How odd St. Joseph, the human father of Jesus, must look to so many of us today.  We live in an age that distrusts the traditional features of fatherhood, and even denigrates them as “toxic masculinity.”  Small wonder that fatherhood itself is in steep decline.  According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, “19.7 million children in America—more than one in four—live without their biological dad in the home.” (“The Father Absence Crisis in America“)  That unprecedented figure is growing all the time, in spite of the fact that the decline of fatherhood has such devastating and clearly documented consequences: a four times greater likelihood of living in poverty; a greater likelihood of emotional and behavioral problems, infant mortality, crime and imprisonment, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, obesity, dropping out of school, and all the other problems that flow from those circumstances (see the article linked above for citations).

      As horrific as those consequences are, Christians know that there’s something even worse. The Church has always taught us that human fatherhood is merely a reflection: as Jesus himself puts it, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9) Human fathers are merely stewards, and our authority is not our own, nor do we exercise if for our own sake.  Granted, many of us abuse the authority God has entrusted to us, and none of us exercise it perfectly, but to reject fatherhood itself is to reject God.  It should come as no surprise that the decline of fatherhood has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in faith.  It’s hard to overstate the gravity of this last point. After all, as tragic as all the problems cited above are, they are temporary, we don’t take them with us when we leave this world.  If we lose our connection to God, however, the loss can be eternal.

“. . . call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

“The Vision of Ezekial” by Raphael, (1518)*

   

  The Crisis of Fatherhood points us in the direction of St. Joseph, the pinnacle of human fatherhood.   We can certainly use his help, now more than ever. One of the best ways to build our relationship with him is by praying the Litany of St. Joseph, a prayer given formal approval by Pope Pius X at the dawning of the twentieth century. It’s a prayer particularly suited to the strange and troubling times in which we live.

     Something St. Joseph’s Litany has in common with other especially powerful prayers such as the Our Father is that God uses the very words that we’re addressing to him to speak to us in return. Let’s look at how that works in the Our Father, the prayer Jesus taught his Apostles when they asked him how they should pray (Matthew 6:9-15 & Luke 11:2-4). In the first part, from “Our Father ” through “as it is in Heaven,” the words tell us something of the nature of our relationship to God: he is our Father, but at the same time above and beyond us, the final authority both in the eternal world and in this one.  Next, as we pray for our sustenance and the forgiveness of our sins, our words remind us that we are obligated to show the same mercy to others in turn: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Finally, we acknowledge our attachment to sin (“lead us not into temptation”), and our reliance on God’s Grace in resisting it (“deliver us from evil”).

     We see something similar at work in the Litany of St. Joseph (I’ve posted the prayer in its entirety below if you want to refer to it).  We honor Joseph as the human father of God, but the litany that bears his name begins instead with an invocation to the Trinitarian God:

Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, hear us. Christ,

graciously hear us.

God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.

God, the Holy Ghost,

Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.

    The fact that the prayer starts with our reliance on God and not with St. Joseph himself is a reminder that Joseph’s paternal authority, as we noted above, belongs not to himself but to Our Father in Heaven.

     The next invocation is, again, directed toward someone other than St. Joseph:  “Holy Mary, pray for us.” Joseph’s wife also takes precedence! This brings to mind the following passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  The purpose of our fatherhood is not to please ourselves, but to “give ourselves up” to our wives and families, as Jesus does for the Church, and just as Joseph did for Mary and Jesus.

     It’s only at this point that we address Joseph himself, first recalling his lineage (“Scion of David”), his role in Salvation History (“Spouse of the Mother of God . . . Foster-father of the Son of God”) and a long list of his virtues and attributes, all of which are given to him very explicitly for the purpose of protecting and serving (Head of the Holy Family . . . Most Chaste . . . Pillar of Families . . . Terror of Demons . . .).

        Then, after asking St. Joseph to pray for us, we turn our attention back to Christ under a title that highlights his sacrificial role, “Lamb of God”:

     Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.

     Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord.

     Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

     Here the prayer reminds us that, as Christ sacrificed himself for us, and St. Joseph sacrificed himself for his wife and child, we fathers are also called to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of our own families.

“The Flight into Egypt” by Jacopo Bassano (1544)

     The last thing we see before the closing prayer of the litany is this verse and response:

     V. He made him lord over his house,

     R. And the ruler of all his possessions.

     This is an exact quote from Psalm 105:21, which itself refers back to Genesis 39:5: “So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.” This is not a reference to St. Joseph father of Jesus, who would not be born until centuries after these verses were written. These verses refer to Joseph son of Jacob, who was brought as a slave to Egypt. As it happens, there are many compelling connections between the two Josephs; the earlier Joseph is in fact what we call a type, a precursor of the Father of Jesus. The connection that most concerns us here is that Joseph the foreign-born slave is granted authority by the King of Egypt over his royal household, just as centuries later Joseph of Bethlehem is granted authority by the King of All Creation over his Holy Family.

     Our role as fathers today (and this includes all men, because all men are called to exercise Fatherhood in some way, even if we don’t preside over a household with children) follows the same pattern. Our family here on Earth is not really our own, it has been put temporarily under our care by the King of Kings (needless to say, we will be answerable to him for how we carry out the charge). As Catholic men we are also responsible (as is St. Joseph) for the protection of his larger family, the Church.

     It has become increasingly difficult to be just, chaste, prudent, etc., in a world where fatherhood has become more and more debased, and men are encouraged to behave like overgrown adolescents, or randy satyrs. Our society simply does not support fathers, and in fact seeks to undermine fatherhood itself. That’s why the closing prayer of the Litany of St. Joseph is so urgently suited to the needs of our times:

O God, who in Thine ineffable providence didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Joseph to be the spouse

of Thy most holy Mother: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may have him for an intercessor in heaven,

whom we venerate as our protector on earth. Who livest and reignest world without end, Amen.

I don’t post country music clips very often, but the song below by Randy Travis very powerfully connects the story of Joseph to the modern crisis of fatherhood. The Litany of St. Joseph is posted beneath the clip.

Litany of St. Joseph

Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, hear us. Christ,

graciously hear us.

God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.

God, the Holy Ghost,

Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.

Holy Mary, pray for us.

Saint Joseph,

Illustrious Scion of David,

Light of Patriarchs,

Spouse of the Mother of God,

Chaste guardian of the Virgin,

Foster-father of the Son of God,

Watchful defender of Christ,

Head of the Holy Family,

Joseph most just,

Joseph most chaste,

Joseph most prudent,

Joseph most valiant,

Joseph most obedient,

Joseph most faithful,

Mirror of patience,

Lover of poverty,

Model of workmen,

Glory of home life,

Guardian of virgins,

Pillar of families,

Solace of the afflicted,

Hope of the sick,

Patron of the dying,

Terror of demons,

Protector of Holy Church, pray for us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

V. He made him lord over his house,

R. And the ruler of all his possessions.

Let us pray.

O God, who in Thine ineffable providence didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Joseph to be the spouse

of Thy most holy Mother: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may have him for an intercessor in heaven,

whom we venerate as our protector on earth. Who livest and reignest world without end, Amen.

*By Raphael – Own work, J1m1mayers, 1 January 1518, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63865341

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