a Year of St. Joseph.
I’m sure glad he did. It’s clear Papa Francesco has a tender love of St. Joseph. You may recall that his first decision after he was elected Successor of St. Peter on March 13, 2015 was to insert the name of St. Joseph in each Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass, right after we mention His virgin wife, Mary. (Pope St. John XXIII had placed his name in the Roman Canon back in 1962, but, since then, we have restored the use of more canons at Mass, so now St. Joseph is in all of them.)
When I think of St. Joseph, I think as well of my own dad...which is quite a blessing to acknowledge.
When I was about seven, I saved up $1.71 to buy Christmas gifts for Mom, Dad, and my sister Deb, my only sibling at the time. Dad was going out shopping, and I tagged along to buy the gifts with my money. For Mom, I found measuring spoons, for Deb barrettes for her red hair. That left me three cents! I shared my problem with Dad, explaining that now I didn’t have enough money to buy him anything.
“Don’t worry, Tim” he consoled. “You got a gift for your mom and sister. That’s a gift to me, too!”
Dad was content with his wife and child getting gifts. He needed none
That’s St. Joseph, too. He stays in the background, wanting all the attention to go to Jesus and Mary.
I cherish the image of Altagracia, the patroness of the Dominican Republic. In fact, I have twice visited her shrine there. Prominent in the image are Mary and the baby Jesus. But you have to look real close to see St. Joseph, there in the background, beaming at his foster child and virgin wife.
He seems to prefer the background. No “center of attention” is he! In fact, we have no recorded words of St. Joseph, although he’s prominent in the Bible. Humble, quiet, reliable, dutiful, attentive to his vocation...but hardly an attention-getter!
Pope Francis loves him for this, but figures it’s a good time to give him some attention! Thus, the Year of St. Joseph.
The confessional I use at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is right next to the Altar of St. Joseph. During Advent, as I hear confessions, for a penance I instruct the penitent to stop at that altar and pray the “Hail Mary” three times to honor St. Joseph.
One astute penitent asked me, “But you said to honor St. Joseph. That prayer honors his wife and foster son!”
“Ah,” I replied, “but he loves it when we pay more attention to Jesus and Mary than to him.”
One more Christmas story about my dad. As a member of the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society, dad had the duty of helping deliver Christmas gift boxes to a poor area of the parish along the Meramec River. I got to ride along. We stopped at a shack and knocked on the door. A pregnant woman, holding another of her children, with two more hiding behind her apron, opened the door, and smiled when she saw the box of food, clothes, and toys for the kids.
When we went in, we saw the dad bringing in a load of firewood from the back door. My dad introduced himself to the family, and put the gifts on the kitchen table.
While mom and the kids cheered, dad looked a bit unsettled. My dad sensed this.
“Mr. Smith,” dad announced, “I was in town, and the storekeepers asked if I could deliver these supplies you had bought for your family for Christmas.”
With that, the other dad smiled and shook my dad’s hand. “Thanks,” he said. “That old car is broke again and I didn’t know how I’d get to town to pick up these gifts for my wife and kids.”
My dad had realized their dad was embarrassed by the charity, scared that his own wife and kids would realize he had not provided. My dad wanted no attention or thanks. He was just happy that their dad got the credit.
There’s St. Joseph again! Pay attention, he whispers, to my wife and child.
This dreadful now ending 2020 has seen a lot of St. Josephs: our health care professionals, first responders and essential workers, priests, deacons, neighbors, family, parishioners, and caregivers who quietly, humbly, without cameras and microphones, not seeking any acclaim, have gotten all of us through tough times...like St. Joseph!
This Christmas, we ask God to bless them; we also gaze upon the manger, certainly loving Jesus and Mary, but not forgetting to look in the back, hidden among the sheep, cattle, and hay, and say thanks to St. Joseph.
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