The whole Church recognizes St Joseph as a patron and guardian. For centuries many different features of his life have caught the attention of believers. He was a man ever faithful to the mission God gave him. That is why, for many years now, I have liked to address him affectionately as “our father and lord.”
St Joseph really is a father and lord. He protects those who revere him and accompanies them on their journey through this life — just as he protected and accompanied Jesus when he was growing up. As you get to know him, you discover that the holy patriarch is also a master of the interior life — for he teaches us to know Jesus and share our life with him, and to realize that we are part of God’s family. St Joseph can teach us these lessons, because he is an ordinary man, a family man, a worker who earned his living by manual labour — all of which has great significance and is a source of happiness for us.
As we celebrate his feast day, I should like to remind you of him, and of what the Gospel says about him. This will help us find out what God is telling us through the simple life of Mary’s husband.
Saint Joseph in the Gospel
Both St Matthew and St Luke tell us that Joseph came from a noble line — the house of David and Solomon, kings of Israel. The details of his ancestry are not quite clear. We don’t know which of the Gospel’s two genealogies refers to Joseph, Jesus’ father according to Jewish law, and which to Mary, his Mother according to the flesh. Nor do we know if Joseph came from Bethlehem, where he went for the census, or Nazareth, where he lived and worked.
On the other hand, we do know that he was not well‑to‑do: he was just a worker, like so many millions of people throughout the world. He worked at the same demanding and humble job which God chose for himself when he took our flesh and came to live just like the rest of us for thirty years.
Scripture tells us St Joseph was a craftsman. Some Fathers of the Church add that he was a carpenter. When talking of the life of Jesus, St Justin says that he made ploughs and yokes. Perhaps that’s why St Isidore of Seville concludes that St Joseph was a blacksmith. In any event, he was a workman who supplied the needs of his fellow citizens with a manual skill acquired through years of toil and sweat.
The Gospels give us a picture of Joseph as a remarkably sound man who was in no way frightened or shy of life. On the contrary, he faced up to problems, dealt with difficult situations and showed responsibility and initiative in whatever he was asked to do.
I don’t agree with the traditional picture of St Joseph as an old man, even though it may have been prompted by a desire to emphasise the perpetual virginity of Mary. I see him as a strong young man, perhaps a few years older than our Lady, but in the prime of his life and work.
You don’t have to wait to be old or lifeless to practice the virtue of chastity. Purity comes from love; and the strength and gaiety of youth are no obstacle for noble love. Joseph had a young heart and a young body when he married Mary, when he learned of the mystery of her divine motherhood, when he lived in her company, respecting the integrity God wished to give the world as one more sign that he had come to share the life of his creatures. Anyone who cannot understand a love like that knows very little of true love and is a complete stranger to the christian meaning of chastity.
Joseph was, we have said, a craftsman from Galilee, just one man among many. What had life to offer to someone from a forgotten village like Nazareth? Nothing but work: work every day, with the same constant effort. And at the end of the day, a poor little house in which to rest and regain energy for the next day.
But the name Joseph, in Hebrew, means “God will add.” God adds unsuspected dimensions to the holy lives of those who do his will. He adds the one important dimension which gives meaning to everything, the divine dimension. To the humble and holy life of Joseph he added — if I may put it this way — the lives of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus, our Lord. God does not allow himself to be outdone in generosity. Joseph could make his own the words of Mary, his wife: “He has looked graciously upon the lowliness of his handmaid... because he who is mighty, he whose name is holy, has wrought for me his wonders.”
St Joseph was an ordinary sort of man on whom God relied to do great things. He did exactly what the Lord wanted him to do, in each and every event that went to make up his life. That is why Scripture praises Joseph as “a just man.” And in Hebrew a just man means a good and faithful servant of God, someone who fulfils the divine will, or who is honourable and charitable toward his neighbour. So a just man is someone who loves God and proves his love by keeping God’s commandments and directing his whole life toward the service of his brothers, his fellow men.
Joseph’s faith, hope and love
To be just is not simply a matter of obeying rules. Goodness should grow from the inside; it should be deep and vital — for “the just man lives by faith.” These words, which later became a frequent subject of St Paul’s meditation, really did apply in the case of St Joseph. He didn’t fulfil the will of God in a routine or perfunctory way; he did it spontaneously and wholeheartedly. For him the law which every practising Jew lived by was not a code or a cold list of precepts, but an expression of the will of the living God. So he knew how to recognize the Lord’s voice when it came to him so unexpectedly and so surprisingly.
St Joseph’s life was simple, but it was not easy. After considerable soul‑searching, he learned that the son of Mary had been conceived through the Holy Spirit. And this child, the Son of God, the descendant of David according to the flesh, was born in a cave. Angels celebrated his birth, and distinguished people from distant countries came to adore him. But the King of Judea wanted to kill him, and they had to flee. The Son of God was, it appeared, a defenceless child who would live in Egypt.
When relating these events in his Gospel, St Matthew continually emphasises Joseph’s faithfulness. He kept the commandments of God without wavering, even though the meaning of those commandments was sometimes obscure or their relation to the rest of the divine plan hidden from him.
The Fathers of the Church and other spiritual writers frequently emphasise the firmness of Joseph’s faith. Referring to the angel’s command to fly from Herod and take refuge in Egypt, St John Chrysostom comments: “On hearing this, Joseph was not shocked nor did he say: This is strange. You yourself made it known not long ago that he would save his people, and now you are incapable even of saving him — we have to flee, to set out on a long journey and spend a long while in a strange place; that contradicts your promise. Joseph does not think in this way, for he is a man who trusts God. Nor does he ask when he will return, even though the angel left it so vague: Stay there, until I tell you to return. Joseph does not object; he obeys and believes and joyfully accepts all the trials.”
Joseph’s faith does not falter, he obeys quickly and to the letter. To understand this lesson better, we should remember that Joseph’s faith is active, that his docility is not a passive submission to the course of events. For the Christian’s faith has nothing whatever to do with conformity, inertia or lack of initiative.
Joseph entrusted himself unreservedly to the care of God, but he always reflected on events and so was able to reach that level of understanding of the works of God which is true wisdom. In this way he learned little by little that supernatural plans have a logic which at times upsets human plans.
In the different circumstances of his life, St Joseph never refuses to think, never neglects his responsibilities. On the contrary, he puts his human experience at the service of faith. When he returns from Egypt, “learning that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judea, he was afraid to go there.” In other words, he had learned to work within the divine plan. And to confirm that he was doing the right thing, Joseph received an instruction to return to Galilee.
That’s the way St Joseph’s faith was: full, confident, complete. And it expressed itself in an effective dedication to the will of God and an intelligent obedience. With the faith went love. His faith nurtured his love of God, who was fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, Jacob and Moses, and his affection for Mary his wife and her Son. This faith, hope and love would further the great mission which God was beginning in the world through, among others, a carpenter in Galilee: the redemption of man.
Faith, hope, love: these are the supports of Joseph’s life and of all Christian lives. Joseph’s self‑giving is an interweaving of faithful love, loving faith and confident hope. His feast is thus a good opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the Christian calling God has given each of us.
When you sincerely desire to live by faith, hope and love, the renewal of your commitment is not a matter of picking up again something neglected. When there really is faith, hope and love, renewal means staying in God’s hands, despite our personal faults, mistakes and defects. It is a confirmation of our faithfulness. Renewing our commitment means renewing our fidelity to what God wants of us: it means expressing our love in deeds.
Love has certain standard features. Sometimes we speak of love as if it were an impulse to self‑satisfaction or a mere means to selfish fulfilment of one’s own personality. But that’s not love. True love means going out of oneself, giving oneself. Love brings joy, but a joy whose roots are in the shape of a cross. As long as we are on earth and have not yet arrived at the fullness of the future life, we can never have true love without sacrifice and pain. This pain becomes sweet and lovable; it is the source of interior joy. But it is an authentic pain, for it involves overcoming one’s own selfishness and taking Love as the rule of each and everything we do.
Anything done out of love is important, however small it might appear. God has come to us, even though we are miserable creatures, and he has told us that he loves us: “My delight is to be among the sons of men.” Our Lord tells us that everything is valuable — those actions which from a human point of view we regard as extraordinary and those which seem unimportant. Nothing is wasted. No man is worthless to God. All of us are called to share the kingdom of heaven — each with his own vocation: in his home, his work, his civic duties and the exercise of his rights.
St Joseph’s life is a good example of this: it was simple, ordinary and normal, made up of years of the same work, of days — just one day after another — which were monotonous from a human point of view. I have often thought about this, meditating on St Joseph’s life; it is one of the reasons for having a special devotion to him.
When Pope John XXIII closed the first session of Vatican Council II and announced that the name of St Joseph was going to be included in the canon of the Mass, a very important churchman telephoned me to say, “Congratulations. Listening to the Pope’s announcement, I thought immediately of you and of how happy you’d be.” And indeed I was happy, for in that conciliar gathering, which represented the whole Church brought together in the Holy Spirit, there was proclaimed the great supernatural value of St Joseph’s life, the value of an ordinary life of work done in God’s presence and in total fulfilment of his will.
Sanctify work and it will sanctify you and others
In describing the spirit of the association to which I have devoted my life, Opus Dei, I have said that it hinges upon ordinary work, professional work carried out in the midst of the world. God’s calling gives us a mission: it invites us to share in the unique task of the Church, to bear witness to Christ before our fellow men and so draw all things toward God.
Our calling discloses to us the meaning of our existence. It means being convinced, through faith, of the reason for our life on earth. Our life, the present, past and future, acquires a new dimension, a depth we did not perceive before. All happenings and events now fall within their true perspective: we understand where God is leading us, and we feel ourselves borne along by this task entrusted to us.
God draws us from the shadows of our ignorance, our groping through history, and, no matter what our occupation in the world, he calls us with a strong voice, as he once called Peter and Andrew: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
He who lives by faith may meet with difficulty and struggle, suffering and even bitterness, but never depression or anguish, because he knows that his life is worthwhile, he knows why he has been born. “I am the light of the world,” Christ exclaimed. “He who follows me does not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”
To deserve this light from God, we must love. We must be humble enough to realize we need to be saved, and we must say with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of life everlasting, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” If we really do this, if we allow God’s word to enter our hearts, we can truly say that we do not walk in darkness, for the light of God will shine out over our weakness and our personal defects, as the sun shines above the storm.
Christian faith and calling affect our whole existence, not just a part of it. Our relations with God necessarily demand giving ourselves, giving ourselves completely. The man of faith sees life, in all its dimensions, from a new perspective: that which is given us by God.
You, who celebrate with me today this feast of St Joseph, are men who work in different human professions; you have your own homes, you belong to so many different countries and have different languages. You have been educated in lecture halls or in factories and offices. You have worked in your profession for years, established professional and personal friendships with your colleagues, helped to solve the problems of your companies and your communities.
Well then: I remind you once again that all this is not foreign to God’s plan. Your human vocation is a part — and an important part — of your divine vocation. That is the reason why you must strive for holiness, giving a particular character to your human personality, a style to your life; contributing at the same time to the sanctification of others, your fellow men; sanctifying your work and your environment: the profession or job that fills your day, your home and family and the country where you were born and which you love.
Work is part and parcel of man’s life on earth. It involves effort, weariness, exhaustion: signs of the suffering and struggle which accompany human existence and which point to the reality of sin and the need for redemption. But in itself work is not a penalty or a curse or a punishment: those who speak of it that way have not understood sacred Scripture properly.
It is time for us Christians to shout from the rooftops that work is a gift from God and that it makes no sense to classify men differently, according to their occupation, as if some jobs were nobler than others. Work, all work, bears witness to the dignity of man, to his dominion over creation. It is an opportunity to develop one’s personality. It is a bond of union with others, the way to support one’s family, a means of aiding in the improvement of the society in which we live and in the progress of all humanity.
For a Christian these horizons extend and grow wider. For work is a participation in the creative work of God. When he created man and blessed him, he said: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth.” And, moreover, since Christ took it into his hands, work has become for us a redeemed and redemptive reality. Not only is it the background of man’s life, it is a means and path of holiness. It is something to be sanctified and something which sanctifies.
It is well to remember that the dignity of work is based on Love. Man’s great privilege is to be able to love and to transcend what is fleeting and ephemeral. He can love other creatures, pronounce an “I” and a “you” which are full of meaning. And he can love God, who opens heaven’s gates to us, makes us members of his family and allows us also to talk to him in friendship, face to face.
This is why man ought not to limit himself to material production. Work is born of love; it is a manifestation of love and is directed toward love. We see the hand of God, not only in the wonders of nature, but also in our experience of work and effort. Work thus becomes prayer and thanksgiving, because we know we are placed on earth by God, that we are loved by him and made heirs to his promises. We have been rightly told, “In eating, in drinking, in all that you do, do everything for God’s glory.”
Professional work is also an apostolate, an opportunity to give ourselves to others, to reveal Christ to them and lead them to God the Father — all of which is the overflow of the charity which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts. When St Paul explained to the Ephesians how their conversion to Christianity should affect their lives, one of the things he said was: “Anyone who was a thief must stop stealing; he should try to find some useful manual work instead and be able to do some good by helping others that are in need.” Men need earthly bread to sustain them in their lives on earth; they also need bread from heaven to enlighten their minds and inflame their hearts. With your work, taking advantage of the opportunities it offers, in your conversations and your dealings with others, you can and should carry out this apostolic precept.
If we work with this attitude, our life, despite its human limitations, will be a foretaste of the glory of heaven, of that communion with God and his saints where self‑giving, faithfulness, friendship and joy reign supreme. Your ordinary professional work will provide the true, solid, noble material out of which you will build a truly Christian life. You will use your work to make fruitful the grace which comes to us from Christ.
Faith, hope and charity will come into play in your professional work done for God. The incidents, the problems, the friendships which your work brings with it, will give you food for prayer. The effort to improve your own daily occupation will give you the chance to experience the cross which is essential for a Christian. When you feel your weakness, the failures which arise even in human undertakings, you will gain in objectivity, in humility and in understanding for others. Successes and joys will prompt you to thanksgiving and to realize that you do not live for yourself, but for the service of others and of God.
If you want to be useful, serve
If we want to live this way, sanctifying our profession or job, we really must work well, with human and supernatural intensity. I would like to remind you now, by way of contrast, of a story from the apocryphal gospels: “Jesus’ father, who was a carpenter, made ploughs and yokes. Once,” the story continues, “a certain important person asked him to make a bed. But it happened that one of the shafts was shorter than the other, so Joseph did not know what to do. Then, the child Jesus said to his father: Put the two shafts on the ground and make them even at one end. And Joseph did so. Jesus got at the other end, took the shorter beam of wood and stretched it until it was the same length as the other. Joseph, his father, was full of astonishment at this miracle and showered embraces and kisses on the Child, saying: How fortunate I am that God has given me this Child!”
Joseph would give God no such thanks, he would never work in this way. He was not one for easy solutions and little miracles, but a man of perseverance, effort and, when needed, ingenuity. The Christian knows that God works miracles, that he did them centuries ago, that he has continued doing them since, and that he still works them now, because “the Lord’s hand is not shortened.” But miracles are a sign of the saving power of God, not a cure for incompetence nor an easy way to dodge effort. The “miracle” which God asks of you is to persevere in your Christian and divine vocation, sanctifying each day’s work: the miracle of turning the prose of each day into heroic verse by the love which you put into your ordinary work. God waits for you there. He expects you to be a responsible person, with the zeal of an apostle and the competence of a good worker.
And so, as the motto of your work, I can give you this one: If you want to be useful, serve. For, in the first place, in order to do things properly, you must know how to do them. I cannot see the integrity of a person who does not strive to attain professional skills and to carry out properly the task entrusted to his care. It’s not enough to want to do good; we must know how to do it. And, if our desire is real, it will show itself in the effort we make to use the right methods, finishing things well, achieving human perfection.
But human service and technique, our knowledge of our job, should have a feature which was basic to St Joseph’s work and should be so for every Christian: the spirit of service, the desire to contribute to the well‑being of other people. Joseph’s work was not self‑centred, even though his active life made him a strong and forceful personality. When he worked, he was aware that he was carrying out God’s will; he was thinking of his people, of Jesus and Mary, and of everyone in Nazareth.
Joseph was one of the few craftsmen in Nazareth, if not the only one — a carpenter perhaps. But, as normally happens in villages, he must have felt called upon to turn his attention to other things: fixing a mill that was not working or, with the coming of winter, repairing the tiles of a roof. I am sure Joseph knew how to lend a hand in many difficulties, with work well done. His skilled work was in the service of others, to brighten the lives of other families in the town; and with a smile, a friendly word, a passing quip, he would restore confidence and happiness to those in danger of losing them.
Sometimes, in the case of people poorer than himself, Joseph would charge only a little — just enough for his customer to feel that he had paid. But normally he would charge a reasonable amount — not too much or too little. He would demand what was justly owed him, for faithfulness to God cannot mean giving up rights which in fact are duties. St Joseph had to be properly paid, since this was his means of supporting the family which God had entrusted to him.
We should demand our rights, but not for selfish reasons. We do not love justice if we do not wish to see it fulfilled in the lives of others. In the same way, it is wrong to shut oneself up in comfortable religiosity, forgetting the needs of others. The man who wishes to be just in God’s eyes also tries to establish the reign of justice among men. And not only for the good of God’s name, but because to be a Christian means to work at fulfilling all the noble yearnings of men. Paraphrasing a well‑known text of St John, we can say that the man who says he acts justly toward God, but does not do so with other men, is a liar: and there is no truth in him.
Like all Christians at that time, I too was happy and grateful at the Church’s decision to declare a liturgical feast in honour of St Joseph the Worker. This feast, which ratifies the divine value of work, shows how the Church publicly echoes central truths of the Gospel which God wishes men to meditate, especially in our own time.
I have often spoken of it before, but let me insist once again on the naturalness and simplicity of St Joseph’s life, which was in no way remote from that of his neighbours, and which raised no artificial obstacles to his dealings with them.
So, though it may be proper to some periods or situations, I do not like to talk of catholic workers, catholic engineers, catholic doctors and so on, as if describing a species within a genus, as if Catholics formed a little group separate from others. That creates the impression that there is a chasm between Christians and the rest of society. While respecting the contrary opinion, I think it more correct to speak of workers who are Catholics, or Catholics who are workers or engineers. For a man of faith who practices a profession, whether intellectual, technical or manual, feels himself and is in fact at one with others; he is the same as others, with the same rights and obligations, the same desire to improve, the same interest in facing and solving common problems.
The Catholic who is prepared to live in this way will, through his daily life, give a proof of his faith, hope and charity: a simple and normal testimony without need of pomp and circumstance. The vitality of his life will show the constant presence of the Church in the world, since all Catholics are themselves the Church, because they are members in their own right of the one People of God.
How Joseph relates to Jesus
For some time now I have enjoyed using a moving invocation to St Joseph, which the Church has offered us, in the preparatory prayers of the Mass: “Joseph, blessed and happy man, who was permitted to see and hear the God whom many kings wished in vain to see and hear, and not only to see and hear him, but carry him in your arms, kiss him, clothe him and care for him: pray for us.” This prayer will help us to begin the last topic on which I would like to touch today: Joseph’s affectionate dealings with Jesus.
The life of Jesus was, for St Joseph, a recurring discovery of his own vocation. We recalled earlier those first years full of contrasting circumstances: glorification and flight, the majesty of the wise men and the poverty of the manger, the song of the angels and the silence of mankind. When the moment comes to present the child in the temple, Joseph, who carries the modest offering of a pair of doves, sees how Simeon and Anna proclaim Jesus as the Messiah: “His father and mother listened with wonder,” says St Luke. Later, when the child stays behind in Jerusalem, unknown to Mary and Joseph, and they find him again after three days’ search, the same evangelist tells us, “They were astonished.”
Joseph is surprised and astonished. God gradually reveals his plans to him, and he tries to understand them. As with every soul who wishes to follow Jesus closely, he soon discovers that here is no laggard’s pace, no room for the half-hearted. For God is not content with our achieving a certain level and staying there. He doesn’t want us to rest on our laurels. God always asks more: his ways are not the ways of men. St Joseph, more than anyone else before or since, learned from Jesus to be alert to recognize God’s wonders, to have his mind and heart awake.
But if Joseph learned from Jesus to live in a divine way, I would be bold enough to say that, humanly speaking, there was much he taught God’s Son. There is something I do not quite like in that title of foster father which is sometimes given to Joseph, because it might make us think of the relationship between Joseph and Jesus as something cold and external. Certainly our faith tells us that he was not his father according to the flesh, but this is not the only kind of fatherhood.
“Joseph,” we read in a sermon of St Augustine, “not only claims the name of father, but he has a greater claim to it than any other.” And then he adds: “How was he father? All the more effectively, the more chaste the paternity. Some thought that he was the father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the same way as other fathers who beget sons carnally and do not receive them only as the fruit of a spiritual love. This is why St Luke says: People thought he was the father of Jesus. Why does he say only they thought? Because this thought and human judgment refer to what is usual among men. And our Lord was not born of the seed of Joseph. Yet of the piety and charity of Joseph a son was born to him, of the Virgin Mary, and this was the Son of God.”
Joseph loved Jesus as a father loves his son and showed his love by giving him the best he had. Joseph, caring for the child as he had been commanded, made Jesus a craftsman, transmitting his own professional skill to him. So the neighbours of Nazareth will call Jesus both faber and fabri filius: the craftsman and the son of the craftsman. Jesus worked in Joseph’s workshop and by Joseph’s side. What must Joseph have been, how grace must have worked through him, that he should be able to fulfil this task of the human upbringing of the Son of God!
For Jesus must have resembled Joseph: in his way of working, in the features of his character, in his way of speaking. Jesus’ realism, his eye for detail, the way he sat at table and broke bread, his preference for using everyday situations to give doctrine — all this reflects his childhood and the influence of Joseph.
It’s not possible to ignore this sublime mystery: Jesus who is man, who speaks with the accent of a particular district of Israel, who resembles a carpenter called Joseph, is the Son of God. And who can teach God anything? But he is also truly man and lives a normal life: first, as a child, then as a boy helping in Joseph’s workshop, finally as a grown man in the prime of life. “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace before God and men.”
In human life, Joseph was Jesus’ master in their daily contact, full of refined affection, glad to deny himself to take better care of Jesus. Isn’t that reason enough for us to consider this just man, this holy patriarch, in whom the faith of the old covenant bears fruit, as a master of interior life? Interior life is nothing but continual and direct conversation with Christ, so as to become one with him. And Joseph can tell us many things about Jesus. Therefore, never neglect devotion to him — Ite ad Ioseph: “Go to Joseph” — as Christian tradition puts it in the words of the Old Testament.
A master of interior life, a worker deeply involved in his job, God’s servant in continual contact with Jesus: that is Joseph. Ite ad Ioseph. With St Joseph, the Christian learns what it means to belong to God and fully to assume one’s place among men, sanctifying the world. Get to know Joseph and you will find Jesus. Talk to Joseph and you will find Mary, who always sheds peace about her in that attractive workshop in Nazareth.
 Cf St Justin, Dialogue with Tryphon, 88,2,8 (PG 6,687)
 Luke 2:48‑49: Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae
 Matt 1:19
 Cf Gen 7:1; 18:23‑32; Ezek 18:5 ff; Prov 12:10
 Cf Tob 7:6; 9:6
 Hab 2:4
 Cf Matt 2:13
 In Matthaeum homiliae, 8,3 (PG 57,85)
 Matt 2:2
 Prov 8:31: Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum
 Matt 4:19: Venite post me, et faciam vos fieri piscatores hominum
 John 8:12: Ego sum lux mundi: qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris, sed habebit lumen vitae
 John 6:70
 Gen 1:28
 1 Cor 10:31
 Eph 4:28
 Gospel of the Childhood, falsely attributed to St Thomas, no. 13
 Is 59:1: Ecce non est abbreviata manus Domini
 Cf 1 John 4:20
 Luke 2:33
 Luke 2:48
 Sermo 51,20 (PL 38,351)
 Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55
 Luke 2:52
 Gen 41:55