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Challenges – St Joseph
A WORD FROM THE DEEP SILENCE
Nowadays, St Joseph is almost invisible, even if he embodies all the traits needed to inspire and maintain a vocation, and the values that are so much in need in our societies and personal lives: Not by chance, he was the favourite saint of St Daniel Comboni, Africa’s great missionary. Almost unheard in the Gospels, his silence contains a powerful message
Fr Manuel João Pereira
At the heart of Lent, on March 19, the Church celebrates the feast of St Joseph, as it does for Mary during Advent (December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception). Often represented as a venerable old man with a beard and white hair or even bald, looking sad and reserved, with a worried countenance, bent under the weight of his fate... we could say that Joseph mirrors the mood of a certain ‘Lenten spirit’ of other times!
The values that characterise him—silence, obedience and service—are also not fashionable. No wonder, therefore, that devotion to this saint has been declining over the last decades—despite the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos (1989), considered the Magna Carta of the theology of St Joseph. However, St Joseph is a key figure in understanding some of the essential dimensions of Christian vocation. Here are four of them: to protect life, to practise justice, to let God be the protagonist of our lives, to cultivate the mystical dimension.
In Hebrew, the name Joseph means “God adds, God will increase”, therefore, a call to fertility and fruitfulness, to overabundance of life! Joseph is a descendant of David (son of David), from Nazareth, a carpenter (Tékton), a profession related to construction. In the Gospels, he is presented sometimes as the husband of Mary, something unusual because, generally, it was the wife that belonged to her husband. But it is also said that Mary was the wife of Joseph (Matthew 1: 18) and that Jesus was the carpenter’s son (Matthew 13: 55).
Joseph anticipates and lives the word of Jesus that “only one is our Father” (Matthew 23: 9). He embodies in a very special way this divine fatherhood (cf. Ephesians 3: 15). He is a father without exercising carnal paternity, but he is a father indeed, because “being a father is first and foremost to be a servant of life and growth” (Pope Benedict XVI). Like the ancient patriarchs, he too receives communications from God through dreams (three times). This is a sign of a unique vocation and of a particular relationship with God. Joseph is the last of the ancient patriarchs, but the first of a new progeny, of those “born, not of blood, nor of the impulse of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1: 13). This fatherhood is a dimension of Christian vocation. We are called, like Joseph, to adopt and protect life. To be fruitful and live at the service of life, without trying to possess it—freely. Joseph teaches us how one can love without owning people—unselfishly.
Fatherhood/motherhood is an urgent value to be promoted today, in a society of ‘vagrancy’ looking for new experiences, rich of ‘prodigal sons’ but poor of ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’. Real Fatherhood/motherhood means to be able to wait patiently at home, to embrace those children when they return home, disillusioned with life and hungry for love. So often, they find their house empty, with no one waiting for them!
A model of justice
The gospel defines Joseph as a righteous, a just man (Matthew 1: 19). ‘Just’ because, being faithful, he adjusts his life to the Word of his Lord. But also because, being wise, he’s able to adjust himself to the events of life, he fits into reality. Indeed, when he realises that Mary is pregnant, his first reaction is to comply with the law (repudiating Mary), but decides to do it in secret. Thus, he introduces a new element of prudence and wisdom. He maintains his confidence in Mary, without being swayed by suspicion. Why? Because he’s accustomed to “a long listening attendance of another word that touches and penetrates him” (Frédérique Oltra, Carmelite).
Being just, he is the “faithful and wise administrator that the Lord puts in front of his house staff” (Luke 12: 42). Joseph knows that he is a servant and has to serve well. The good will is not enough. So, the biblical text speaks of a man “wise and faithful” (Matthew 24: 45). “Intelligence without fidelity and fidelity without intelligence are insufficient” to assume the responsibility which God entrusts to us (Benedict XVI).
To practise justice is part of our vocation. To be just as Joseph was, is a justice that leads us to behave according to justice and occupy our just place in life, serving. A justice illuminated by love, “the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13: 10), something we are lacking today. There is much talk of justice but we lack righteous men.
A model of discretion
Joseph appears as a discreet man, a reserved person. Always “out of the picture”, as an author said, with a certain wit: two sisters were browsing through their new religion book, when they saw a painting of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. “Look”, said the elder sister, “this is Jesus, and this is his mother”. “And where is the father?” asked her little sister. She thought for a moment and then said: “Ah, he took the picture”.
Man of silence; the facts speak for him. Man of obedience, the gospel emphasizes his perfect fulfilment of the instructions received from the angel in a dream (Matthew 1: 24). As the Song of Songs says: while sleeping, his heart remains vigilant (5: 2). Forgetful of himself, Joseph lives for the baby and his mother (Matthew 2: 13. 19). Like John the Baptist, he believes that he must decrease in order that they may grow. His life belongs to them, fully. And so, at a certain moment, he ‘disappears’ ... not to overshadow his son!
Each of us is called to follow this testimony: Being discreet like Joseph, putting our lives at the service of Christ’s mission; learning to put ourselves aside, to withdraw behind the scenes. Neither is it easy nor obvious. We live in a society that encourages personal fulfilment and protagonism. From our childhood, we dream with our own life project. But vocation implies renouncing this human dream (as Joseph and Mary did) to embrace God’s dream. Learning to eclipse so that God’s plan may be realised in us!
A model of contemplation
Joseph is the saint of silence, one that never speaks. But his silence is a rich and deep one that challenges us. Why such silence? Because Joseph lives ‘inside’ the mystery! This is not a matter of words but an attitude of life. Given the unexpected and incomprehensible fact of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph thinks to withdraw quietly. It is the word of the angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because she conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1: 20), that introduces Joseph into the mystery, as Gabriel did with Mary.
“This word does not eliminate the mystery, does not explain what really happened, or how. This word introduces Joseph into the mystery that had already absorbed Mary. Joseph is no longer in front but inside the mystery. It is not like the people of Israel in front of the cloud in the desert, he is introduced inside the cloud, like Moses or the three apostles on Mount Tabor” (theologian Borel). Before, he was ‘out’ of the mystery, facing it, and so doubted and feared. Now, he’s led by it, as Mary after her ‘fiat’. Now, inside the mystery, even without understanding it, he cannot doubt it.
To dwell in the mystery of God is the essential aspect of every vocation. This requires a willingness to let oneself be introduced to it. Otherwise, the one called by God will remain ‘out’ and will not find motivations to live up to his vocation. He will be, at best, a good ‘employee’ or a ‘mercenary’ and, at worst, a ‘parasitic’ or ‘unfaithful servant’ (Luke 12: 46).
In conclusion, Joseph is certainly not the man portrayed by a certain iconography. Surrounded by mystery, within a family that he loved and where he felt loved, identified with his vocation of protecting the Author of Life, exercising his profession competently, he was... A HAPPY MAN, a son of his Son’s Resurrection! (Luke 20: 36).
St Joseph occupies a very special place in the spiritual life of St Daniel Comboni and thus in missionary spirituality. Comboni entered into communion with the saint since his youth, while training at the Mazza Institute, where he entered in 1843. This period is crucial to understand his devotion. Born in a poor family and educated in a poor institute under the gaze of St Joseph, he found himself having to start his work virtually out of nothing. Finding himself almost alone to organize a colossal work, it became obvious to him, in his faith logic, to implore and choose St Joseph as his Mission Treasurer, and to address him with daring confidence whenever he was in need. Comboni has a sense of Providence and he sees in St Joseph its heavenly dispensator.
This is essential to understand that the way he speaks of St Joseph is always multifaceted, i.e. never limited to purely material interests, but always comes from a relationship characterized by spirit and faith and extends to the spiritual and missionary field. Such relationship deepened after Pope Pius IX, during the first Vatican Council, on December 8, 1870, proclaimed St Joseph Patron of the universal Church. For Comboni, mission was in the function of the Church, and thus, if St Joseph was the protector of the universal Church, he was also the protector of the peoples of Africa. From that moment on, Comboni begins to venerate him as protector of the Catholic Church and of Africa. Intense personal devotion—in harmony with the ecclesial tradition—brings Comboni to consider St Joseph as protector, patron, patriarch, father of Africa, and king of gentlemen. Towards the end of his life, in a letter sent to Fr Sembianti from El-Obeid on April 20, 1881, Comboni talks about “the poetry of St Joseph’s greatness”. That text is very significant. Since it was written towards the end of his life and reported to his missionaries, it becomes a kind of spiritual testament for all Comboni missionaries of all time.
The expression “the poetry of St Joseph’s greatness” tells us that, in the life and prayer of Comboni, St Joseph is much more than the mission’s heavenly bursar, although this expression comes from a heart already moved by spirit and faith; it makes us understand that beyond the repetition of formulas of prayer requesting favours, emerges in Comboni the depth of his affection towards the saint, in a context of communion, esteem and confidence, which leads him to place him among the treasures of his life, next to the twin hearts of Jesus and Mary. Joseph stands out in the heart of Comboni from the “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Hebrews 12: 1) as the type/paradigm of the believer, who embodies the mystery of Divine Providence (Comboni, Writings, 314), which governs with its universal patronage the entire history of salvation. He is the silent man who meditates, obeys and keeps silent, in a total availability to God’s will upon him, what makes him a model of the missionary of Africa, which Comboni describes in Chapter X of his Rules (1871): Any man, who, in an absolute and final way, breaks off relations with the world and with those things naturally most dear to him, must live a life of spirit and of faith (Comboni, Writings, 2698).
Comboni “does not seek from God the reason for the Mission he has received, but rather acts on God’s word and that of his representatives, as a docile instrument of his adorable will” (Comboni, Writings, 2702). Joseph, after fulfilling his role in the mystery of incarnation, inserting Christ in the people of salvation, disappears. This happened to Comboni exactly as it happened to Joseph, who lived his earthly life deeply absorbed in the adoration of God—in whom he relied totally and, at the same time, committed daily in hard handy work—and before the accomplishment of the mystery of ‘his son’, before Jesus consummated his mission on the cross, he had already taken over himself the weight of a destiny and a mission similar to that of Jesus.
Comboni sang the poetry of Saint Joseph’s greatness, firstly with confidence in his protection; and secondly, because of his exemplary style of following Christ, who “became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8: 9). Supernatural confidence in St Joseph allowed Comboni to fear nothing on earth, because he felt that he was at the service of a totally divine work.
Fr Carmelo Casile, Comboni Missionary
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From a tender age, St Daniel Comboni was introduced to the mystery of the Heart of Jesus. In his years of formation, he was enchanted with a beautiful painting of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary in the seminary chapel
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