By Fr. Richard Beyer
With Pope Francis’ recent declaration that the name of St. Joseph be added to the four Eucharistic Prayers, alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary, few were aware of the fascinating background of his decision.
During Vatican II, an aged bishop from Yugoslavia shuffled up to the podium and appealed to the assembled bishops to include Joseph in the First Eucharistic Prayer, or traditional Canon, of the Mass. To the majority present this seemed unimportant at the moment. They were concerned with major changes and expressed their disapproval in the routine fashion of slapping the bench in unison to the chant, “Non ad rem!” (not to the point). The old bishop then left the podium and tottered back to his place.
But in the papal apartments, Pope John XXIII (who watched all the proceedings on closed-circuit TV) was not amused. He knew that the old bishop had been imprisoned for nine years in a Communist jail, and that his captors had broken both his legs and simply left him to suffer. During this ordeal the bishop, in agony, had prayed to St. Joseph.
The very next day, Pope John made the first change in the Canon of the Mass in centuries: he ordered the inclusion of the name of Joseph. Upon further inquiry, the bishops found out that 26 among them still bore on their bodies the scars of Communism. The incident turned out to be the most moving of the long council.
The bishops were not surprised that John XXIII would elevate St. Joseph in such a profound manner. After the conclave that elected him, he seriously considered taking “Joseph” as his new name as pontiff, and was thereafter considered by many as the Josephine pope, much as John Paul II was known as the Marian pope.
Earlier John XXIII had chosen St. Joseph as the special patron of the Second Vatican Council, recalling that Christ’s guardian had previously been invoked to help the Church in its projects and concerns, and especially when it was in crisis. He no doubt had in mind the crisis of 1870 when the Vatican was in danger of extinction, or so it was thought. King Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of Italy, was intent on subjugating the country, which was comprised of small states, into one Kingdom. He therefore invaded the extensive Papal State, which had existed for over a thousand years, and was primarily comprised of gifts of land over the centuries.
When things appeared at their worst, Pope Pius IX invoked the protection of Joseph of Nazareth. In the great Roman basilicas he published the decree Quemadmodum Deus, declaring St. Joseph patron and protector of the universal Church.
Surprisingly, up to this time Joseph was not considered a preeminent saint. He was acknowledged, of course, but his feast day was Class II on the calendar and there were few if any devotions in his honor.
This all changed after the 1870 crisis and succeeding popes outdid one another in honoring the carpenter from Nazareth. Pius IX also elevated Joseph’s feast to a Solemnity, the highest designation. Later Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903) approved the St. Joseph Scapular and wrote the first encyclical letter on devotion to the saint. The Litany of St. Joseph was endorsed by St. Pius X (d. 1914), and Benedict XV (d. 1922) added Joseph’s name to the Divine Praises, prayed at the end of Benediction.
Later, Pius XI (d. 1939) designated him special protector against Communism, and in 1955 Pius XII (d. 1958) established the Feast of “St. Joseph the Worker” to be celebrated on May 1, which Christianized May Day, the Communist holiday.
In 1989, Pope John Paul II issued Guardian of the Redeemer which traced St. Joseph’s role in the plan of redemption. With the growth of Mariology, the theological study of St. Joseph also began to grow, and three centers for Josephology were formed in the 1950s, the first in Valladolid, Spain, the second at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and the third in the theologate of Viterbo, Italy.
In referring back to St. Joseph’s great friend, John XXIII, it’s not surprising that he adopted March 19, the Solemnity of Joseph, as his name day. At the first celebration in 1959, he addressed Rome’s street-cleaners. Speaking of his personal devotion to Joseph, he recalled his inclination to take his name as pope, and said the following to the assembled workers:
“All the saints in glory merit and honor a particular respect, but it is evident that St. Joseph has a special place in our hearts, a place which belongs to him alone, fragrant, more intimate, and penetrating… Add to all this the experience of life and the knowledge of Christian doctrine . . . and we can measure more fully the grandeur of St. Joseph, not only by reason of the fact that he was close to Jesus and Mary, but also by the shining example which he has given us of all the virtues.”
(Fr. Richard Beyer is a spiritual writer and clinical chaplain in Iowa City. His latest book is The Catholic Heart: Day by Day.)