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.