This beautiful commentary on the Universal Church’s patron, St. Joseph, was written by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P and has been taken from his classic mariological work The Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life. –Assistant Ed.
“He that is lesser among you all, he is the greater” (Luke 9:48)
His Pre-eminence Over the Other Saints
The opinion that St. Joseph is the greatest of the saints after Our Lady is one which is becoming daily more commonly held in the Church. We do not hesitate to look on the humble carpenter as higher in grace and eternal glory than the patriarchs and the greatest of the prophets—than St. John the Baptist, the Apostles, the martyrs and the great doctors of the Church. He who is least in the depth of his humility is, because of the interconnection of the virtues, the greatest in the height of his charity: “He that is the lesser among you all, he is the greater.”
St. Joseph’s pre-eminence was taught by Gerson (1) and St. Bernardine of Siena. (2) It became more and more common in the course of the 16th century. It was admitted by St. Teresa, by the Dominican Isidore de Isolanis, who appears to have written the first treatise on St. Joseph, (3) by St. Francis de Sales, by Suarez, (4) and later by St. Alphonsus Liguori, (5) Ch. Sauve, (6) Cardinal Lépicier (7) and Msgr. Sinibaldi; (8) it is very ably treated of in the article “Joseph” in the Dict. de Théol. Cath. by M. A. Michel.
The doctrine of St. Joseph’s pre-eminence received the approval of Leo XIII in his encyclical Quamquam pluries, August 15th, 1899, written to proclaim St. Joseph patron of the universal Church:
The dignity of the Mother of God is so elevated that there can be no higher created one. But since St. Joseph was united to the Blessed Virgin by the conjugal bond, there is no doubt that he approached nearer than any other to that super-eminent dignity of hers by which the Mother of God surpasses all created natures. Conjugal union is the greatest of all; by its very nature it is accompanied by a reciprocal communication of the goods of the spouses. If then God gave St. Joseph to Mary to be her spouse He certainly did not give him merely as a companion in life, a witness of her virginity, a guardian of her honor, but He made him also participate by the conjugal bond in the eminent dignity which was hers.
When Leo XIII said that Joseph came nearest of all to the super-eminent dignity of Mary, did his words imply that Joseph is higher in glory than all the angels? We cannot give any certain answer to the question. We must be content to restate the doctrine which is becoming more and more commonly taught: of all the saints Joseph is the highest after Jesus and Mary; he is among the angels and the archangels. The Church mentions him immediately after Mary and before the Apostles in the prayer A cunctis. Though he is not mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, he has a proper preface, and the month of March is consecrated to him as protector and defender of the universal Church.
The multitude of Christians in all succeeding generations are committed to him in a real though hidden manner. This idea is expressed in the litanies approved by the Church:
St. Joseph, illustrious descendant of David, light of the Patriarchs, Spouse of the Mother of God, guardian of her virginity, foster-father of the Son of God, vigilant defender of Christ, head of the Holy Family; Joseph most just, most chaste, most prudent, most strong, most obedient, most faithful, mirror of patience, lover of poverty, model of workers, glory of domestic life, guardian of virgins, support of families, consolation of the afflicted, hope of the sick, patron of the dying, terror of demons, protector of the Holy Church.
He is the greatest after Mary.
The Reason For St. Joseph’s Pre-eminence
What is the justification of this doctrine which has been more and more accepted in the course of five centuries? The principle invoked more or less explicitly by St. Bernard, St. Bernardine of Siena, Isidore de Isolanis, Suarez, and more recent authors is the one, simple and sublime, formulated by St. Thomas when treating of the fullness of grace in Jesus and of holiness in Mary: “An exceptional divine mission calls for a corresponding degree of grace.” This principle explains why the holy soul of Jesus, being united personally to the Word, the Source of all grace, received the absolute fullness of grace. It explains also why Mary, called to be Mother of God, received from the instant of her conception an initial fullness of grace which was greater than the initial fullness of all the saints together: since she was nearer than any other to the Source of grace she drew grace more abundantly. It explains also why the Apostles who were nearer to Our Blessed Lord than the saints who followed them had more perfect knowledge of the mysteries of faith. To preach the gospel infallibly to the world they received at Pentecost the gift of a most eminent, most enlightened, and most firm faith as the principle of their apostolate.
The same truth explains St. Joseph’s pre-eminence. To understand it we must add one remark: all works which are to be referred immediately to God Himself are perfect. The work of creation, for example, which proceeded entirely and directly from the hand of God was perfect. The same must be said of His great servants, whom He has chosen exceptionally and immediately—not through a human instrument—to restore the order disturbed by sin. God does not choose as men do. Men often choose incompetent officials for the highest posts. But those whom God Himself chooses directly and immediately to be His exceptional ministers in the work of redemption receive from Him grace proportionate to their vocation. This was the case with St. Joseph. He must have received a relative fullness of grace proportionate to his mission since he was chosen not by men nor by any creature but by God Himself and by God alone to fulfill a mission unique in the world. We cannot say at what precise moment St. Joseph’s sanctification took place. But we can say that, from the time of his marriage to Our Lady, he was confirmed in grace, because of his special mission. (9)
To What Order Does St. Joseph’s Exceptional Mission Belong?
St. Joseph’s mission is evidently higher than the order of nature—even by angelic nature. But is it simply of the order of grace, as was that of St. John the Baptist who prepared the way of salvation, and that the Apostles had in the Church for the sanctification of souls, and that more particular mission of the founders of religious orders? If we examine the question carefully we shall see that St. Joseph’s mission surpassed the order of grace. It borders, by its term, on the hypostatic order, which is constituted by the mystery of the Incarnation. But it is necessary to avoid both exaggeration and understatement in this matter.
Mary’s unique mission, her divine motherhood, has its term in the hypostatic order. So also, in a sense, St. Joseph’s hidden mission. This is the teaching of many saints and other writers. St. Bernard says of St. Joseph: “He is the faithful and prudent servant whom the Lord made the support of His Mother, the foster-father of His flesh, and the sole most faithful co-operator on earth in His great design.” (10)
St. Bernardine of Siena writes: “When God chooses a person by grace for a very elevated mission, He gives all the graces required for it. This is verified in a specially outstanding manner in the case of St. Joseph, Foster-father of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Spouse of Mary….” (11) Isidore de Isolanis places St. Joseph’s vocation above that of the Apostles. He remarks that the vocation of the Apostles is to preach the gospel, to enlighten souls, to reconcile them with God, but that the vocation of St. Joseph is more immediately in relation with Christ Himself since he is the Spouse of the Mother of God, the Foster-father and Protector of the Savior. (12) Suarez teaches to the same effect:
Certain offices pertain to the order of sanctifying grace, and among them that of the Apostles holds the highest place; thus they have need of more gratuitous gifts than other souls, especially gratuitous gifts of wisdom. But there are other offices which touch upon or border on the order of the Hypostatic Union … as can be seen clearly in the case of the divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin, and it is to that order that the ministry of St. Joseph pertains. (13)
Some years ago Msgr. Sinibaldi, titular Bishop of Tiberias and secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Studies, treated the question very ably. He pointed out that the ministry of St. Joseph belonged, in a sense, because of its term, to the hypostatic order: not that St. Joseph co-operated intrinsically as physical instrument of the Holy Spirit in the realization of the mystery of the Incarnation—for under that respect his role is very much inferior to that of Mary—but that he was predestined to be, in the order of moral causes, the protector of the virginity and the honor of Mary at the same time as foster-father and protector of the Word made flesh: “His mission pertains by its term to the hypostatic order, not through intrinsic physical and immediate cooperation, but through extrinsic moral and mediate (through Mary) co-operation, which is, however, really and truly co-operation.” (14)
St. Joseph’s Predestination Is One With the Decree of the Incarnation
St. Joseph’s pre-eminence becomes all the clearer if we consider that the eternal decree of the Incarnation covered not merely the Incarnation in abstraction from circumstances of time and place but the Incarnation here and now—that is to say, the Incarnation of the Son of God Who by the operation of the Holy Spirit was to be conceived at a certain moment of time by the Virgin Mary, espoused to a man of the family of David whose name was Joseph: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:26-27).
All the indications are therefore that St. Joseph was predestined to be foster-father of the Incarnate Word before being predestined to glory; the ultimate reason being that Christ’s predestination as man to the natural divine sonship precedes the predestination of all the elect, since Christ is the first of the predestined. (15) The predestination of Christ to the natural divine sonship is simply the decree of the Incarnation, which, as we have seen, includes Mary’s predestination to the divine motherhood and Joseph’s to be foster-father and protector of the Incarnate Son of God.
As the predestination of Christ to the natural divine son-ship is superior to His predestination to glory and precedes it, and as the predestination of Mary to the divine motherhood precedes (in signo priori) her predestination to glory, so also the predestination of St. Joseph to be foster-father of the Incarnate Word precedes his predestination to glory and to grace. In other words, the reason why he was predestined to the highest degree of glory after Mary, and in consequence to the highest degree of grace and of charity, is that he was called to be the worthy foster-father and protector of the Man-God.
The fact that St. Joseph’s first predestination was one with the decree of the Incarnation shows how elevated his unique mission was. This is what people mean when they say that St. Joseph was made and put into the world to be the foster-father of the Incarnate Word and that God willed for him a high degree of glory and grace to fit him for his task.
The Special Character of St. Joseph’s Mission
This point is explained admirably by Bossuet in his first panegyric of the saint:
Among the different vocations, I notice two in the Scriptures which seem directly opposed to each other: the first is that of the Apostles, the second that of St. Joseph. Jesus was revealed to the Apostles that they might announce Him throughout the world; He was revealed to St. Joseph who was to remain silent and keep Him hidden. The Apostles are lights to make the world see Jesus. Joseph is a veil to cover Him; and under that mysterious veil are hidden from us the virginity of Mary and the greatness of the Savior of souls… He Who makes the Apostles glorious with the glory of preaching, glorifies Joseph by the humility of silence.
The hour for the manifestation of the mystery of the Incarnation had not yet struck: it was to be preceded by the thirty years of the hidden life.
Perfection consists in doing God’s will, each one according to his vocation; St. Joseph’s vocation of silence and obscurity surpassed that of the Apostles because it bordered more nearly on the redemptive Incarnation. After Mary, Joseph was nearest to the Author of grace, and in the silence of Bethlehem, during the exile in Egypt, and in the little home of Nazareth he received more graces than any other saint.
His mission was a dual one.
As regards Mary, he preserved her virginity by contracting with her a true but altogether holy marriage. The angel of the Lord said to him: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20; Luke 2:5). Mary is truly his wife. The marriage was a true one, as St. Thomas explains (IIIa, q. 29, a. 2) when showing its appropriateness. There should be no room for doubt, however light, regarding the honor of the Son and the Mother: if ever doubt did arise Joseph, the most informed and the least suspect witness, would be there to defend it. Besides, Mary would find help and protection in St. Joseph. He loved her with a pure and devoted love, in God and for God. Their union was stainless, and most respectful on the side of St. Joseph. Thus he was nearer than any other saint to the Mother of God and the spiritual Mother of men—and he too was a man. The beauty of the whole universe was nothing compared with that of the union of Mary and Joseph, a union created by the Most High, which ravished the angels and gave joy to the Lord.
As regards the Incarnate Word, Joseph watched over Him, protected Him, and contributed to His human education. He is called His foster-father, but the term does not express fully the mysterious supernatural relation between the two. A man becomes foster-father of a child normally as a result of an accident. But it was no accident in the case of St. Joseph: he had been created and put into the world for that purpose: it was the primary reason of his predestination and the reason for all the graces he received. Bossuet expressed this well:
If nature does not give a father’s heart, where will it be found? In other words, since Joseph was not Jesus’ father, how could he have a father’s heart in His regard?
Here we must recognize the action of God. It is by the power of God that Joseph has a father’s heart, and if nature fails God gives one with His own hand; for it is of God that it is written that He directs our inclinations where he wills…. He gives some a heart of flesh when He softens their nature by charity…. Does He not give all the faithful the hearts of children when He sends to them the Spirit of His Son? The Apostles feared the least danger, but God gave them a new heart and their courage became undaunted…. The same hand gave Joseph the heart of a father and Jesus the heart of a son. That is why Jesus obeys and Joseph does not fear to command. How has he the courage to command his Creator? Because the true Father of Jesus Christ, the God Who gives Him birth from all eternity, having chosen Joseph to be the father of His only Son in time, sent down into his bosom some ray or some spark of His own infinite love for His Son; that is what changed his heart, that is what gave him a father’s love, and Joseph the just man who feels that father’s heart within him feels also that God wishes him to use his paternal authority, so that he dares to command Him Who he knows is his Master. (16)
That is equivalent to saying that Joseph was predestined first to take the place of a father in regard to the Savior Who could have no earthly father, (17) and in consequence to have all the gifts which were given him that he might be a worthy Protector of the Incarnate Word.
Is it necessary to say with what fidelity St. Joseph guarded the triple deposit confided to him: the virginity of Mary, the Person of Jesus Christ, and the secret of the Eternal Father, that of the Incarnation of His Son, a secret to be guarded faithfully till the hour appointed for its revelation?
In a discourse delivered in the Consistorial Hall on the 19th of March, 1928, Pope Pius XI said, after having spoken on the missions of St. John the Baptist and St. Peter:
Between these two missions there appears that of St. Joseph, one of recollection and silence, one almost unnoticed and destined to be lit up only many centuries afterwards, a silence which would become a resounding hymn of glory, but only after many years. But where the mystery is deepest it is there precisely that the mission is highest and that a more brilliant cortège of virtues is required with their corresponding echo of merits. It was a unique and sublime mission, that of guarding the Son of God, the King of the world, that of protecting the virginity of Mary, that of entering into participation in the mystery hidden from the eyes of ages and so to co-operate in the Incarnation and the Redemption.
That is equivalently to state that Divine Providence conferred on St. Joseph all the graces he received in view of his special mission: in other words, St. Joseph was predestined first of all to be as a father to the Savior, and was then predestined to the glory and the grace which were becoming in one favored with so exceptional a vocation.
The Virtues and Gifts of St. Joseph
St. Joseph’s virtues are those especially of the hidden life, in a degree proportioned to that of his sanctifying grace: virginity, humility, poverty, patience, prudence, fidelity, simplicity, faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, confidence in God and perfect charity. He preserved what had been confided to him with a fidelity proportioned to its inestimable value.
Bossuet makes this general observation about the virtues of the hidden life:
It is a common failing of men to give themselves entirely to what is outside and to neglect what is within; to work for mere appearances and to neglect what is solid and lasting; to think often of the impression they make and little of what they ought to be. That is why the most highly esteemed virtues are those which concern the conduct and direction of affairs. The hidden virtues, on the contrary, which are practiced away from the public view and under the eye of God alone, are not only neglected but hardly even heard of. And yet this is the secret of true virtue. . . a man must be built up interiorly in himself before he deserves to be given rank among others; and if this foundation is lacking, all the other virtues, however brilliant, will be mere display . . . they will not make the man according to God’s heart. Joseph sought God in simplicity; Joseph found God in detachment; Joseph enjoyed God’s company in obscurity. (18)
St. Joseph’s humility must have been increased by the thought of the gratuity of his exceptional vocation. He must have said to himself: why has the Most High given me, rather than any other man, His Son to watch over? Only because that was His good pleasure. Joseph was freely preferred from all eternity to all other men to whom the Lord could have given the same gifts and the same fidelity to prepare them for so exceptional a vocation. We see in St. Joseph’s predestination a reflection of the gratuitous predestination of Jesus and Mary. The knowledge of the value of the grace he received and of its absolute gratuitousness, far from injuring his humility, would strengthen it. He would think in his heart: “What have you that you have not received?”
Joseph appears the most humble of the saints after Mary—more humble than any of the angels. If he is the most humble he is by that fact the greatest, for the virtues are all connected and a person’s charity is as elevated as his humility is profound. “He that is lesser among you all, he is the greater” (Lk. 9:48).
Bossuet says well:
Though by an extraordinary grace of the Eternal Father he possessed the greatest treasure, it was far from Joseph’s thought to pride himself on his gifts or to make them known, but he hid himself as far as possible from mortal eyes, enjoying with God alone the mystery revealed to him and the infinite riches of which he was the custodian. (19) Joseph has in his house what could attract the eyes of the whole world, and the world does not know him; he guards a God-Man, and breathes not a word of it; he is the witness of so great a mystery, and he tastes it in secret without divulging it abroad. (20)
His faith cannot be shaken in spite of the darkness of the unexpected mystery. The word of God communicated to him by the angel throws light on the virginal conception of the Savior: Joseph might have hesitated to believe a thing so wonderful, but he believes it firmly in the simplicity of his heart. By his simplicity and his humility, he reaches up to divine heights.
Obscurity follows once more. Joseph was poor before receiving the secret of the Most High. He becomes still poorer when Jesus is born, for Jesus comes to separate men from everything so as to unite them to God. There is no room for the Savior in the last of the inns of Bethlehem. Joseph must have suffered from having nothing to offer to Mary and her Son.
His confidence in God was made manifest in trials. Persecution came soon after Jesus’ birth. Herod tried to put Him to death, and the head of the Holy Family was forced to conceal the child, to take refuge in a distant country where he was unknown and where he did not know how he could earn a living. But he set out on the journey relying on Divine Providence.
His love of God and of souls did not cease to increase during the hidden life of Nazareth; the Incarnate Word is an unfailing source of graces, ever newer and more choice, for docile souls who oppose no obstacle to His action. We have said already, when speaking of Mary, that the progress of such docile souls is one of uniform acceleration, that is to say, they are carried all the more powerfully to God the nearer they approach Him. This law of spiritual gravitation was realized in Joseph; his charity grew up to the time of his death, and the progress of his latter years was more rapid than that of his earlier years, for finding himself nearer to God he was more powerfully drawn by Him.
Along with the theological virtues the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are connected with charity, grew continuously. Those of understanding and of wisdom made his living faith more penetrating and more attuned to the divine. In a simple but most elevated way his contemplation rose to the infinite goodness of God. In its simplicity his contemplation was the most perfect after Mary’s.
His loving contemplation was sweet, but it demanded of him the most perfect spirit of abnegation and sacrifice when he recalled the words of Simeon: “This child will be. . . a sign that will be contradicted” and “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce.” He needed all his generosity to offer to God the Infant Jesus and His Mother Mary whom he loved incomparably more than himself.
St. Joseph’s death was a privileged one; St. Francis de Sales writes that it was a death of love. (21) The same holy doctor teaches with Suarez that St. Joseph was one of the saints who rose after the Resurrection of the Lord (Mt. 27:52 sqq.) and appeared in the city of Jerusalem; he holds also that these resurrections were definitive and that Joseph entered heaven then, body and soul. St. Thomas is much more reserved regarding this point. Though his first opinion was that the resurrections were definitive (22) he taught later, after an examination of St. Augustine’s arguments in the opposed sense, that this was not the case. (23)
St. Joseph’s Role in the Sanctification of Souls
The humble carpenter is glorified in heaven to the extent to which he was hidden on earth. He to whom the Incarnate Word was subject has now an incomparable power of intercession. Leo XIII, in his encyclical Quamquam pluries finds in St. Joseph’s mission in regard to the Holy Family “the reasons why he is Patron and Protector of the universal Church…. Just as Mary, Mother of the Savior, is spiritual mother of all Christians…. Joseph looks on all Christians as having been confided to himself…. He is the defender of the Holy Church which is truly the house of God and the kingdom of God on earth.”
What strikes us most in St. Joseph’s role till the end of time is that there are united in it in an admirable way apparently opposed prerogatives. His influence is universal over the whole Church, and yet, like Divine Providence, it descends to the least details; “model of workmen,” he takes an interest in everyone who turns to him. He is the most universal of the saints, and yet he helps a poor man in his ordinary daily needs. His action is primarily of the spiritual order, and yet it extends to temporal affairs; he is the support of families and of communities, the hope of the sick. He watches over Christians of all conditions, of all countries, over fathers of families, husbands and wives, consecrated virgins; over the rich to inspire them to distribute their possessions charitably, and over the poor so as to help them. He is attentive to the needs of great sinners and of souls advanced in virtue. He is the patron of a happy death, of lost causes; he is terrible to the demon, and St. Teresa tells us that he is the guide of interior souls in the ways of prayer. His influence is a wonderful reflection of that of Divine Wisdom which “reacheth from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly” (Wis. 8:1).
He has been clothed and will remain clothed in Divine splendor. Grace has become fruitful in him and he will share its fruit with all who strive to attain to the life which is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964), consultor to the Holy Office and other Congregations, taught at the Angelicum in Rome from 1909 to 1960 and authored over 500 books and articles.
(1) Sermo in Nativitatem Virginis Mariae, IVa consideratio.
(2) Sermo I de S. Joseph, c. iii, Opera, Lyon, 1650, t. IV, p. 254.
(3) Summa de donis S. Joseph, ann. 1522. There is a new edition by Fr Berthier, Rome, 1897.
(4) In Summam S. Thomae, IIIa, q. 29, disp. 8, sect. I.
(5) Sermone di S. Giuseppe, Discorsi Morali, Naples, 1841.
(6) Saint Joseph Intime, Paris, 1920.
(7) Tractatus de Sancto Joseph, Paris, 1908.
(8) La Grandezza di San Giuseppe, Rome, 1927, pp. 36 sqq.
(9) Cf. Dict. Théol Cath., art. Joseph, col. 1518.
(10) Homil. II super Missus est.
(11) Sermo I de S. Joseph.
(12) Summa de donis sancti Joseph, Pars IIIa, c. xviii. This work was very highly praised by Benedict XIV.
(13) In Summam S. Thomae, IIIa, q. 29, disp. 8, sect. I.
(14) La Grandezza di San Giuseppe, Rome, 1927, pp. 36 sqq.
(15) Cf. IIIa, q. 24, a. 1, 2, 3, 4.
(16) First Panegyric of St. Joseph, edit. Lebarcq, t. II, pp. 135 sqq.
(17) We read that Jesus was subject to Mary and Joseph. Joseph in his humility must have been confounded that he, the least of the three, should be the head of the Holy Family.
(18) Second Panegyric on St. Joseph.
(19) First Panegyric on St. Joseph.
(20) Second Panegyric on St. Joseph.
(21) Treatise of the Love of God, Bk. VII, ch. xiii.
(22) Cf. in Matth. xxvii and IV Sent., dist. 42, q. 1, a. 3.
(23) Cf. IIIa, q. 53, a. 3, ad 2.