.- The author of a landmark work on Saint Joseph says Christ's foster father offers believers a model for building trust in God during the newly-announced “Year of Faith.”
“This was a man of faith, like Abraham. He was being asked to believe the impossible,” said Father Joseph Chorpenning, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who compiled two decades of research and lectures in his book “Joseph of Nazareth Through the Centuries” (St. Joseph's University Press, $60).
“We need to bring these figures down to earth for people,” Fr. Chorpenning told CNA on Oct. 18, two days after Pope Benedict announced the 2012-2013 “Year of Faith” that will begin Oct. 11, 2012.
“It's challenging, but that's what needs to happen. When you look at Joseph, you have to look at him as a man of faith.”
Fr. Chorpenning holds up the chaste husband of the Virgin Mary – who was asked to believe that his fiancee's unexplained pregnancy was not a catastrophe, but part of history's greatest miracle – as a figure of inspiration “in a world that's losing faith, at every level of society.”
The lectionary readings for St. Joseph's feast day in March draw a comparison between Joseph and the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, sometimes called the “father of faith.”
While Abraham waited decades for the unlikely birth of his son Isaac, Joseph made the leap of faith necessary to become the earthly father of God's son.
“This ties into the Church's liturgy,” said Fr. Chorpenning. “The second reading from Saint Paul, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, talks about the faith of Abraham. So implicitly, Abraham and Joseph are compared.”
Blessed John Paul II also regarded Jesus' earthly father as a prototype for believers in their journey of faith.
“The lens through which Blessed John Paul II viewed the life of both Mary and Joseph, is the Vatican II theme of the 'pilgrimage of faith,'” Fr. Chorpenning explained.
Vatican II's document on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” spoke of Mary's “pilgrimage of faith” as an example for all followers of Christ. It was only later that Bl. John Paul II spoke of St. Joseph in the same terms, in the apostolic exhortation “Redemptoris Custos” (Guardian of the Redeemer).
“In that apostolic exhortation, he takes that theme of the 'pilgrimage of faith' and applies it to St. Joseph,” Fr. Chorpenning pointed out.
“At the beginning of Mary's pilgrimage of faith, she meets Joseph – and his faith. So these two people are united in a pilgrimage of faith.”
“Her journey, of course, extends beyond Joseph's, since it's assumed he died before Christ's public life. But they were united, in the mystery of the Incarnation, in this common pilgrimage.”
Both Mary and Joseph, in different circumstances, encountered angels who described the mystery of God's arrival among mankind. But both saints, Fr. Chorpenning observed, needed years of life experience to deepen their understanding of what they believed by faith.
“Both of them were the recipients of an angelic annunciation which revealed the mystery to them. But to say that the mystery is revealed, does not mean that they totally comprehended it.”
“Mary may have apprehended the mystery more fully than Joseph. But the fact was, the two of them – after having lived in the closest possible human contact that any human persons ever lived, or ever would live, with the person of Jesus – still did not fully understand the mystery of his being.”
In later centuries, Christians became well-accustomed to the truth of what the angel told Joseph – about the child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who would “save his people from their sins.”
But for the first man to hear the message, it was far from traditional.
“What he's being told, in that annunciation, goes against everything that he's being told by the culture,” said Fr. Chorpenning.
“First of all, they were both probably relatively young. Joseph – as a devout Jew – would have expected to marry, and to have many children. A man's identity was defined by his family.”
“He's being told: 'You're going to give that up. You are to take Mary into your home; you are to surrender yourself, with all that involves, to taking Mary into your home and acting as a father to the child she is going to bear, even though you did not biologically generate him.'”
“Once the angelic annunciation takes place, we really don't get a sense of what's going on in Joseph – except that Matthew says, after the angel left, Joseph got up and did immediately what the angel said.”
“Now of course, that's a very brief way of saying it. I'm sure it took everything that was within him to do it.”
After 20 years of research, Fr. Chorpenning still speaks with amazement about the humble man who served as a father to God.
“I mean, this was a carpenter from Palestine! And you see the pictures and the paintings, where he's sitting on a throne with a crown holding the Christ child – I say to people, 'Well, we certainly have come a long way from Nazareth.'”
“Obviously, there is a theological meaning to those images. But I think what we need to emphasize to people, is that Joseph and Mary were people who responded to what God was asking of them, as it was being revealed to them, in the circumstances of their daily life.”
“They are not just these untouchable figures up there, 'floating in the clouds' of the Church Triumphant. In their time, and in their day, they were people just like we are.”
“Did they feel it was beyond them? Absolutely. Who wouldn't?”
Fr. Chorpenning said St. Joseph not only displays the virtue of faith, but also illustrates what Bl. John Paul II meant when he spoke of the “civilization of love.”
“Joseph, in a sense, becomes the model of the 'civilization of love' – understood as a society which is not about having more, but about being more.”
His life, the priest said, represents an alternative to the “'me-centered' kind of narcissism” that has made society break down on many levels, from individual families to financial markets.
Fr. Chorpenning, who published a 1996 book on “The Holy Family as Prototype of the Civilization of Love,” says St. Joseph points the way to a life based on devotion to God, dedication to one's family, and work that serves the common good.
Joseph's life, he said, shows a “transcending of the self” in which the father of the Holy Family becomes defined by his relation to its other two members, while also making their life possible.
The result is a life that is “not about the individual, but about the community of persons” – as both the Church, and society itself, are meant to be.
Joseph's example also stands in opposition to a culture of irresponsibility and prolonged adolescence.
“This is what a responsible man looks like,” said Fr. Chorpenning, summing up the love and loyalty that generations of believers have found in the head of the Holy Family.