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How A Pope Turned Jesus’s Foster Father, Joseph, Into An Anti-Communist Icon


Manipulating an opponent’s energy against him has applications far beyond physical combat. Take, for example, the Catholic Church’s decision in 1955 to label May 1, which a pan-national organization of socialist and communist political parties in 1904 had named “International Workers’ Day,” as the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker.

By acknowledging the value of labor, and offering an exemplar of the masculine, working-class life, Pope Pius XII sought to provide the world an important counter-balance to the materialistic, typically godless ideological vision propagated by an ascendant communism that held sway across much of the world. St. Joseph remains today a model that men should seek to emulate in this increasingly anti-testosterone world.

Joseph, the Anti-Communist Icon

May 1 is known by many names, including Workers’ Day, Labor Day, and “May Day.” It originally honored the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Affair, in which working-class protestors clashed with police in Chicago, resulting in the injury and deaths of scores of police officers and civilians.

Some of the demands of those early socialists and communists were legitimate: a shorter work day, fair wages, and basic benefits. Yet over time the event came to be closely aligned with global communism and its bellicose stance towards the democratic West. The Soviet Union held large military parades in Red Square, attended by top Kremlin leaders on May Day. It remains one of the most important holidays in the communist countries of China, North Korea, and Cuba.

In response, Pope Pius XII in 1955 instituted the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. He instructed members of the Association of Christian Workers to “honor Joseph as the high example and invincible defender of their ranks.” He elsewhere claimed that “no worker was ever more completely and profoundly penetrated by [the Holy Spirit] than the foster father of Jesus, who lived with Him in closest intimacy and community of family life and work.”

The pontiff composed a prayer in honor of Joseph as an example of “diligent labor,” who can help Christian artisans to be useful members of society, glorify God in their work, be humble and simple of heart, and be disciplined in prayer. The prayer unashamedly urges laborers to seek help first from God, rather than from government or some political program.

In a time of persecution of Christianity by communist powers, re-orienting the energies of the working-class — who had many legitimate grievances — provided a critical counterbalance to universal socialism. This was especially the case in predominantly Catholic Poland, where the identity and mission of the labor union Solidarity was intimately united to Christianity.

Joseph, the Working Man and Family Man

There are many good reasons Joseph is an exemplar for the working man. Joseph was a poor man. When he takes the baby Jesus to be circumcised in the Temple in Jerusalem, he offers the minimal requirement of the law: “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:22-24).

He was a carpenter in the obscure town of Nazareth, many scholars conjecturing that he daily made the six-kilometer journey to rebuild the nearby city of Sepphoris. This hard life likely explains why Joseph is absent from the entirety of Jesus’ adult life — most scholars believe the carpenter was dead well before Jesus began his three-year ministry.

There is something even more striking about Joseph in the pages of the New Testament: he never utters a word. We have a number of other anecdotes about him: his dream in which the angel Gabriel tells him Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit; him taking Mary to Bethlehem for the census, where she gives birth to Jesus; another dream in which he is told to take the holy family to Egypt to avoid persecution. In none of these does he speak. Yet a fairly clear image of the man emerges in these stories.

Joseph is fervently pious, living according to the Judaic law. He is compassionate towards Mary, deeply concerned with protecting her when he first learns of her pregnancy out of wedlock. He is a man willing to sacrifice and place the needs of others, particularly his immediate family, above his own.

He is quick to obey God, carefully following instructions both to wed Mary and then become a refugee in a distant land. He patiently teaches Jesus his professional trade. In all of this, Joseph’s silence reminds us that our actions can speak far louder than our words. We don’t need to read Joseph telling his wife or child that he loves them — he proves it to them, and to us, on every page of the gospels in which he is mentioned.

Joseph Labored So Others Could Shine

Thus the foster-father of Jesus remains an invaluable exemplar of masculinity and fatherhood for us. In an age overly anxious about “toxic masculinity” and obsessively antagonistic towards men serving in traditional roles in the family and society, Joseph shows us what manhood is really about.

Patriarchal leadership was never intended to be about social status or relational domination, but service and sacrifice. Differences between the sexes, indelible to the human condition, are one of the means by which we fulfill our callings as men and women.

Indeed, although Joseph is highly praised in the Catholic tradition, and has even been named “patron of the Universal Church,” Mary’s status in the economy of salvation is far superior. The Catholic Church considers her, apart of course from Christ, the most perfect human being ever to have lived! Joseph’s role in the divine plan is actually to help Jesus and Mary take center stage.

This May Day, we can agree that all laborers, regardless of their work, possess certain fundamental rights. Yet these rights stem not, as Karl Marx believed, solely from man’s economic output, but from his inherent dignity as a person created in God’s image.

As Pope John Paul II argues in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide [social] changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.” That Polish pope likewise commends to us Joseph the Worker, both because of his diligent labor and service to his family, but also because “his heart ceaselessly perseveres in the readiness to accept the Truth contained in the word of the Living God.”

Thus this 1 May, all workers should pray, as Pope Pius XII did in honor of St. Joseph, that “we never take our eyes off Jesus, Who was busily occupied with [Joseph] at the carpenters bench, in order that we in like manner may lead on earth a peaceful and a holy life, a prelude to the life of eternal happiness that awaits us in Heaven for ever and ever.”