Saint Joseph and the Vocation of the Pope and All Men to Fatherhood

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus, Guido Reni (1635)

With the election of the new Pope, whose Mass of Inauguration we celebrate today in Rome, the role of Peter continues in the Church in the ministry of his successor, our Holy Father Pope Francis.  It seems particularly appropriate that this inaugural Mass would take place on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph who was declared on December 8, 1870 by Pope Pius IX as Patron of the Universal Church. This title aptly describes his special place in Christian life.

The word “pope” is derived from “papa,” meaning “father,” and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Peter, the first Pope, acting consistently as a father.  Peter must act as a father because the Church is a family.  Thus the beginning of the ministry of Pope Francis on the day on which the Church celebrates Saint Joseph, foster father and protector of Jesus and Patron of the Universal Church, points us to this holy man, who was spouse of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was also God’s Son, to see some sign of the new Pope’s role and duties.

Scripture does not record a single word uttered by this just and righteous man, yet his life as husband and father has much to say to us.  Joseph is a model of the fullness of faith, hope, and love.

The love of Joseph for Mary, and the love of Mary for Joseph, was made fruitful through their love for God.  In the “indivisible union of souls” that is found in an exemplary manner in their virginal marriage, Joseph was and remains a real and true father (Redemptoris Custos, 7).  While “his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring, . . . neither is it an ‘apparent’ or merely ‘substitute’ fatherhood. Rather, it is one that fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family” (Id., 21).

As the model husband, father, and man of faith, Joseph was protector, supporter, teacher, and provider.  He gave of himself entirely to Mary and Jesus, serving them with the greatest devotion and humility, recognizing their sublime dignity.  While he was leader and head of the family, he understood himself to be the least among them.  “Fathers of families find in Joseph the best personification of paternal solicitude and vigilance; spouses a perfect example of love, of peace, and of conjugal fidelity” (Quamquam Pluries, 4).

Joseph teaches us that all men, by their inherent paternal nature, are called to be fathers in a certain sense, if not in the flesh, then in the spirit by a pure and fruitful love that helps in the formation and growth of others as children of God.  As with women, men find their dignity not in occupational pursuits, much less in the acquisition and exercise of power, but by virtue of loving relationship with others.  Joseph’s special virtues of justice and fidelity are particularly appropriate for imitation.

The fatherhood of Joseph includes not only the Holy Family entrusted to him by God, but the entire family of God, that is, the Church.  For this reason, Joseph is the Patron of the Universal Church.  All the faithful should look to him as guardian and protector of our spiritual home and family, especially in our time when there is often “no room at the inn” for the Lord and some would seek to eliminate him as posing a threat to their worldly power (cf. Lk 2:6-7, Mt 2:13-16).

In this respect, we can also see this man of faith as an example and model for the Pope.  Like Joseph, the role of the Pope is that of a “holy father” – leading, protecting, supporting, teaching, and providing for the family of God.  He does this, not as a master for selfish gain, but as a humble, devoted servant in self-sacrificing love, deriving his authority not from his own merits, but entirely from the Lord.  As Pope Benedict XVI taught, “the life of Saint Joseph, lived in obedience to God’s word, is an eloquent sign for all the disciples of Jesus who seek the unity of the Church. His example helps us to understand that it is only by complete submission to the will of God that we become effective workers in the service of his plan to gather together all mankind into one family, one assembly, one ‘ecclesia.’”

Just as Joseph was called to help the Lord in the work of salvation by loving gift of self to the Incarnate Word and his Virgin Mother, so too has Pope Francis been called to this task.  As he now begins his pontificate, may we all look to him with love as our Holy Father and head of our family of faith, entrusting him and the Holy Church to the constant protection of the most holy and blessed Saint Joseph.