Pope Francis, the spiritual father of the Roman Catholic world, recently declared that church body will journey through “A Year of St. Joseph” from Dec. 8, 2020, through Dec. 8, 2021. Proclaiming a year in the name of some person or theme is a method several popes have used to highlight an all-important message they believe to be critical for both the church and the entire world at that time.
In 2014, Francis did something similar when he proclaimed “A Year of Consecrated Life” focusing on the men and women who vow their lives to serve in the church, along with “A Year of Mercy” in 2015 focusing on God as the face of merciful compassionate love. Now, the bishop of Rome is encouraging the globe to peer into the facts about the life of the earthly step-father of Jesus to see just how much meditating on the life of Joseph can profoundly affect our lives.
On each occasion a pope dedicates an upcoming year to a special theme or person, he has done so to respond to what the world was presently enduring. In this case, the pope has framed his letter to outline the need for Joseph’s heart within the context of the coronavirus and its effects on humanity, along with contemporary issues that are tearing apart families worldwide.
From the outset of his letter, Francis connects Joseph to the situation of the past year when humanity across the globe came to realize “our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked.” These are “people,” the pope continues, “who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history.”
Pope Francis specifically highlights the roles of: “doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others.” Just as Joseph is often overlooked despite his crucial role in teaching and caring for Jesus, these fields have often been passed over as insignificant before this past year.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped reveal to us that no one goes through life alone, and, that “no one is saved alone.” Human beings rely on relationships. We need each other. This fundamental truth leads to Francis’s words regarding the faithfulness and trust Joseph personified in his marriage with Mary. Most emphatically, this was shown in the early stages of their marriage.
Luke 1:18 tells us, “When Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child.” Then, as we’re told in Matthew 2:19, Joseph’s response was to “divorce her quietly” because he was a “righteous man.” The biblical understanding of righteousness means Joseph was one with God through prayer. As such, he knew how to apply the law in the right measure and with the proper compassion and kindness.
Divorce was needed because, in appearance, Mary was unfaithful. In the customs of the time, however, divorce could be accomplished in two different ways: convening a public council to hear the case (in which the entire town would hear of her infidelity) or brought to simply two or three witnesses and done privately (helping protect her honor). Joseph chooses the latter option.
While it is by no means natural or normal to take a woman into your home when she is not carrying your child, Joseph does so after an angel of God appears to him and exhorts him to not fear (Matthew 2:20). Francis notes that despite what appeared to the world as adultery, Joseph believed the angel and Mary that it was not. On the word of the angel, he trusted that she was faithful and honest, and took Mary into his home while deciding to dedicate his life to caring for her and this newborn child. He bet his life on God’s word to him.
In the face of this radical faithfulness is the daunting fact that just shy of 50 percent of U.S. marriages end up in divorce. In contrast to these times, Joseph refused to allow the talk of the town to determine whether he would break his marriage bond. Our world, Francis notes, is also entrenched in both far too much abuse of women and neglect for their needs:
Joseph appears as the figure of a respectful and sensitive man. Even though he does not understand the bigger picture, he makes a decision to protect Mary’s good name, her dignity, and her life.
The culture is sown with an enormous number of struggles, tensions, and strife, which the pope desires to offer a remedy and exemplar to ponder. Joseph isn’t a model out of touch or ambiguous, but a practical man, a carpenter and ordinary husband who teaches men how to be virtuous and women and children that they deserve to be protected, trusted, and cared for.
In a year in which married couples and families have been spending more time together than ever before, it is the perfect time to encounter Joseph and make this year devoted to learning from his example.